What Africa Has Taught Me

In an interview with Susanne Brunner, Ruedi Küng looks back on his years as Swiss Radio DRS’s executive correspondent for Africa. – Published on Current Concerns, december 2010.

… Was it sometimes difficult to see the desperate poverty and consequently to have the impulse to help?

  • Ok, regarding the impulse to help: I may have a quite strange attiutde. I believe that all this helping business, if I may say so, is something very problematic. Certain friends of mine don’t like to hear that at all when I talk like this, because it simply creates immediately an inequality in the relationship. There is no helper who can be equal to the one who is being helped. For me it’s easy to say this, because I haven’t done anything. I’ve never received a laurel wreath for having done a helping job. Therefore, I mentioned the word profit before: I was able to experience relationships from equal person to another equal person, and the people noticed that. I also didn’t expect anything from them. I never wanted anything except talking to them, having an encounter.  
  • This was my big mantra: I could say: now I have met another person. I often have met people, but I didn’t have an encounter with them, because there was not enough substance in the meeting or it remained cold or rational or whatever. But I could repeatedly meet people, and I can feel this, especially when I come back and when they are happy to see me again. I have noticed during the last three, four, five months, when I didn’t turn up, nothing would have happened, they couldn’t benefit from me. But as I said, this is a privilege.
  • Nevertheless, I don’t want to talk down anybody who tries to help Africa: There are such a lot of people in Switzerland, I felt this when I was more frequently in Switzerland and when I was invited here and there in order to talk about Africa. I then realized the amount of private initiative in Switzerland in order to improve the situation somehow. That is really, really enormous. And I really don’t want to talk it down, on the contrary. When I suddenly get to a hospital in the middle of the jungle in Liberia, in this case erected by Médecins Sans Frontières, and when I talk to the indigenous women about what this hospital or in other words, that minuscule health center made of wood and the most simple materials, means to them then I would never pretend this was something bad.
  • But me, Ruedi Küng, I am not the type who has the feeling I should save Africa, develop Africa or construct it. Anyway, not in that way. This is a very individual decision.

I would like to give another perspective about this continent. You have known the continent for a very long time. I would like to begin with this question: What has not changed at all and what has changed most? I know this is a very overall question, because this probably varies a lot from country to country. Nevertheless: What would you say?

  • I’ll start with the easier points, i.e. what has changed. There have been enormous changes introduced by two things: The first one is the mobile phone, the mobile telecommunication, the second is urbanization. We still have the picture in mind that Africa is above all agricultural and rural. But Africa has, if not already circumnavigated, at least reached this cape. By now, the population living in cities represents the larger part. Now, naturally African cities are not cities in our sense, however, they are very frequently slum areas. And these circumstances are bringing a new culture, are involving new elements. The whole traditional ways of life, everything we still know from our school books and what people somehow still tell us about the social hierarchies – for example that the young respect the older people – all that is strongly undermined by these influences. The urban development, even if it is the slum, undermines such cultural forms .

This sounds a bit like all the arguments in places where urbanization is happening. In this point Africa doesn’t differ from other areas.

  • Yes, absolutely. Africa is the continent where this urbanization happens at terrible speed. And as I said, the mobile phone: It is really incredible which possibilities it creates for the people in order to communicate. The Africans also communicate a lot because they do business, because they are continuously on the qui vive, on the alert, in order to watch: where, what, how? It is really enormous what happens there. And if I add that in Africa the first banking transactions can now be realized via mobile phone, then you understand immediately that a new era has been reached there.
  • If you ask me what has remained unchanged, then I would say: unchanged is that the population still has not got the power to fight strongly enough against its despots. They do it, and I always tried to point this out, to describe this in order to get them a hearing, so we know that there are such people, but they simply haven’t got the power. In this moment, Nigeria, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but also one of the potentially richest countries with the biggest crude oil production in the continent, is giving it a further democratic try. And the big Nobel Prize laureate for literature, the first of Africa, Wole Soyinka, has now founded his own party, because he also wants to strengthen the population – we call this the civil society – in order to finally fight against these abuses of power in the higher rankings. For me – I had the opportunity to talk to him on several occasions – it is a very impressive experience to see him – he, who has always seen the elites, the governments very critically, has never lost the hope that the population, the civil society, can do something. And this is not only the case for Nigeria: Today we practically meet groups, unions, groups of women, agricultural cooperatives etc in any African country. Actually, that is the way – there I think we should make a start in order have Africa heading for another direction – it is not us who should start but the people there should start in order to do that.

… (full long interview text).

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