The Magazine

Out of Africa

The Dark Continent in the mind of white America.

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By LIAM JULIAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The discomfort he almost immediately feels in Malabo is heightened by the obsequious village headman, Festus Manyenga, who has a habit of drowning Hock in compliments just before asking him for money. Manyenga presents Hock a hut in which to stay and then, as the two stand before it, ostentatiously bemoans the state of the hut’s thatched roof: “But the roof must be replaced. I want to get an iron roof for you, but—eh! eh!” The next day, Hock agrees to hand over $200 in kwacha notes to buy iron sheets, even though he knows Manyenga will buy the sheets, keep the change, “and perhaps put aside the scraps to sell or trade.”

This becomes a trend: Manyenga and other villagers asking Hock for money, and Hock acceding. Part of him realizes he is being used;
part of him doesn’t want to admit it. He loses track of time, forgets how long he has stayed in the hut in Malabo. Gradually, he comes to understand that the villagers don’t want him to leave, and that they won’t let him.

What has happened here on the Lower River? The idyll of Hock’s youth has become a savage, denuded land whose inhabitants are greedy, dishonest, scheming, and callous. Surely Malabo was never the paradise that absence and time created in Hock’s mind, but it couldn’t have been this aggressively corrupt and malicious. What has happened, it seems, is that the people of the Lower River, over the past 50 years, learned that it is easier to manipulate the ubiquitous do-gooders and aid organizations—to accept the white man’s handouts (and steal some more)—than to do the hard work of building and maintaining a self-sufficient society. 

The people of the Lower River are like people anywhere: Flooded with free food and money and goods, they take them—and then they expect more.

There is a scene in The Lower River where Hock finds himself in the midst of an aid drop. A helicopter descends on a clearing, rock music blasting, and a white man in sunglasses and cowboy hat (read: Bono) and a woman with red lips and a skintight outfit (read: Angelina Jolie) begin tossing boxes and bags to the scrambling bodies below. It is a mêlée, with children clawing and ripping at each other, trying to snatch food or clamber into the helicopter. When the scene becomes too messy, the aid workers and their celebrity passengers lift up into the sky and fly away, leaving behind in their dust a vicious brawl. Men on motorcycles, waiting patiently in the woods just beyond the clearing, then drive into the scrum, scoop up the boxes, and speed off. Later, they will sell their loot. 

It is a disaster. But the aid agency is long gone. It drops the bounty and leaves. Complexity, unintended consequences, long-term effects—these things are not its concern. The Lower River is a fast-paced, exciting adventure story, but it is also an indictment of all those who, literally or metaphorically, drop in on places they don’t know and don’t understand, do much damage, and then float away.

Liam Julian is a Hoover Institution fellow and managing editor of Policy Review.