When newly-minted French President Emmanuel Macron made his rather generous assessment that Africa’s problems are “civilizational,” and chalked some if it up to the fact that Africa has “seven to eight children per woman,” the internet went onto one of its time-honoured, increasingly frequent, and impressively meaningless, overdrives.
Nevertheless, it did look nice. I was pleasantly surprised. Here was the world, finally, coming to the defence of poor old Africa.
Maybe they had realised Africa wasn’t overpopulated after all, that Africa was too big to be overpopulated even if all humans left their homes and went to live in Africa. Maybe, just this once, people had seen through the smokescreen.
I was in for a rude shock. My pleasant surprise evaporated shortly after I read the first paragraph of The Guardian’s contribution to the fray.
That’s because the article, in the voice of a Laura Seay, an American political scientist, did not refute Macron’s statement that women having seven to eight children is a problem. Instead, it blamed Macron for being blind to France’s role in making women have seven to eight children in Africa.
To be more precise the reasoning went something like this: France took the Catholic faith to Africa; many Africans became Catholic; the Catholic Church opposes contraceptive use; so nobody uses contraceptives in Africa; ergo, they have many kids.
Bingo! Problem solved. It all started with France. It’s that simple. Macron was not wrong. The problem was that he said the truth without apologising for his country’s role in the situation. How could he be so blind!
As I have said, my pleasant surprise was dashed by this. But I had to read that again to just begin to comprehend how so much hogwash can be packaged as an expert opinion.
Maybe the writer of that article did not realise it, but her article did not rebuke Macron for his statement. No, it joined Macron in chiding Africans for being too loose with their gametes. It was just as insensitive as Macron had been, if a little less poetic.
It was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Not of hating the message, but rather of having a personal gripe with the messenger. And, as if it was keen on proving it, the next day, The Guardian ran an article titled “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children.”
Perhaps the only sadder thing was that, when I went through the tweets and articles on other publishers’ websites responding to Macron, I didn’t find much difference with the Guardian’s misplaced opinion.
Now, it is true that M. Macron’s proclamations were extremely crude, offensive, insensitive and paternalistic. And, coming from a 39-year-old man with no children, they were what an African with his wits around would also call disrespectful, for here we place great store by a man’s seniority and number of children.
But that is not what makes Macron’s proclamations wrong. What makes them wrong is that, forgive me if this sounds like a truism, they were just wrong.
And he was not just wrong in that he got his numbers wrong (Africa has an average of 4.7 children per woman, and the numbers are highest around Central Africa at less than 6 kids per woman) and the context wrong (by claiming that Africa’s problem is civilizational, he was unwittingly admitting that France’s noble mission to “civilise Africa” has failed tremendously after more than a century), but he also made the wrong call by claiming that this is what holds Africa back.
Perhaps what Macron needs to know before he engages in another act civilizational pontification is that Africa is big and diverse and that, although it does face many challenges (many of which, to the critics’ credit, are the vestiges of his country’s involvement in the continent), overpopulation is the least of those challenges.
In fact, the continent has room, and the capacity to feed way more people than currently live in it.
But, as I lamented at the beginning, perhaps the biggest tragedy is that most people in the West think the same way.
Most of these opinions do not translate into concrete actions to cull Africa’s terrifyingly massive population, but there are those cases where governments and philanthropists, too quick to pander to their eugenic Malthusian instincts, do more than just talk about it. And the damage they cause more than makes up for the talkers’ inability to act.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how the Netherlands is marshalling an armada to save abortion in Africa from the Trump government’s decision to stop supporting organisations that promote abortion on the continent.
The Dutch raised $250 million to save the hallowed institution on the continent. This came at a time when the UN was sounding off on an imminent famine that threatened over 20 million people on the continent. In primary school, I was taught that food, shelter and clothing were basic needs. Not abortion.
Other countries have made steps in the same direction. Just the other day, Sweden announced that it would not financially support aid organisations that refuse to “counsel or perform” abortions in developing countries (which are overwhelmingly in Africa).
It almost feels as if, for Sweden, abortion is up there with food and education in terms of importance.
In announcing his country’s decision, the director general of Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), Carin Jämtin, said just as much: he called abortion, under the blanket title sexual and reproductive health and rights, a “prerequisite” for education.
In neither of these cases did the same online horde that arose, like a swarm of flies around fresh cow dung in an African cowshed, rise up to defend poor old Africa.
This offers a great insight into the sincerity of the supposed defenders of Africa. And says a lot for how easily a system of politics based solely on power and being offended can miss what is truly important.
When everybody rose up against Macron, they didn’t offer much to celebrate except the same old “your statement is offensive so it is wrong” narrative that now defines politics in the so-called civilised world.
No objective truth was at stake. Just the pricked feelings of an overactive online community.
So I have decided that I want none of it. I am an African, and I know Africa’s wealth is in her children, of whom I am one.
Whoever challenges this is just wrong. And I don’t care whether he does it as the President of France or as the person who doesn’t like the way the President of France does it.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.