Explaining Africa to Aging American Hippies

I went to a session by NetSquared last night which talked about fund raising for non-profits through “social media”. For those who most likely aren’t familiar, NetSquared is an organization that (among other things) puts together a meeting each month that deals with social change through the web. Sometimes the talks are insightful, sometimes they’re a bit dull, but the topics tend to usually always be new. Such is not the case with social media media and non-profits separately. Both have been around for years but just in the last two years or so, they’ve been merging together with relatively good success.
The talks were pretty dry overall, but a couple of points stuck out for me, the biggest one being the fact that when you’re a non-profit, you rely on donations and grants for funding, which is an onerous task. Toss on to that the fact that your biggest donors are likely to be above the age of 50 with the biggest givers past the age of 70. Now, this is tough because when it comes to using the web and email to get donations, this group isn’t the most web-savvy. Of course on the other hand, the group that is the most savvy (those under 50 and specifically under 40) are going to give the least amount of donations. So, if you’re an aid or development non-profit/NGO working in Africa, you’re probably going to have to first focus on this over 50 group by reaching out to them digitally (as this has been proven to be the best tool to receive donations) and then secondly explaining what Africa is.
It’s the 50-70 year-old group that I posit is the most difficult group when it comes to Africa. The big issue is that this group is made up of all the aging hippies. Those people who were out to change the world and believe in free-thinking are now one of the most potent forces from a non-profit vantage and if you’re going to be doing any kind of work in Africa, you will absolute run in to these people and end up having to basically “explain Africa” to them. There are so many aspects to this, I just have to start at the beginning.

Background

I grew up with hippie, back-to-the-lander, artists for parents. They were and have been loving, wonderful people, but my whole life, I’ve been surrounded by people who were much like them, still living the 1960’s dream long in to the end of the 20th century. I watched the course of the hippies through the 80’s and 90’s to the point where they’re all starting to retire today. It’s been in the last two years as my interest in Africa has grown that I’ve found myself trying to have conversations about various regions of the continent often to find myself reaching the point of wanting to scream or shutting down and agreeing with whatever they said just to be finished with an otherwise dead conversation.

The Problem with Progress

Whenever talking to people who lived through the 60’s and early 70’s, it is essential to keep in mind that they have a tremendous sense of empowerment. Their parents were a generation that was conformist, while they broke free of this. I’ll definitely admit that they initially accomplished a lot, but at the cost of imbuing a permanent short-sightedness.
Ultimately, the popular movements born of the 60’s pulled people in to a new version of conformity and a number of things they accomplished were ultimately self-defeating. I point to People’s Park in Berkeley as a prime example of this wherein they protested to get a university owned lot that was for student housing turned in to city park despite the fact that this housing was very much needed and there were already a vast wealth of city parks at the time. Somebody actually died in the violent confrontations that ensued and the park was eventually created only to become a massive drug and crime haven today.

“We’re Like Totally the Same”

While the 60’s were a time of social upheaval in the US, they were also a time of massive change for the African continent. During this time, the European powers were extricating themselves from the African colonies and new countries were forming in the world. Many hippies I’ve talked to will often identify with what the Africans were going through in overthrowing “the man” to establish a better society for them and their children. Except that they were nothing the same. Americans were working towards tweaking their societies and trying to get something better in a country that was already quite well off. Africans on the other hand were forming new societies and governments, overthrowing massively corrupt (in the case of DRC) regimes that exploited them. There is nothing the same in this except that these were both movements of the people. But given this identification with the African struggle, hippies will often be of the opinion that they know everything about Africa yet can’t answer the question, “What is the meaning of Boulevard 30 du Juin in Kinshasa?”

