29 November 2014, The Tablet

BandAid, stop demeaning our continent of vitality and growth

by Fr Gabriel Dolan

Thirty years ago Bob Geldof captured millions of hearts and top spot in the Christmas charts with his “Do they know it’s Christmas” fundraiser for Ethiopia. Now he is repeating the exercise, only this time profits will assist efforts to contain the ebola epidemic in West Africa.

A lot has changed in three decades in Africa, but you would never believe it judging by the lyrics, even though they’ve been partly reworked. The song paints a horrid picture of dread, fear, sickness and poverty; it might have been sourced from diary notes of the early explorers or century-old missionary tales of the Dark Continent. The lyrics speak of “a song of hope and there’s no hope tonight …. Where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear.” The whole content paints a very bleak, depressing picture of the vast continent. West Africa is mentioned, rather than the few affected countries, reinforcing the idea held by far too many people that think Africa is basically a country rather than a continent.

It may raise needy funds but does little to educate the uninformed listener – just a twenty-first century way of promoting pity as a source of fundraising for the “black babies”. The song reinforces prejudices and inaccuracies that Africa is a basket case that can only be saved through the mercy, generosity and kindness of the philanthropic pop stars. Kenyan radio isn’t playing the song but social media was enraged by it, with users saying it put out a racist, patronising message that suggested that the West retains colonial attitudes towards Africa.

The truth is so much different. Kenya for example has sent 700 medical personnel to assist in the three countries worst affected: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. That is more than the UK but still far fewer than the 2,600 sent from Cuba. Nigeria, with a population of 240 million, managed the deadly virus so well that it was declared free of Ebola within two months of its first case. But who will report that? How many know for example that Ebola is only found in three tiny nations while 95 per cent of the continent has not a single case?

Africa has its challenges, and who can deny the impact negative ethnicity, corruption and poor governance has on the lives of its citizens? But there is a lot of good news: many countries will have met most of the millennium development goals (MDGs) when they come up for review next year; more young people are getting access to every level of education, and infrastructural projects are giving employment and providing better services in almost every country. Minerals have been discovered in many countries at a time when civil society is well grounded to maintain the public interest element in sharing of royalties and wealth distribution. As the continent finds its feet it still needs assistance and charity but is far from a basket case.

The Church is playing its part in health, education and human rights issues too and the African Church is alive, relevant and found in almost every corner. So the answer to the question, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” is a definite “yes” as faith gives meaning, hope and energy to the continent. In fact, maybe the pop stars need to sing about what Christmas means to them. I am sure that millions of Africans would ponder their replies and ask “do they know what Christmas is about?”

Listen to BandAid30’s Do they know it’s Christmas? or try Africa Stop Ebola, a fundraiser by West African artists in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières’ ebola work.

Fr Gabriel Dolan is a Kiltegan missionary priest based in Mombasa, Kenya. He ministers in an informal settlement, runs a human rights organisation and is a columnist in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper

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