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Comic Relief: The joke is on you

CRITICISED: Kim Kardashian’s trip to Nigeria

A SEMINAL moment in my childhood, if not my life, was caused by a very short and largely forgotten advert for British Petroleum. In fact I’ll go as far as saying that little BP advert helped shape who and what I am today. So there you go, you know who to blame now.

The advert begins with a young, stereotypically African, child in a dark room reading a book by the light of a candle. The candle gradually burns down and goes out. At that moment the child looks up, reaches for a string dangling from the ceiling, pulls it, and on pings a light bulb. He then looks at the camera, almost condescendingly, and says, magically, “This is the 1990s you know!”

As I said before, that advert changed my life. I could not believe my eyes. Africans have electricity. And light bulbs too! Fair enough, I was only nine or so at the time, but the images of Africans I had in my head had come from Live Aid, Comic Relief and one-dimensional news coverage. I wanted nothing to do with Africa, Africans, Itsekiri, Asanti, pounded yam, Sir Shina Peters – the lot. I was totally embarrassed by it all. As a result I was beyond British or English, I was beyond Anglo-Saxon, I was even beyond a pre-road to Damacus (perhaps I exaggerate slightly in this regard). I was the nine-year-old equivalent of a micro-minded, Union Jack waistcoat wearing, UKIP voting, little Englander. God. Save. The. Queen! And sod those savages.


BAKED: Lorraine Pascal’s cake making stunt

That advert encouraged me to think that things might actually be better than they were usually portrayed to be in Africa. When I arrived in Nigeria for the first time these thoughts were confirmed.

Africa was not the hellhole you see on TV. Yet even today, as African economies are experiencing economic growth that the UK and US can only dream of, the popular image of the African is still a young child suffering from kwashiorkor with flies on his or her face - thanks mainly to Comic Relief and other instruments of western self-congratulation.

OUTRAGEOUS

A lot of these Africa-aid incentives just fly in the face of reason. For example did Lorraine Pascal (who should know better) really travel to a remote part of Ghana (supposedly with a director, editor, camera crew and make-up artist) in order to teach them to bake cakes? Or - forgive my outrageous cynicism - did she do it to raise her profile? Did Natwest bank not see any of the tragic irony involved in placing a man in a bathtub full of baked beans in a bid, supposedly, to ‘raise money for the starving’?

BUSINESS

The reality TV star Kim Kardashian was recently criticised and lampooned for flying into Nigeria in order to get paid an enormous amount of money to party with the moneyed classes in Lagos. Say what you want about her but you cannot say she was not honest and open. She was there to do business and helped show a side of Africa that many people have been led to believe does not exist: an Africa that is good and very profitable for business.

Most Africans, especially the younger generation, have long since woken up to the fact that the whole aid-industry is not about them. And does not really benefit them. I have been to places (such as Abeokuta in Ogun state) where young African kids, on spotting a visible foreigner, will take their shirts off, rub a bit of sand into their hair and attempt to pose (with the foreigner) for a Comic Relief-type picture in a bid to solicit a little money! When it fails they laugh and ask again.

OPPORTUNITY

The older generation would meet a westerner and literally think ‘master’. Some section of the younger generation meet a westerner and think ‘mugu’ (which means fool or prey).

But most Africans today are not seeking a master or mugu relationship with westerners. They seek partnership and business. Not aid and charity. And therein lies significant opportunity.

My advice: ignore the doom and gloom reports, ignore the Oxfam, Comic Relief (et al) adverts and take a punt on the continent. Get to know it. Understand it. Invest in it. And do business with it. You will do more to help both Africa and yourself then any donation you ever make to Comic Relief possibly could.

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