African Common Sense

Jay Choi - Senegal


May 2, 2013

Today’s foreign aid in Africa seems to be predicated upon the unconscious belief that the African people are uncivilized and somehow lack common sense – for example, that they don’t know how to properly utilize mosquito nets even though they live in malaria hot spots of the world. Foreign aid workers in their edgy offices are appalled to hear stories of their newly subsidized bed nets hanging across these people’s yards as a clothes line, which in turn reinforce their beliefs that the Africans indeed need education to be bailed out of their state of misery. So—really, do African people lack common sense?

As far as malaria is concerned in Senegal, its natural occurrence due to Senegal’s climate and geography is one thing, and reckless installation of Western systems that turn malaria into an epidemic is another. Dakar’s sewerage system, though better maintained than other major sub-Saharan African cities, floods every rainy season especially in low-lying residential areas, providing perfect breeding grounds (in fact, rivers) on the streets for mosquitoes. Once they hatch and nourish in the chocolatey water, concrete structures that dominate Senegal’s sceneries—thermal masses which absorb and retain the entire day’s heat—become their perfect cozy arenas to transmit the disease to people sleeping in them.

It is very saddening to watch traditional architecture diminish in regions like Kedougou, where most people still live in conventional mud huts with thatched roofs, which regulate the internal temperature most ideally to the regional climate, but wish to live in cement huts because they symbolize wealth. Indiscriminate Western installments have ingrained in people here a mentality that anything “Western” is good—even superior to their own culture and knowledge which have evolved with them to best serve their needs over centuries of time. This mentality is triggering a quiet yet dangerous chain reaction. Using cement on mud’s behalf, for example, has engendered financial and health issues in Senegal, because people now have to build cement houses due to growing social trends and suffer from increased incidences of malaria due to inefficiency of cement in tropical climate. Much indigenous knowledge to contain outbreaks of diseases such as malaria is succumbing to Western medicine to quell the artificially increased malaria occurrences. To pay for their Western-style medication, a Western-style currency is necessary, along with a Western-style financial institution to regulate the currency, which binds them with other Western “machines” not only economically, but politically as well. The medical expenses hitherto unheard of now add to their financial burden, driving them down spirals of debt, which, by the way, is a new Western concept for Africans for which Western-style education is needed.

The point I am trying to make is that Africa has its own way of life, its own systems that are often incompatible with and more relevant than those from the West in lives of Africans. The West doesn’t have the right to diagnose Africa as “underdeveloped” based on gross domestic products and Gini ratios—let alone the right to mold it into its shape. After all, the Western systems do not guarantee happiness, the ultimate purpose of economic development. In fact, the Senegalese people, despite their lack of material wealth, possess social and mental wealth. Human conversations over a communal bowl of ceeb bu jan and cups of attaya for dessert is a surefire step closer to a peace of mind than chronic stress from work and fear of foreclosure commonly found in the West. For the West’s foreign aid efforts to work, they need to find ways to respect and restore African cultures that have been decimated by venerable yet misdirected efforts in the past by the West. Instead of being quick to judge Africans, they should open their minds to learn the African common sense.

Jay Choi