The word “Africa” conjures competing images. One is of a wilderness, populated by animals, beautiful and wild, a place seemingly untouched by people. Another is of dire poverty, famine, disease and endless civil wars. And there are many others, fed to us mostly by our media. All of them are somewhat wrong. Africa is no single image, nor is it a collection of all these images.
Yet those first two images — of wilderness and dire poverty — shape the relationship of U.S. charitable and nonprofit organizations with Africa. We want to preserve the wilderness; we want to preserve and rebuild Eden; and we want to help lift people out of poverty. If a conservation organization can do it all at the same time, all the better.
The intersection of Western conservationism and Western “help” to Africa is at the heart of Stephanie Hanes’ “White Man’s Game.” Although she brings in stories from various conservation efforts in southern Africa, where she worked as a journalist between 2005 and 2009, her narrative is centered on the efforts to recreate wilderness in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, led by American millionaire Greg Carr.
Hanes warns that every African story is local, even though Western nonprofits tend to approach the continent with one-size-fits-all remedies. Not only does every place have a somewhat different story, but who is telling the story matters. For Carr, Gorongosa’s story started with a successful reserve in Portuguese-controlled Mozambique in the 1920s, when huge herds of buffalo and elephants roamed the park, along with lions and other big predators. Then, during the fight for Mozambique’s independence, which ended in 1975, and the subsequent civil war, beginning in 1977, all the big game was slaughtered and Eden was depopulated. Carr saw himself as the savior and restorer, setting out to repopulate the park with big game, with the support of the Mozambican government.
For the local people around Gorongosa, history started much earlier than Carr imagined. One starting point might be in the 1880s, when European colonizers agreed on the internal boundaries between their territories, and Portugal contracted out governance of its colony’s interior to a company that used forced labor to exploit natural resources. More disruption occurred during World War I, when thousands of local men were conscripted to help invade German-controlled Tanganyika, now the nation of Tanzania. The creation of Gorongosa Park involved evicting thousands of people off the land. The struggle for independence further disrupted the social fabric, as White colonialists systematically destroyed what infrastructure the country had. A civil war followed independence, fueled and encouraged by the apartheid South African government, which didn’t want a cohesive Black-ruled nation on its border. All of which is to say that a lot of the problems in contemporary Africa — and, more specifically, in and around Gorongosa Park — have to do with European colonialism, which was brutal beyond belief.
According to Hanes, the local people around Gorongosa interpret the experience of the last century and a half as the “Disorder” — a break in the spiritual fabric. It has given rise to a whole host of powerful spirits, many of them evil, which, if not placated, will retaliate against intruders. To ally with these intruders is to risk being a target of bad luck and worse. Western readers may not share those particular beliefs, but it’s not hard to see them as apt metaphors for what can reasonably be expected when Europeans and Americans, however benevolent in their own minds, come into an African locale with a particular agenda.
As Hanes points out, our own Western belief systems are not necessarily that “rational,” either. For example, in practice we seem to think that just because someone has a lot of money, he’s qualified to make executive decisions affecting the livelihood and culture of thousands of people in underdeveloped countries. We also tend to give undue weight to promises or threats that may never come to pass. Many conservation and development projects in Africa stall before they actually reach their stated goals, so that the promised benefits — especially the benefits to the local economy — are perpetually in the future.
Hanes doesn’t have an ax to grind. Her point is that successful projects on the scale of Carr’s require the support of the local citizenry, which first requires understanding their various points of view: “If you start craving truth in the larger sense, you need to step back and pay attention.” After that, you have to be willing to modify or even give up your agenda: “We must reconsider our well-intentioned efforts to convince others that ... we are here to help. And we also need to stop assuming that the people who say ‘thanks but no thanks’ just don’t understand.”
Gorongosa continues to be touted as a success story on Carr’s website and in much of the media. But, as Hanes puts it, “many of the claims offered as proof of the success of the Gorongosa initiative are about inputs, not outcomes ... results-based evaluations are few and far between.”
Hanes asks a lot of questions and gives few answers. Well-written and entertaining, this is a good introduction to the problems involved in Western conservationists trying to “fix” things in other countries before they’ve come to terms with the havoc our own civilization has wreaked on the world.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full November 1 issue.