“You are from Germany? I have a German girlfriend,” the tall nerdy boy sitting next to Natascha at the street stall remarks, striking up a conversation. “Oh, where does she live?” enquires Natascha, tugging into her yoghurt dish. Now it turns out that actually he doesn’t have one yet, but would like to get a German girlfriend. “One like you! What do you think?” It is not the first time that men of all ages have proposed to us. Anyone from anywhere in Europe would do, if only they get a visa to live in the Promised Land.
Germany is the promised land
“And is it true – I have heard that in Germany, if you don’t work, the government pays you 700 Euro per month? Wow, imagine, that’s 500,000 CFA…” Everybody here dreams of getting rich like this, without working. And everybody imagines that we must be even richer, because we are Germans. Why wouldn’t we rent the whole car instead of just paying for two seats in the cramped shared taxi? “For you, 30 Euro is nothing!” the driver argues. Even 500 Euro or 1000 Euro, they think, is like nothing for Europeans. After all we could afford the flight to Africa. As soon as we make clear that we don’t want to pay large sums, their interest subsides. A young woman who has tried to sell us 8 bunches of parsley shrugs and makes a final offer. She has four kids, we have none, so why don’t we take the youngest with us to Europe? Or the 7-year old, he speaks some French already, that would be convenient, wouldn’t it?
West Africa is by no means a cheap country for tourists. In fact, the value for money, especially of hotels is worse here than in most countries outside the richest and most developed countries. Normal tourists certainly don’t feel super-rich, and we didn’t meet any tourists who found their holidays cheap. Most Westerners here, however, are not tourists. They work for international organisations or NGOs. They drive around in huge white Toyota Landcruisers, and obviously most of them have a fixed budget to spend for their work, as well as for their private life, in order to get more next year.
The work of NGOs
“Sometimes the teachers in all those educational seminars for women or farmers ask a rhetorical question – you are here to learn something, aren’t you? And then if someone is just listening and in the mood to answer at all they say, no, I’m here because I get money for attending the course.” Julia has only been here for an internship of a few months, but she is rather disillusioned about the merits of development aid. Sabine, an aid worker for a German organisation, sighs: “You can’t really help anyone. As soon as someone becomes a little successful with a business or job, the whole clan and a bunch of others want their share of it…” For years she has been supporting self-help organisations of handicapped people. “Sometimes we give up again because there is too much fighting and corruption within the group. And if you don’t check on the project once a year, chances are high that in a few years the facilities crumble or that some village strongman is running a profit from the welfare project.”
When we visit one of the groups in Mopti a few days later, it seems that this project at least is going on well. Mohammed, who needs three flip-flops to move about on one leg and his two hands, is showing us around the workshop. “I learned sewing here,” he explains proudly. “And reading and writing: when I was young the government said that the handicapped don’t need an education, they can’t work anyway.”
We are torn between applauding Sabine’s organisation for offering chances the government fails to provide – and concern: If there is always a well-meaning foreign (= western) organisation providing public services the people would otherwise lack, why should a large minority like the many polio victims (or majorities, like women, workers, the poor…) protest and urge the government to do its job?
In the Dogon Land
In Mali’s remote and backward Dogon Land, almost all the schools are sponsored by foreigners – individuals or groups. The government doesn’t bother to care for the population’s education. Or for its well-being, health, or economic progress, for that matter: “Roads? The Dogon don’t want roads. Electricity? Far too modern.” On the contrary: The region’s backwardness in itself is a drawing point for tourists and welfare organisations alike, and the country’s elite profits from both.
Looking for solutions
Like hordes of experts, we have been pondering about solutions. By now we suspect that more development aid doesn’t help. Less subsidies for European agricultural products that swamp African markets and make local producers uncompetitive would be a start. No more exports to poor countries of all those cheap and deadly weapons that our defence industries have to sell in order to finance research and development for high-tech systems. More pressure on African governments to do their job and to fight corruption. More opportunities for motivated Africans to come legally to Europe, to earn and learn, and then to go back and build up a functioning state and economy are other ideas.
NB: Our trip to West Africa was not sponsored in any way and all expenses have been covered by ourselves.