Why Africans offer little help after Katrina

September 21, 2005|By Laura Hambleton

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The South African chapter of the Girl Scouts held a bake sale last week for victims of Hurricane Katrina at my children's international school. My 13-year-old daughter donated a pan of brownies for the cause, dusting them with powdered sugar.

Selling chocolate chip cookies, brownies and Rice Krispies treats, the girls raised about $100, which they handed over to the Red Cross.

Not much more has been forthcoming from South Africa, or from other African countries. In fact, the South African Red Cross told me it has received five donations for the American disaster after a recent appeal. South Africans have been quiet on the wreckage of Katrina and its aftermath, except for expressions of astonishment that the response was so chaotic.

Poverty in America is hard to see from across an ocean. South Africans, as much of the world, know the U.S. through TV shows such as Desperate Housewives and movies such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They see beautiful people in beautiful homes in beautiful neighborhoods.

The images of New Orleans crumbling before the cameras, dead people floating in the streets, abandoned residents waiting to be rescued and looters, were shocking for Americans, but even more so for those living in developing countries. A South African told me she couldn't believe the suicides, the rapes and the mayhem in the Superdome. "It is as though the world has gone mad," she said.

Perhaps it was these images that turned South Africans' hearts cold and engendered a sense of disgust in Africans, said Leslie Mondo, the secretary-general of the Red Cross here. "During the tsunami, we saw small children running around helpless without their parents," he said. "That draws on the emotions. The visuals were heart-wrenching. New Orleans wasn't."

But he added, "We will have to analyze why Africans were not prepared to help African-Americans."

Tragedy is not so far from everyday life in Africa, even in a country such as South Africa, which feels like a thriving place. Consider these facts from a recent issue of National Geographic: Fifty percent of Africans live on less than $1 a day; of the 38 nations the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank list as the poorest in the world, 32 are in Africa; life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is 46.

Those statistics alone are heart wrenching. Couple them with a disaster, natural or man-made, and governments are challenged to respond. Last week, for instance, 156 homes burned down in a slum near Johannesburg. The government offered each victim one blanket, five corrugated zinc sheets and grocery store vouchers worth about $90.

Poverty is ever with us, as my children pass by a huge slum every day on their way to school. With that in mind, my 8-year-old told me recently that Africans shouldn't be expected to give. "People are poor here," he said. "They don't have money to give away. It's OK."

But is it? As the Red Cross' Mr. Mondo suggested, the lack of support - and perhaps the lack of empathy - from Africans should be looked at more closely. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said after Katrina struck that Americans are the first to help victims of any disaster. We are, but usually with strings attached. We too often come to countries - especially African ones - with thick ears and big feet.

No wonder that in our hour of need, Africa isn't listening. Will we hear the lesson in that?

Laura Hambleton is a freelance writer based in Pretoria, South Africa.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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