Jul 18 2012

Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope by Uzodinma Iweala

Sean Kennedy

web exclusive


At the end of Beasts of No Nation, Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 novel, a rescued child soldier in Africa finds himself in the care of a "white woman from America who is coming here to be helping people like me." Instead, she seems to be helping herself: "She is always saying to me, tell me what you are feeling. Tell me what you are thinking." As the young boy, Agu, recounts some of the horror he's experienced, he realizes "she is not even knowing what war is….When I am saying all of this, she is just looking at me and I am seeing water in her eye….[She] is never saying anything when I am saying this, but the water is just shining in her eye."

As indelible a character as Agu is, so too is this figure of American humanitarianism, who clearly gets off emotionally on how the former child soldier regards his past. As such, the worker—named Amy—is the epitome of what Iweala's fellow Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole earlier this year called the "White Savior Industrial Complex," which is "not about justice" but "about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege." To White Savior exemplars, Cole wrote in the Atlantic, the "world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm"; it "exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah." The controversial Kony 2012 video had directly prompted Cole's critique, but he included a number of figures in it besides Oprah: Jeffrey Sachs, Nicholas Kristof, the insufferable talking heads of TED.

For Iweala, these so-called saviors include public-health advocates obsessed with AIDS in Africa—the targets of his new nonfiction book Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope. Iweala has first-hand experience with these savior types: After publishing Beasts of No Nation, he helped coordinate health-care programs in sub-Saharan Africa for the Millennium Villages Project, a development program of Columbia University (where Iweala also earned an M.D.) and the United Nations. "I was exposed to many aspects of health care in Africa, the different diseases, the lack of adequate health systems, and the language used to describe conditions on the continent," he writes. "At the headquarters in New York, however committed we were to presenting a different view of Africa to the world, the rhetoric would sometimes slide into the usual images of helpless Africans and their saviors from abroad." Meanwhile, in Africa, "local experts…would complain bitterly to me about those people in New York who didn't really respect Africans."

Our Kind of People grew out of this divide: "I began to wonder if there was a way to consider the hard truths of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and to impress upon people the urgent need for action in a way that was fundamentally humanizing and empowering for those living in the epicenter of this crisis." The book is his effort to do just this: to balance the "hard truths" of the epidemic with portraits of "real" Africans living with and fighting against HIV/AIDS.

For a reader who only knows of Africa—that monolithic title for an incredibly variegated continent—from news headlines, there's much to be gained from Our Kind of People: Iweala writes about his country well, and the people whose stories he tells—about a dozen individuals altogether—are compelling. But to anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of African geopolitics, the legacy of colonialism, and the local HIV/AIDS epidemic, the book will likely disappoint. Although Iweala provides the basic signposts of the crisis—political instability, lack of resources and health care, late recognition by many African governments of the seriousness of the epidemic, various discourses of propriety—he doesn't get anywhere near the complexity that someone like Helen Epstein, whom Iweala thanks in the acknowledgments, regularly achieves with her writing (most significantly in her 2007 book The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS).

This is in part because Iweala is a novelist, not a journalist. The most effective section of Our Kind of People is the opening chapter, which has the narrative drive of good fiction. The chapter is about a construction worker from southern Nigeria named Jerome. Living in Abuja, the country's capital, he takes to prostitutes before marrying a young woman, Agatha. But after having two children, a boy and a girl, Agatha becomes ill; Jerome, not wanting anyone to know, sends her and the children back to her village, where she and the boy die. Jerome dies too, "and somewhere out there, his daughter is left behind to grow up without parents." Iweala brackets this sad but fluid narrative with a challenge: "You know this story. You have heard it many times before. This is the story of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Or is it?" The combination of Jerome's story with this trenchant rhetorical interpolation is powerful: It forces the reader to think critically about his or her perceptions, stereotypes, and myths about the subject at hand.

Indeed, as the subsequent stories reveal, Nigerians tend to be just like any other group of people struggling with HIV/AIDS—albeit in unique local circumstances. As Iweala writes: "Their lives, their stories, and their actions are an acknowledgment that, disease or no disease, we are all fundamentally the same."

But the contexts of epidemics are not the same, and although infection rates are falling in Nigeria and other African countries, collectively they still bear the brunt of HIV/AIDS globally: According to 2010 UNAIDS figures, which Iweala cites, the majority of new infections worldwide occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and the prevalence of HIV (5 percent of the population of 15- to 49-year-olds) is several times that of any other region in the world. (North America, by contrast, has a prevalence of 0.5 percent.) Conversely, only 37 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa who need HIV treatment, namely life-prolonging anti-retroviral therapy, receive it. Why does the region with the greatest need not have the resources to take care of its own? Although the U.S. and other wealthy nations kick in millions of dollars a year, clearly that's not enough.

Unfortunately, Iweala doesn't reckon with hard truths like this, which have as much to do with globalization and the legacy of imperialism as they do with the inability of privileged white Westerners to face the humanity of the situation. But if Iweala's portraits reveal the unsentimental reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, his book should serve a deeper purpose, by inspiring so-called white saviors to do something significant about the inequity.

Uzodinma Iweala and Teju Cole will discuss Our Kinds of People tonight (Wed, July 18) at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn.

Sean Kennedy is a writer and Ph.D. student in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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