UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

Why I got baptized in a United Church at the age of 42

by Jacqueline Mercer-Livesey

"I told myself that I didn’t need to go to church to believe in God. I found peace and the Holy Spirit in the things that surrounded me. But still, there was a nagging sense of something missing."

Promotional Image


Editor/Publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Observations: The rewards of letting go

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the upcoming changes for The United Church of Canada, the magazine and in her own life.

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Two nurses tackle Vancouver's opioid crisis

Richard Moore is a resident of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In this poignant interview, he explains the important work of nurses Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles.

Promotional Image


July 2018

250 United Church leaders have a message for Doug Ford

by Emma Prestwich

They're urging the new Ontario premier to remember those in need as he carries out promised economic reform.


July 2018

Tracing Nelson Mandela’s path a century after his birth

by Tim Johnson

A travel writer visits some of the places that shaped the anti-apartheid icon’s life.


July 2018

Jamil Jivani sheds light on why young men radicalize

by Suzanne Bowness

In his book 'Why Young Men,' Jamil Jivani talks about his own experience as a troubled youth.

Promotional Image