Stories are powerful. They can bring hope, or despair. Laughter, or sorrow. And, as we who work for World Vision and other humanitarian agencies know very, very well, stories can educate and enlighten people. They can help achieve a lot of good.
One woman whose story last week received a lot of accolades and criticism is Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo. Her book, “Hitting Budapest,” has won what many consider to be Africa’s top award for literature, the Caine Prize.
“The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles,” the prize’s leading judge commented to CNN. “Here we encounter…a gang reminiscent of ‘Clockwork Orange.’ But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight [that] has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary.”
However, not everyone has praised Ms. Bulawayo’s story. One blogger, Aaron Bady, who writes under the name “zunguzungu,” contends that the book “traffics in the familiar genre of Africa-poverty-pornography.”
Another blogger, Matt Collin, defines “poverty porn” on his blog, “Aid Thoughts,” as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.”
I’ve never met Mr. Collin, or Mr. Bady, or Ms. Bulawayo. But I have read “Hitting Budapest” and I do know a lot about Africa — its images and stories. I was born and raised in Zambia, next door to Zimbabwe, and spent eight months in 2009 as the acting national director for World Vision’s work in that country.
I have no objection to what Mr. Collin and Mr. Bady call “poverty porn,” so long as people understand that not all children in sub-Saharan Africa have bloated stomachs and pose longingly with flies buzzing in their faces. Yes, there is much despair in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and many other poor nations, but there also is much resilience. And that resilience builds hope.
As we all recognize, millions of Africans have endured colonialism, disease, brutal poverty, corrupt leaders, and failed political states. For many, sub-Saharan Africa is a continent that seems to have been left behind. And worse, our race, exemplified by the color and pigmentation of our skin, has seemed to be a symbol of all that’s wrong.
But there is a lot that is right. In Zimbabwe, the people have a history of honoring and respecting education. While I was there in 2009, I drove throughout the country and met teachers and healthcare professionals — nurses, midwives, and others — who had not been paid for several months. Were they lazy? Were they holding hand-scrawled cardboard signs asking for food?
Rather, they were serving the people who needed them: pregnant women, newborn children, the elderly, and others. They were getting by with food as they could find it — through friends, local social service agencies, even international NGOs. They persevered, and despite their tough circumstances, they were proud, proficient, and professional.
Moreover, contrary to what some might have expected, the commercial buildings in the towns and cities I visited were vacant, but intact. No looting. No burned-out or damaged interiors. Even the panes of glass were untouched by rocks, let alone bullets.
“We may be poor, but we’re not stupid,” one man told me. “This is the legacy for our children. How could we destroy the tools for their education?”
Ms. Bulawayo represents a new generation of Africans. She was born in 1977, three years before the British colony of Southern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe. She likely has no personal recollection of Prime Minister Ian Smith, who, for better or for worse, personified Britain’s colonial rule.
And she seems undaunted by the criticism of her book and determined to inform and enlighten her readers about the realities of poverty and injustice. She told CNN recently:
“Some of the things I write about in ‘Hitting Budapest’ come from my own life. The stealing of guavas, the growing up poor, having dreams; these are all from my own life. And when I write from personal experience like that, it does not make sense for somebody to come and tell me how to tell my story.”
Indeed, we all have powerful stories, many of which are based on our encounters with others, which bring us hope or despair, laughter or sorrow. And, if we embrace and appreciate others’ stories, we then can better grasp the concept of “ubuntu,” a Swahili word that means, “I am what I am because of who we all are.”