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09 August 2013

Bongo bongo land and people not like us

Bongo bongo land and people not like us

I've got a very African surname. Its Bs and Gs are a spelling stumbling block to many – African and non-African alike. Sometimes, if I'm honest, even to myself. People aren't used to it. It's unfamiliar. And at times I wonder whether it forms a barrier which must be overcome before people get to know the person behind the name.

I am fully Nigerian and fully British – complete with a very British sense of humour. So when I first read about UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom's comments, I laughed them off. Bloom came under fire this week for suggesting aid money should not be sent to "bongo bongo land" – clearly a reference to third world countries in sub-Saharan Africa – who, he claimed, "buy Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and all the rest of it that goes with most of the foreign aid".

Just another comical unenlightened bumbling middle-aged white UKIP supporter, I thought, displaying my own prejudices. He doesn't know any better.

I'm not offended by Bloom's comments.

Africa is not perfect. There is chaos and bad management and greed in the governments of certain countries. But I can't reduce Africa to "bongo bongo land". Because Africa – Nigeria in particular – to me is home; it is gritty, vibrant, passionate, full of character and graft and heritage and stories and dancing; it's where my grandmothers live.

What Bloom's comments display is a viewpoint that sees Africa as 'other'. People not like us. It's the same view portrayed in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness which suggests that Africans are tribal and otherwordly. People not like us.

Conrad, through his narrator Charles Marlow – an ivory transporter down the Congo River – describes the place as "unearthly", its people "ugly". "We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet… Suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage."

In a critique of the novel in 1977, author Chinua Achebe writes: "Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as 'the other world', the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality." 

People not like us.

It's worth pointing out that seeing other cultures as strange and 'other' is not unique to Europeans. In Achebe's own Things Fall Apart, Obierika says: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay."

People not like us.

What Bloom's comments suggest, though, is that people who are not like us – us being the refined, dignified, intellectually superior and civilised – should not get our help. First, because they lack intelligence and squander it on material objects. Second, because charity must start at home. Obviously.

And I find myself scratching my head and wondering what God thinks about it all.

Is 'charity begins at home' what Jesus is getting at when he tells the Syrophoenician woman: "First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs"? This passage in Mark 7 is one of the ones I find most difficult in the Bible. Is Jesus being racist? No different from the culture he grew up in?

Dick France's Tyndale commentary on Mark indicates: "Written words cannot convey a twinkle in the eye, and it may be that Jesus was almost jocularly presenting her with the sort of language she might expect from a Jew in order to see how she would react."

That's one explanation. There are lots of others. But I think the answer also lies in looking to the rest of the accounts of Jesus's life and the Bible as a whole. Here's a God-man who repeatedly crossed cultural, social and ethnic divides, who suggested we follow the example of the Good Samaritan and put ourselves out – even for people not like us; who said he'd come to save all; who said let's love our neighbours as ourselves, let's want the best for them.

Maybe he would say let's continue to send aid to developing countries, to people not like us, even if we need the money ourselves. Because when all is said and done, there aren't really any people 'not like us'. 

Chine Mbubaegbu is head of media at the Evangelical Alliance

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