How to Deal, Man

How can someone who is say, in their 30’s have a discourse with someone in their late 50’s or 60’s about Africa? It’s not easy, but I’ve found a number of common arguments or opinions that keep popping up in all of this and have realized *some* workarounds.
“They’re just savages there.”
This is for all purposes, racism. It shows that the person is someone who reads/watches popular media as this is the common perception if you only take that as gospel about Africa.
This is hard to approach as when someone is the age that I’m talking about, they might already be set in their ways as a hardcore racist; racism is more strongly worded in the US. Typically though, if they make this statement, it’s more due to ignorance. You can ask questions in a very normal, non-confrontational tone such as, “Oh really? Why do you say that?” or “No kidding. Who was saying that?” If they make statements along the lines of the fact that Africans are of lesser intelligence or they need to be shown the “light” (whatever the hell this light is), then yes, they’re racist and you’re probably not going to make it anywhere with them. If they say that they saw it on a report on CNN or god forbid, FOX News, then you stand a chance. You can try bringing up things a little bit deeper such as the fact that Eastern Congo in an incredibly rich area for minerals that produce modern electronics and it’s in the interest of foreigners (such as Americans and Europeans) to keep the conflict going there in order to scare off others and be able to rape the earth at lower prices. If they ask how to stop this, tell them to tell others, so that people know it’s not “savagery” but neo-colonial great and exploitation. They might or might not be intrigued to learn more. Maybe they just don’t care, in which case flash them a photo of a starving child (jk, please don’t).
“My heart is with the Tibetans”
Hippies love all things Asian. For some reason they grabbed ahold of Asian spirituality (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. yet not Islam) and didn’t let go. Unless you brought it up first, I have no idea how you’d get in to a conversation with someone like this about Africa, but if you do, it’s pretty hopeless. They will undoubtedly have a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on their Subaru wagon next to one that say, “Dog is my co-pilot”. A small splinter group of these types of hippies have attached themselves to the whole Save Darfur thing, but this campaign is quite sketchy to get in to. If when talking them, they get all riled up about the Darfurian crisis and how arresting the current President of Sudan is a good thing (he’s not a good guy, but we can’t do this) as opposed to continuing the precedent set by the well-run Ghanian elections, then you might want to just encourage them to stick with Tibet.
As you can see, they are susceptible to propaganda campaigns, so you can try to help clear up things like telling them that yes, there was post-electoral violence in Nairobi, but it was quite focused in certain areas. Judging Kenya as being hopeless because of that is just judging the US as hopeless based upon what the news showed about People’s Park in the 60’s. Tell all your friends.
“You just weren’t there, so you don’t know how it was.”
This, along with “I used to know everything about X years ago, but have since forgotten it” are two of my most hated misuses of time. Hippies will often invoke these “arguments” when they feel threatened and secretly admit that you do indeed know more about something than they do. They do this because of three reasons: they are older than you so they really think they know more, their generation has an aforementioned overdeveloped sense of empowerment, and there is no way you can argue against this because yes, you weren’t there.
I have often found myself getting quiet and giving up when I get this response. You can try some things to not have the discussion shut down though, such as capitulating to their undeniable wisdom and saying, “Yes, you’re right. I was getting a good deal of my information about DRC from Leopold’s Ghost and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. I don’t know if you’ve read them, but you might like them since you lived through this.” Short of that, there is little else I’ve found that I can do.

Closing

In no way do I mean to say that all hippies fall in to the above categories. For instance, I have no idea whether or not Paul Theroux was a hippie, but he is 67 and if he started telling me about Africa, I would sit with rapt attention and listen to every word the man had to say. There are other people as well, like my father who would have been initially combative with me on the subject of Africa, yet he would then go, read any books I suggested, find more, and then come back at me to tell me new information.
It’s just that in dealing with so many people from the “Age of Aquarius” generation, I find that it’s often an uphill battle in regards for them to understand more about Africa. As was point out in Larry Devlin’s memoirs about DRC, Africa wasn’t even on American radar until the very end 1960’s. Culturally, it really wasn’t mainstream until the 1980’s. Just keep in mind that despite MTV coming two decades after the hippie’s formative years, keep anything you say short and to the point in a nice, chewy soundbite. Try to paint Africa as a place where people do indeed lead normal lives, that aren’t full of rape and horror (you’re not helping Eve Ensler and Lisa Jackson) and you’ll be helping a group to better understand a continent which has mostly been in their peripheral vision.
Explaining Africa to Aging American Hippies