I read in the Irish Times  that “Irish volunteers overseas with the Niall Mellon Township Trust …. completed 140 low-cost houses for poor people in a South African township……. the 750 mainly Irish volunteers managed to overcome the heat and meet their building goal….. Volunteers started to hand over the keys of dozens of two-bedroom houses yesterday to some ecstatic South Africans who had been forced to live in shacks in the Wallacedene township.”

Nice story, and all involved are to be commended for their efforts.  But let me run through the questions that seem to me to be unavoidable and that interfere in my proper enjoyment of the story.

  • Q:  How many of the 750 volunteers had relevant construction expertise that a local unskilled worker would not have, or could not be rapidly trained to have? 
  • A:  Probably a small minority.
  • Q:  Was there in the township or its environs a good supply of healthy and strong local men (or women) who could have done the bulk of the heavy work involved in constructing the houses? 
  • A:  For certain.  No shortage of that.
  • Q:  If so, why were such locals not paid to do this work out of the funds available to the Niall Mellon Township Trust, instead of the latter spending hundreds of thousands of euros shipping workers from Ireland and elsewhere? 
  • A:  No idea.  Could it be that individual fundraisers are much more committed to their task if there is the incentive of a trip to South Africa as a result of their efforts?
  • Q:  The continent of Africa is full of townships and slums where conditions are even worse than in those in South Africa that NMTS assists, so why are its efforts restricted to this one area?
  • A:  Pass. 
  • Q:  Is it cultural/racial conditioning that seems to make it unremarkable for rich, mainly white, folk to fly in from Europe to the townships of South Africa (or for that matter, Haiti) to act as navvies for a few weeks, as if the locals couldn’t be trusted to do the job if we just gave them the money instead?
  • A:  You might have something there.  Try to visualise NMTS or its equivalent flying people into (say) Pakistan or Egypt or Mexico or Rio de Janeiro for the purpose of building houses for their slum-dwellers: I think locals would find it a bit odd.  I suspect the attitude would be: “Welcome.  Now give us the money, leave behind a few managers if you must, and the rest of you piss off so we can do it ourselves”.

Today’s Irish Times has an interesting (but not particularly unusual) juxtaposition of stories from around the world.

On page 11, the aftermath of an earthquake in New Zealand is given extensive coverage, amounting to almost half a page.   Number of fatalities incurred: zero.

On page 8, details of a riverboat fire in Congo are (barely) given – three column inches I would estimate. Estimated number of fatalities incurred:  200.

So to sum up, it’s big news if there is a non-fatal earthquake in a small white, rich, country on the other side of the world.  But it barely justifies a mention if 200 poor black people are killed in an accident in a country which is a lot closer to home.

This is not a criticism of the Irish Times (for once), as I am confident that they are accurately reflecting the news demands of their readers. 

But it starkly shows how we regard Africa generally: a place so full of death, disease, famine and downright brutality that we don’t really want (or need?) to know  about the latest disaster, even if 200 deaths are involved.  There are just so many horror stories one can be exposed to, before fatigue and numbness sets in. (A lesser, domestic, example is the fact that many Irish people have stopped reading to and listening to the domestic news because it is so unrelentingly gloomy on the financial and political front.)

Sub-Saharan Africa is such a dreadful mess (with one or two honourable exceptions) that the Western world is in danger of losing interest.  Maybe the Chinese can sort it out.