Within days of the tsunami of December 2004, I started getting e-mails and phone calls from people I did not know. They were very similar in both content and form. The writer or caller would be a bit hesitant and wanted to make sure that he was not misunderstood. “It’s not that I don’t care about the people in Asia, because I do! It’s just that no one is talking about the impact of the tsunami on Africa.”
The terrible tsunami of 2004 not only devastated Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, but it swept onto the east coast of the African continent as well. Little media attention has been given to the impact on Africa and it is fair to ask why this is the case. I would suggest that there are two main reasons.
It is first important that we understand that the impact of the tsunami on Africa paled in comparison to its impact on Asia. Rough estimates seem to indicate that somewhere between 300 and 400 people were killed in Africa. In Somalia, the country that seems to have been the most affected, somewhere around 50,000 people are homeless, with approximately 4,000 permanently displaced. In contrast, Thailand lost approximately 5,000 people. India reported close to 11,000 dead. Sri Lanka had at least 31,000 dead. Indonesia lost 110,000 people. This does not include the injured or homeless. So on one level, the scale is so entirely different that this will affect attention.
If this were a just world, there would be attention to Africa. This is not, however, a just world, and this leads to the second reason for the lack of coverage. Africa is treated as if it were the world’s basket case. We in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe, Japan and North America) have become numb to the disasters that Africa faces. While at one level it is understandable that greater attention goes to Asia, it is fair to say that even if 110,000 people had been killed in east Africa due to the tsunami, there would have been little attention and outcry. It would have been treated as one more African disaster.
I am sure that someone will cry out that I am being paranoid or simply fixated on race, but consider the facts. Since 1997, somewhere between 3.5 million and 4 million people have died as a result of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We all know that in 1994, 800,000 to one million people were butchered in the Rwandan genocide. We know that ethnic cleansing and genocide are being used in the Darfur region of the Sudan as a method of counterinsurgency, resulting in approximately 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. Yet the world has not stopped and focused massive media attention and aid, except when prodded, as in the case of Darfur, or, belatedly, as in Rwanda.
We have to face the reality, and actually challenge this reality. Black life is undervalued in the Northern Hemisphere, and the disasters that affect Africa particularly are viewed as unfortunate but not critical, including the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic. The Northern Hemisphere can look at the tsunami and its devastation and believe that it can help to address this rare occurrence. The Northern Hemisphere does not have to strain to understand any dynamics or history, as it does when it comes to Africa. It especially does not have to examine its own culpability in the problems of the African continent. It can simply throw up its hands in frustration and mutter that nothing can be done.
The depth of the racial blindspot to the scope of Africa’s challenges means that people who are concerned about Africa and the African world have to keep issues in front of the public, even at the risk of creating discomfort; actually, in order to encourage discomfort. Europe, Japan and North America will never address Africa’s challenges as long as addressing these challenges is viewed as offering charity to a dysfunctional continent. Africa’s challenges must be understood as the continuing effects of the slave trade, colonialism, the Cold War and structural adjustment. This does not mean that Africans are blameless for such atrocities as the Rwandan genocide. To the contrary, Africans must be held accountable for their decisions, but these decisions do not take place in the abstract, but in a context in which others who have no particular interest in our success have set the rules of the game.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is the president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organizing and educational center formed to raise awareness in the United States regarding issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
By Bill Fletcher Jr.