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The Uncertain Business of Doing Good

New narrative explores what happens to well-intentioned interlopers in Africa

By Gary Kenny

The Uncertain Business of Doing Good: Outsiders in Africa
By Larry Krotz
(University of Manitoba Press) $24.95

We presume a great deal when it comes to Africa, often letting that presumption spill out without the least sense of shame.”

Although he situates himself among the shamelessly presumptuous, Canadian journalist and filmmaker Larry Krotz is anything but. In this book, Krotz probes his motivations for working among African peoples, whose histories and contemporary life experiences are vastly different from his own. The best of intentions, he knows, aren’t enough to validate what can happen when self-assured Western “outsiders” insinuate themselves into the myriad entanglements of African lives and cultures.

Krotz, who grew up in the United Church and is a frequent contributor to The Observer, explores what happens when the well-intentioned interloper “lands in some African situation, only to encounter not the certainties he or she might have expected, but nuance, ambiguity, perplexity.” As reference points, Krotz draws on several journalistic assignments: Angola at the perceived end of its long civil war; Kenya, where some prostitutes appear immune to the AIDS virus; and Tanzania, where alleged perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide stand trial. In these situations, all is not as it seems. Each is an object lesson in which the elements of surprise and Western conceit are inextricably linked.

The book’s most controversial moment occurs when Krotz attends the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania. Ostensibly committed to finding the truth about Rwanda’s genocide, the proceedings lack humility, Krotz observes. They are fraught with assumed certainties and impose a (foreign) system of justice incapable of dealing with the complexities of Rwanda’s ethnic politics. When two of the accused are convicted, Krotz concludes that global public relations — not truth — was served. I know Rwandans and friends of Rwandans who would rage at this suggestion. One can admire Krotz’s audacity in wading into such treacherous waters.

How can we bridge the “gap of perplexities” that Africa represents? Krotz asks. He answers: We need to establish a new narrative with our African brothers and sisters. We need to be more humbly mindful of how our acculturated ways of seeing and behaving can undermine the possibility of making genuine human connections.

This is a thoughtful book written by someone committed to forging new and more meaningful ways of relating to the peoples of Africa.

Gary Kenny is the United Church's Program Co-ordinator for Southern Africa and Emergency Response.
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