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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Helping The Poor, The Desperate, And The Forgotten - An African Musical Comedy

Henry Lucas had had what prospective employers had called 'a service motive', a desire to help others, do the right thing, and make something of others rather than himself.  Corporate executive after corporate executive had read his resume and listened patiently to his story of good works and summarily filed away his application. 

After a few of these disappointing and discouraging interviews, Henry changed his tune, blended more private enterprise and competition into his chorus, but was seen through.  The music of enterprise fell discordantly on true believers, and he was left on the curb time and again. 

Maybe there was something to the label, he thought.  Perhaps a life in the trenches was exactly what he sought.  Certainly more meaning was to be found there than in the Goodyear or Continental Can boardrooms; and so it was that he began a career of helping those in need, specifically in the most blighted, pestilential places in the world, of course in Africa.  He was not content to work in those countries where the edge of colonialism still afforded French cheese, fruits de mer, and sundowners on bougainvillea-trellised verandahs.  No, for him, only Conrad country would do, the heart of darkness, the tribal omphalos of the continent. 

Finding a suitable position in one of these blighted places was not difficult.  Any foreign aid worker in his right mind would choose Dakar, Abidjan, or Nairobi as a settling-down place, a place of five-star comfort, upscale dining, and cool sanctuaries from the heat and dust.  

Henry did not eschew such comfort out of empathy for the poor, but out of an almost spiritual wish for enlightenment. He was a pilgrim on a mission, on a journey to San Juan de Compostela and the snows of Mt. Kailash. Helping the poor to clean water, better health and education and perhaps even a scintilla of happiness would elevate both him and them into a higher, better realm of being. 

Needless to say, life would not turn out the way Henry had envisioned it.  The country he had chosen, little different from the many others mired in poverty, ruled by venal, autocratic Big Men, divided by civil war and internecine conflict - malarial swamps of political rot. 

'Mr. Lucas', said the Big Man's First Secretary, elegantly dressed in tribal finery, scented with sandalwood, his long robe embroidered in gold and stitched with Koranic verses, 'I am afraid you don't understand', and from there came a long monologue of African destiny.  The Big Man had come from modest beginnings and owed everything to his family, his clan, and his tribe who would be repaid in that order, explained the First Secretary; and so the largess of the American government would not be wasted.  By supporting those who had supported him, both they and the Big Man would benefit, and a new model of human enterprise would replace the old, colonial, and Western-dominated one. 

'We are African', said the First Secretary, shooting the elegantly tailored cuffs of his linen robe, 'first, last, and foremost'. 

All of which meant, of course, that Henry was to ignore the government's rampant nepotism, bald-faced diversion of public monies to private coffers, and the total indifference to the developmental goals which were high on the State Department's agenda. 

It was a rude awakening for such a good man, but Henry was not daunted.  'Every problem has a solution', his favorite uncle had once told him as he struggled with quadratic equations, 'in algebra and in life'. So it was with renewed energy that he took on the first task entrusted to him - improving the living conditions of the worst slum in the city. 

Henry had not been prepared for his first trip to Cite Joyeux, a pestilential colony of open sewers, tubercular women, piles of spoiled vegetables and rotten fish, pushcarts of vile intestines and offal, the cheap leavings of animals carted in from Le Plateau, the neighborhood of the country's elite and the home of the First Secretary.  It was a disgusting, hopeless place. Naked children played in the garbage, trash, and litter along with skeletal, mangy dogs. 

The 'Citadel of Hope' was a local, non-governmental organization run by the niece of the Big Man, set up by him to launder monies provided by the EU for 'humane and eleemosynary' activities.  It was housed in a simple, familiar cement building common in all African countries; but inside the air conditioning was frigid, bright floral bouquets were arrayed in polished brass planters, the women were elegantly dressed in silk boubous and elaborately arranged headdresses. Tea was being served. 

Nothing was ever done here - there were no bags of donated food, no syringes or medical equipment, no bandages, swabs, or disinfectant; no books or clothing - and the only one who worked was the accountant whose ledger recorded the ins and outs of Germany's monies. 

Henry was greeted warmly and ceremoniously by the Director who offered him coffee and croissants. She was an impressive lady, tall and elegant.  Her skin was burnished mahogany, her Oriental almond eyes touched with mascara and a light shading of blue.  She was gorgeous. 

The Director hoped that he was comfortable at the hotel arranged by the Big Man himself. 'I hear the pool is marvelous', she said. 'Have you tried the capitaine a l'anise'?  I hear that it's marvelous'; but the conversations soon turned to the poor of Cite Joyeux.  'Yes, its pitiable', the Director said, shaking her head, 'but that's why we're here; and I might add why we are particularly happy to have you with us'. 

She of course had heard of the generosity and commitment to the poor of Henry's patrons, and assured him that it would be used wisely and well.  He explained the purpose of his visit - to chart out an operational plan which included public works, community enterprise, environmental education and training. 

'More coffee?', she asked, gesturing to the servant behind her, and over a second cup Henry heard of her ambitious plans to create a model neighborhood, one of paved streets and streetlights, shops of silken goods and jewelry, new schools and uniforms for all, small business enterprise and full employment. 

'The first tranche of your funds will be for the rehabilitation of Avenue Alphonse Ngoma', she said referring to the main thoroughfare of the community, now a rutted, potholed, muddy cow path.  Despite his demurral, citing his agency's reluctance to provide funds for infrastructure, knowing how easily contractor funds were diverted and misused, the Director persisted. 

 "But this is an African project, Mr. Henry', she said, 'to be run by Africans, administered by Africans, and decided upon by Africans' to which there was no answer, for all development agencies had vowed to become inclusive and respectful of their African partners.  Social integrity was even more important than proper environmental hygiene. 

Things went from bad to worse for Henry.  Disabused in his first weeks in country of his notions of doing good - the First Secretary and the Director had set the tone, the agenda, and the ordre du jour of his mission right from the start - he found that at every turn there was a hand in the till, a busy accountant, and no-show operations. 

He appealed to higher and higher up, both in the beneficiary government ranks and the State Department.  'You don't get it', said the Secretary of the Interior.  'Your country wants to give us money more than we want to receive it', said the Secretary of Health and Environmental Affairs. 'That's the way it is, unfortunately', said the USAID Director. 'Let it play'. 

Henry was reminded of his mother’s gag order for most topics at dinner.  Guests could come, enjoy the guinea hen and foie gras, leave at a reasonable hour and certainly wonder why they bothered. Being at one of her dinner parties was like being in a musical comedy. Everyone knew and played their part – the ingĂ©nue, the generous uncle, the handsome leading man, the object of his affections, the upstart, and the single lady.  It was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, My Fair Lady, High Society, and Hello Dolly. The men wore tuxes and the ladies long dresses.  They spoke well, behaved mischievously, and all ended happily together.

Image result for images musical my fair lady

African development was in a perverse, ironic way no different.  Looked at without censure and missionary appeal, it was a musical comedy of errors, a play of wit and deception, a melodrama of predictable twists and turns all set to a bright score. 

Henry's part had been written for him and he didn't even know it.  He was to be the international boulevardier, sipping champagne by the pool at his five-star hotel, entertaining elegant African women working desultory hours, and after a four-course French lunch, retiring for a siesta and a final appearance in the slums. 

Surprised that a man of such principle and rectitude, a self-described moral pilgrim could fall so far from the rails?  That's what a steady diet of venality, indifference, and personality does for you.  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em is another way of saying the same thing.  Anything can be epiphanic, even existential; and Henry Lucas found himself in Africa. 

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