President Donald Trump evoked the world’s fury by referring to African countries and Haiti as “shithole countries” (although some claim he said “shithouse” – no less offensive). Trump’s unpresidential remarks led to vocal condemnation throughout the African continent.
One of the most vocal responses came from the Botswana Government, which referred to the comments as “irresponsible, reprehensible and racist,” and summoned the U.S. ambassador to “express its displeasure.”
— Botswana Government (@BWGovernment) January 12, 2018
Ordinary citizens also took to Twitter to respond to the despicable, crude comments.
No, we are no shitholes countries
The African Union spokesperson Ebba Kalondo said, “Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice.”
The days after January 11, trending hashtags in response to Trump’s words, included
#Shitholecountries, #WhatMakesMyCountryAShithole #Myshithole, with Africans from different countries sharing the beauty, culture, resources and brains of their countries.
— KhayelihleKhumalo (@KhayaJames) January 12, 2018
I’m a future News Editor.
I’m a Journalism & Media Studies Postgraduate Student.
I have 3 degrees.
I speak 6 languages.
I‘m a 2018 Hazelhurst Fellow.
I’m a Postgraduate Merit Award holder.
I’m from a #ShitHole country 🇿🇦 pic.twitter.com/DYadcLXNxI
— Takalani Sioga (@TakalaniSioga) January 12, 2018
Namibians even found a way to use humour to share more about their country.
“Nambia” making good use of Donald Trump’s shithole comment to promote their country. Great job Namibia! pic.twitter.com/pfpLZxKTA2
— Deji Faremi (@deejayfaremi) January 17, 2018
But not everyone was condemning Trump. Some African voices supported Trump’s statements by listing the challenges that afflict a good percentage of the population on the continent.
‘Shithole’ counties stink of corruption, tribalism theft of public resources, electoral fraud n self-imposed underdevelopment. Trump is right about us.
— Edward Kisiang’ani (@ekisiangani) January 14, 2018
Others advised that instead of being enraged, citizens should focus on the work that needs to be done to lift people out of poverty. Togolese human rights activist Farida Nabourema argued that the photos shared through the hashtags would not do much to change the perception of the continent.
We can try to justify as much as we want that #Africa is rich, beautiful, educated but that will not change how other people see us: a bunch of starving savages who kill one another. For as long as we don’t collectively lift our people out of poverty the world will not respect us
— Farida Nabourema (@Farida_N) January 13, 2018
Some called for reflection and hard work to ensure this perception is changed and challenged.
I pray that we as Africans & people of the African Diaspora continue to work tirelessly to build more beauty in our land(s) so that no one can find any single reason to call our nations #ShitholeCountries. Let this be a catalyst for courageous leadership and righteous governance.
— Jidenna (@Jidenna) January 13, 2018
The danger with trying to justify Trump’s racism – or even respond to it in a way that counters the ‘shithole’ narrative – is that these quick reactions ignore Trump’s deliberate campaign to dehumanize immigrants.
Egyptian-American feminist writer Mona Eltahawy reminded us that our humanity should not be something we have defend.
I am sad to see all the “Reasons My Country Isn’t a Shithole” articles/tweets out there. Trump’s racism & hate cannot be the default we all must respond to. We owe no one a defense of our humanity. https://t.co/qpxuEP2gVi
— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) January 13, 2018
Karwitha Kirimi, a writer from Nairobi said Africans should be more concerned with how they view themselves than how others view them.
It’s tiring for African people to have to keep correcting what racists think of us.
To paraphrase Chimamanda, it’s time to be more concerned about how Africa sees herself rather than how the west sees her.
— Karwitha Kirimi (@KarwithaKirimi) January 12, 2018
Showing how the U.S./West contribute to precarious situations faced in many of the countries on the continent, Kenyan writer Cherrie Kandie highlighted how unfair economics in a globalized neoliberal system have kept large parts of countries like Congo on the brink, and many of Africa’s citizens surviving on very little while companies in U.S./West continue reaping the benefits:
“Tell me if you see the blood that covers your diamond necklace. Or your chocolate. Can you smell the blood? Can you taste it? Do you know where that cocoa comes from? How much of the value actually gets back to the Ghanaian and Cote d’Ivorian children that grow it? You know that farmers that grow the cocoa that makes your chocolate are too poor to actually afford chocolate? Take your Starbucks coffee tomorrow morning and understand that only 5 per cent of the $10 you spend goes back to the Kenyan and Ethiopian farmers that forgo growing food crops to grow your coffee.”
The reactions calling on Africans to go to work to improve their image and lift themselves out of poverty plays on the narrative that Africans are not working hard enough, but also disregards the interconnected nature of our challenges that historically goes back to inequality-propelling-global systems – not to mention colonial legacy.
In some ways showing off photos of upscale parts of our countries, and the intellect and qualifications of our people, kind of falls for Trump’s idea that only “best brains” deserve to immigrate.
Yes we see everyday unrestricted access to Western migrants (many would call themselves expats) irrespective of their academic qualifications to countries Trump called “shitholes.” The most massively visible one is Portuguese migration to African countries when their economy hit the rock bottom around 2010.
While a lot more needs to be done to ensure the youth bulge in Africa is met with right policies to bring more jobs, the idea that migration should be reserved for the educated – in Trump’s view a preserve of white people from Global North – is racist and impractical because migration is as old as humankind.
We have to remind ourselves that the majority of Africans migrate within Africa. At least 80 per cent of immigrants who come to West African nations are from other African states, according to a report from the International Organization for Migration (IMO).
Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor for The Washington Post, pointed to the role media has played in promoting Trump’s brand of thinking.
There are going to be a lot of outraged media think pieces about Trump’s “shithole” comments.
But lets not forget how the media has long dehumanized Africa and its people by only covering war, poverty, disease, and political malaise.
That is, if Africa is covered at all.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) January 12, 2018
The same sentiment was echoed by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice Chancellor at United States International University – Africa, in a post on LinkedIn. He said “Trump’s derogatory dismissal of shithole Haiti and Africa reflects enduring tendencies in the American social imaginary about Africa and its Diasporas.” He wrote at length about this generalization and homogenization of Africa.
“When it comes to the homogenization of Africa and dehumanization of Africans the lines between the angels and the devil are blurred. This is to urge the liberal media and academics to engage in critical self-reflection on how they represent Africa. There is now a large literature on the invention of Africa, the construction of distorted images about Africa. It is clear that Africa suffers from what the renowned Nigerian novelist, Cimamanda Adichie, calls the danger of a single story.“
John J Streamlau, Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa calls for even more radical ways countries can go beyond words of protest.
“African governments and non-governmental groups are right to voice outrage in reaction to Trump’s outbursts, and to criticise his behaviour. But they need to do more. They can encourage and cooperate directly with those in Congress, African-Americans and the growing network of civil society groups opposed to Trump.”
So while there’s no one way to respond to a demagogic and crude president, we should be mindful not to play into his own hatred. Africans should continue on this journey of seeking to define themselves in their various ways, while pushing back using both words and action against racism and imperialism.