At first I thought it was spoof when I stumbled over the ‘Underwear for Africa’ initiative on Facebook. I had a closer look and realized that no, this was serious: a group of US Americans were trying to collect 1,000 undies for boys and girls (mercifully, they were looking for newly purchased knickers and not mitumba) by mid-December to distribute in a refugee camp in Kenya. Still, I was dumbstruck: Now why on earth would you want to drag a suitcase full of knickers to Africa? I’m quite used to all sorts of foreigners wanting to Do Something About Africa, but this must have been amongst the more ludicrous suggestions, alongside a shipment of teddy bears for Uganda organized by a Canadian teenage beauty queen that I had recently spotted (note to self: must pay more attention to teddy bear shortages in Uganda). Is this what Kenya has been reduced to – a no-knickers emergency?
I reposted the ‘Underwear for Africa’ initiative on my own Facebook page. The replies from my friends both Kenyan and non-Kenyan mirrored mine: ‘What the (expletive)’ and ‘I am now gobsmacked and slack-jawed at the same time‘. ‘I thought that’s a joke’ featured a few times. Also: ‘quite contemptuous … self-righteous and self-gratifying’. I found their efforts somewhere between incredibly patronizing and just silly. But I bit my tongue and wrote a tame comment on the group’s page: First, that there are a great many perfectly good shops in Kenya that sell underwear of all sorts, so why don’t they send over the money and buy the knickers here – assuming that the lack of underwear is really the issue? Save on transport and put some much-needed money into the Kenyan economy. And secondly, that ‘Africa’ was a continent with 50+ states.
I got some very friendly replies back from Rocky, who set up this campaign, and her husband Jeff. They admitted that I had a point, but, according to Jeff: ‘Obviously it would be better for the economy in Kenya if the purchases were made in Kenya ….However, the eighth grade girl who held the UFA drive may not have been inspired by collecting money. In fact, I'm quite sure she would not have been.’ Rocky added: ‘The reason why we decided to collect here and bring them over ourselves is simple. We are engaging others to be part of the process. You loose that when you simply ask for US$2 to buy underwear. The stories I hear from both adults and children alike when they empty the underwear racks, or PTA members excited to get the children involved in school projects such as this are amazing. People want to get involved. People want to become part of the process. People want to see, feel and be engaged in the bigger picture.’
The replies were, I found, very self centred: It had little to do with working out what really makes sense, and helping in the most efficient way possible. It was, in the end, all about feelings. Their feelings, their kids’ feelings. Is it really beyond a kid’s grasp to understand why a pocket money donation would make more sense than an underwear purchase in the US? It’s good to teach children to help others and get involved directly in the community, but that was just what irritated me: For the kids’ educational experience, why don’t they do something in their own local community? If they really want to help out in Kenya, it’s fantastically inefficient if people from literally the other side of the globe do this profusion of little-little projects here. Hook up with someone who already tries to work out how to keep Kenyan girls in school by helping them with both underwear and sanitary pads. There are so many initiatives by people who live and work here and not only give back to the community, but also do this is in a far more sensible way because they understand the place.
I’m sure the pants people have good intentions. But do good intentions give you license to do just anything? It bugs me that ‘Africa’ – because it’s always that amorphous big entity ‘Africa’, not one particular corner of this vast, diverse continent - has become a charity playground for half of the world to feel good about themselves. Knickers for Africa, actresses pronouncing on the civil war in DR Congo, and hug-an-orphan holidays. This attitude means that little attention is paid to the complexities behind the problems. Never mind that there’s actually straightforward business going on here.
My friend Wacuka had a closer look at the ‘Underwear for Africa’ blog where she found this: "Now, Rocky and I have already both discussed how silly the name of this project is. But underwear is a topic that is always good for a giggle. Especially with kids. Can you imagine the smiles on their faces and the laughter in the room when two crazy white ladies from America come bearing gifts of underwear?’ Wacuka’s wry comment: “I'm glad we're making so many people laugh this year. We should get some sort of comedy award." Robbie, in turn, was so incensed by the idea of underwear from the US when refugees need blankets, clothes, malaria nets and such things that he suggested an anti-pants campaign – let’s all go commando this weekend!
(written for Nairobi Star)