Reflections on Chapter 7, “Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It”

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Chapter 7, Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It, 155-179]

The title of Chapter 7, Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It, may seem a bit confounding upon first glance. However, after reading the chapter it seems to perfectly encapsulate the ideas that Mathers presents. Africa is the suffering beauty. It is a wondrous landscape where the people prevail in spite of their suffering; they suffer with beauty (Pg 155, 161). Additionally, the movement to ‘save Africa’ accepts that this natural beauty, of the continent and its inhabitants, is an integral part of Africa’s identity. As such, it compels individuals to ‘save Africa’ in a way that will preserve this beauty (Pg 155). In this chapter these themes follow the American exchange students as they first arrive in Africa, all the way through to their return home to America. Mathers’ also strengthens these themes by providing additional examples from the media and excerpts from exchange students’ journal entries.

Poverty in media representations of Africa is the first major theme tackled by Mathers in this chapter. Celebrities, in particular, have made poverty the central issue in their campaign to ‘save Africa’ (Pg 155-157). As such, poverty “has become an entry point for an encounter with Africa” (Pg 157). The perceived ubiquity and severity of poverty in Africa, and the profound impact that it can have on a traveller, was reflected in the journal entries of several American exchange students in Cape Town. However, these students also noted that there was resilience and hopefulness in these people, in spite of their situation (Pg 160-162). The ability of the African people to be “happy despite having nothing” (Pg 161) is the second theme Mathers addresses. In particular, she emphasizes the way in which the resilience of the African people later informs both an American sense of identity and development agendas in Africa.

As Mathers moves further into her discussion on representations of Africa she comments on the way in which Africa is constructed as an “exotic space” and a “cultural landscape” (Pg 163). Although there are many urban landscapes, Africa is still perceived as being “primordial” and “primeval” (Pg 164). In this third theme, Mathers expresses concern over how these perceptions inform development agendas and also how they amount to an erasure of the multiple peoples and places which comprise the continent (Pg 175).

Development agendas seek to save the peoples of Africa from the problems which plague their continent, while also preserving the natural beauty there within. As the subtitle of this chapter articulates, people seek to save Africa without changing it. Mathers bundles all of these ideas up in her fourth theme: American identity. The writings of the exchange students reflect how they experienced poverty in Africa and how, through this, they also began to fully realize the privilege of being American. Many of the students felt that this privilege came with a duty to give back to Africa. The “African smiling in the face of terrible conditions” (Pg 162) helped to further construct the notions of how they could ‘save Africa.’

Mathers comments on how students reoriented their goals and career aspirations upon their return home. Africa had changed them, and many of them wanted to find ways to give back. Mathers, however, seems to suggest that these desires simply fit the ‘save Africa’ narrative that she has been developing throughout the course of this book. The author grants one exception to this narrative, however, Casey. Mathers attributes a genuineness to Casey’s desire to help Africa over that of her classmates. She writes that Casey chose to “make her contribution to East Africa not to the United States” (Pg 168). It is not clear, however, why the other students’ contributions were not also for Africa. Our class discussions regarding Chapter 5 noted the stronger relationships Mathers had forged with Corey, Maria and Megan than the rest of the group and how this may have affected her analysis of them. In this chapter, Mathers’ close relationship with Casey seems to emerge as a bias in her analysis of Casey’s intentions and motivations over the other exchange students who also participated in her project. This raises important questions for anthropologists and researchers alike. For one, how close of a relationship should an ethnographer/ researcher maintain with their participants? Additionally, can intimate relationships be forged between researcher and participant without impacting the researcher’s interpretation and analysis? This idea has come up several times throughout the course of our semester in class discussions. In general, it is agreed that intimate relationships can be formed with participants without affecting the final analysis of the researcher. However, it is incumbent upon the researcher to note this potential bias and keep it ever present in their minds when they do undertake analysis of their work.

Another issue which emerged for me in Mathers’ work was the occasional misinterpretation of ideas. The first clear example of this was in Chapter 2 where she analyzed a joke delivered on the improvisational comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? Mathers writes:

 The host Drew Carey described Madagascar as “the island off the coast of that country Africa.” The actors thought it was funny that he could not tell the difference between a continent and a country, but the joke falls flat given how common such a misconception is. (Pg 52)

The first time I read this I was surprised by her comments. I could not tell if she had purposefully misconstrued the joke or if she truly had not understood it. Drew Carey was making fun of American ignorance or, more kindly phrased, lack of knowledge. That was the joke. Had he actually thought Africa was a country this would not be a joke, it would simply be a fact. As a professional comedian his job is ta make jokes, not facts.

Similarly in this chapter, when speaking of how the exchange students perceived there to be a “richness [which] comes from poverty” (Pg 162) there seems to be a misattribution again on the author’s part. The exchange students were moved to see the way in which many of the Africans were able to handle their problems. Problems which they had never seen the like of in America. They could smile, be happy, and even generous in spite of their lack of material things. Mathers depicts this, however, as the students belief that “living without is somehow OK, even redeeming, at least for ‘others’” (Pg 162). I believe that the students were more reflexive about this issue. Many of the problems which we face in North America, and often complain about, seem so trivial. Additionally, our handling of these matters would seem somewhat shameful in light of what the students experienced in Africa. That is what the students were reflecting on. That is also why they experienced a degree of culture shock when they returned home (Pg 165- 167). Their experience had changed them, but their families and friends remained, more or less, the same.

Overall, this book has generated a great deal of discussion amongst our class, both good and bad. Many of us, my fellow classmates and myself, would agree that most of the ideas presented by Mathers are interesting and generally on point. However, as one of my classmates articulated, they never seem to fully develop. As such, most of the themes presented in this chapter have also been touched on in many of the other chapters. Mathers’ provides copious examples, whether from the media or from travel journals kept by participants, to support her claims but she never seems to delve more deeply into the issues she is presenting. Unfortunately, this leaves the reader expectantly awaiting a deeper analysis but never encountering one.

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