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This article was published 27/12/2008 (4072 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
An Unblinkered Look at Africa
By Joan Baxter
Wolsak and Wynn, 429 pages, $19
There is a saying that once you've been to Africa, it's hard to get the dust off your shoes.
The magnetism of the African continent is legendary. But the West's interest in Africa is frequently more ignoble than noble.
Dust From Our Eyes is one Canadian's attempt to understand why Africa continues to experience injustice and exploitation in what some call the age of neo-colonialism.
Nova Scotian Joan Baxter lived in Africa for 25 years, working as a journalist and anthropologist in Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya and Mali. Her deep respect for and keen interest in all things African makes this book both a labour of love and a lament for lost hopes.
Baxter is an award winning-author, having received the Evelyn Richardson Award for non-fiction at the Atlantic Writing Awards in 2001 for her book A Serious Pair of Shoes: An African Journal.
Some will rightly take aim at Baxter for the sheer audacity of the subtitle of this book, "An Unblinkered Look at Africa." But she doesn't hold back. She prods at sacrosanct institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
She brings to light Canadian involvement in gold and diamond mines and lambastes the American subsidy-based cotton industry. Baxter is on a mission — to show us that Africa is more than a source of stories trotted out by Bob Geldof.
Africa is a resource-rich continent that continues to be exploited. It is rich in capable people, but there are now more doctors from Ghana in New York than there are Ghanaian doctors in Ghana.
Africa is rich in oil, gold and diamonds. But pressures from the IMF force governments to open their doors to foreign investors who take the resources, leaving little behind that improves the daily lives of workers.
Many Africans long for the seemingly easy life of Europe and North America. A university student in Timbuktu comments, "Africa has become prison for its youth. Just like people behind bars, they spend all their time dreaming up ways to escape. That's the biggest tragedy of all."
While there are many powerful stories in this compelling volume, the most interesting is that of the already largely forgotten Thomas Sankara, one of four officers who led a coup of Upper Volta in 1983.
His four years as president of the newly named Burkina Faso gave a taste of what could happen in Africa when non-traditional, non-corrupt leadership moves in.
When Sankara became president, he traded the presidential Mercedes and Cadillacs for a tiny Renault that he drove himself. He enforced new laws: Marriages were not legal until the bride and groom had planted two trees.
All government workers were mandated to wear clothes made from locally grown and processed cotton. Beggars were trained to become artisans, and the importation of apples was forbidden so that local fruits would be eaten.
Behind Sankara's ingenuity was a deep suspicion of all things Western. But Americans (and others) were nervous that "another Cuba" was about to appear. So when Sankara was gunned down in October 1987 (possibly with CIA involvement), few were surprised but many were saddened. Sankara had been a new generation of African leader, but he has not yet been matched.
This so-called unblinkered view of Africa is sometimes depressing and sometimes overly naive. But Baxter is insistent in her message that "Africa knows best how to live without all the modern energy-guzzling amenities that are generally equated with progress. Perhaps it is time we tried to learn from the wisdom on the continent, before that wisdom is lost completely."
Adelia Neufeld Wiens is a Winnipeg freelance writer. She spent six years in Nairobi, Kenya, working at an international school.