How we benefit from ‘shithole’ countries

OPINION: Donald Trump disparages African nations, but we use their talent and resources every day, writes Nam Kiwanuka
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on January 16, 2018
The African mobile money system M-Pesa has long been at the forefront of the cashless revolution. (Daniel Irungu/EPA)

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​In 2007, I volunteered for an NGO and travelled to Sierra Leone to train aspiring journalists. While there, the group that I was with was invited to meet with a group of amputees. The country was recovering from an 11-year civil war that had ended in 2002. During the conflict, rape was prevalent; the maiming of children, women, and men was another tactic used by the rebels. Following the end of the war, this group of amputees had come together to help one another, as they felt the government was neglecting their needs. They didn’t have access to wheelchairs or prosthetics. One man, whose hands had been cut off, relied on the people in this group not just for food, but also for his basic day-to-day needs.

One of the amputees I talked to asked me what I thought of his country. I said that it was beautiful – we had travelled to the countryside from the capital city, Freetown. While the city was like any other – filled with offices and traffic — the rural area was green, lush with vegetation, and its people were extremely welcoming. He then told me he wanted to leave his country of birth because living there was “hell on earth.”

As a visitor, I couldn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, “You are suffering because your country has what so many other nations want.” The Global North’s insatiable appetite for diamonds is complicit in the deaths and maiming of thousands of people in Sierra Leone.

Late last week, during a meeting in the Oval Office, the president of the United States reportedly called Haiti and some African nations “shithole” (or perhaps “shithouse”) countries and said that the U.S. needs more immigrants from Norway instead of Haiti. This wasn’t the first time Trump had disparaged these regions.  The New York Times reports that last year, during a meeting in which the number of immigrants who had entered the United States in 2017 was discussed, Trump said they “all have AIDS” when told that 15,000 Haitians had received visas.  And when he was told that 40, 000 Nigerians had come, he said that after seeing the U.S., these Nigerians wouldn’t want to “go back to their huts.”

While it seems some in the media are more interested in debating whether or not Trump is racist, the dog whistle has already been blown. The people who already think these things are winking at each other — yet again, their dislike of other people who don’t look like them has been affirmed and co-signed by the leader of the most powerful country in the world.

The irony is that the United States of America wouldn’t have the power or the wealth it has if it weren’t for the people who were stolen from Africa and forced into subjugation for centuries. Or for the resources it — and other nations like it— has taken from the continent of Africa to enrich itself: oil, diamonds, uranium, coltan. All of us have benefited from Africa in some shape or form. If you’re reading this on a smartphone or a laptop, you should know that you’re able to do so only because of a resource that comes from Africa: tantalum. An element derived from coltan ore, it is abundant in one of the “shithole countries” in Africa — 30 per cent of the world’s coltan deposits are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

And when you flash your phone to pay for your latte at a local coffee shop, you should know that an African company has long been at the forefront of the cashless revolution. M-Pesa is a mobile money-transaction system that began in Kenya in 2007. With around 30 million users, the technology allows people to pay for products and services and to send money around the world using their phones. Its inception has made Kenya one of Africa’s innovation hubs — yes, one of. Here’s a list of some of the others.

I’ve read tweets questioning whether anyone would ever vacation in Haiti, as if somehow that should be the defining factor for how “shithole” a nation is. It's easy to make assumptions about places we’ve never been, but we should try to ask why places have come to be the way they are. The history of how Haiti came to be the first Black republic should inform our understanding of the challenges it faces today. Haiti’s road to independence from France was expensive for the island and lucrative for France. The country was forced, by threat of violence, to pay an “independence debt” of 150 million gold francs, which went to the slave owners, who demanded compensation after the slaves in Haiti revolted. The fee was later reduced to 90 million francs, an amount that would add up to billions today. Haiti didn’t have the money and had to borrow it from foreign banks. Even still, France refused to recognize the country, as did the United States. When the country had finished paying off its debt to the French, it had to contend with what it owed the banks. While the country was free from slavery, it wasn’t free to determine its own future.

As for those Nigerians living in huts: Nigeria is the U.S.’s largest trading partner in Africa, and Nigerian immigrants in the U.S. are one of the most educated groups in America, surpassing even those born in the United States.

Trump’s rhetoric could have a devastating impact on the lives of people from these nations. If the U.S. changes its immigration policy, people from African nations and Haiti could end up be being denied the same freedoms or opportunities as those coming from other nations —say, Norway — based on misguided prejudices and unchecked biases.

In Canada, there are communities where parents have to clean their children with baby wipes because the water is so contaminated that it burns the skin. If that were happening in Toronto or Vancouver, wouldn't the country have shut down? Wouldn’t the government have dedicated all of its resources to solving that problem? But because it's happening in isolated Indigenous communities, it's allowed to continue. Doesn’t this make us a “shithole country”?

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