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March 8, 2013

American “Wants” and African “Needs”

, March 8, 2013

By Ashton Nichols

I have only been to Sub-Saharan Africa once, for 17 days, to Cameroon with a Dickinson Faculty Study Group in 2006 (I have also spent 10 days in Morocco, but North Africa is a different world from the Sub-Saharan regions). What struck me most powerfully and consistently during my stay in Cameroon was the difference between human “wants” and human “needs.” My daughter had studied for a semester in Cameroon four years earlier, and she had come back with a Cameroonian boyfriend, and with tales of a remarkable country that she had come to admire and to want to understand, although she said that understanding it would take a long time, because Cameroon was a complicated place–probably just like most places.

From the moment we arrived in the airport near Yaounde, I was struck by the contrast between what people want and what people need. The young boys who crowded around us, as soon as we had made our way through Cameroonian customs, did not want to grab our heavy bags and carry them out to the waiting van; they needed to do so. They had the look of that need in their eyes, and they acted upon that need with the speed and the non-negotiable vigor with which they grabbed our bags–at first we thought we were being robbed; then they carried our luggage out to the waiting van. Our Cameroonian host soon put our fears to rest–he said:

“It’s fine; they are just helping out; you can give me a tip if you would like to do so, and I will see that they get taken care of.”

What a nice phrase: to “get taken care of”; who would not want to “get taken care of”? I know I would. So our host took our tips, and the young boys ran to our van, literally dragged to the ground by the weight of our heavy Western bags full of our needs: our cosmetics and our health products (our antacids, our cough lozenges, our aspirin, and our face creams). Then these “carriers” climbed up on top of our van, after they had lashed our bags onto the roof-rack, and then this group of young boys–probably ten of them, ranging in age from 11 to 16–grabbed onto that big pile of luggage and hung on for dear life as we raced down the highway to Yaounde, traveling at least 50-60 miles per hour. When we realized where they were, we craned our necks out of the van’s side-windows and said, “Look at that! They are up on the roof.” “Do you realize that they are up on the roof?”

When we got to our hotel, sure enough, all of our bags were soon there on the ground, still full of all of ourwants, and those young boys unloaded them for us, and they set our bags at our feet, and our host paid them off, with our mostly American currency–which they wanted–and then they disappeared into the dark Cameroonian night, off to use our money to take care of their needs.

For the next two-and-a-half weeks I saw the difference between American “wants” and African “needs.” We Americans wanted to see the sights of Africa: we saw African palaces, and rain forests, and wild animals, and beaches. We also wanted to eat wonderful African foods: we ate fried fish and delicious plantains and sweet fresh fruits, and we drank luscious Cameroonian coffee. Meanwhile, many of the Africans around usneeded many things: they needed better housing, or better health care, better transportation, or better diets. This was surely not true of all of the Africans we met by any means; many of the people we encountered were very well-to-do, or even affluent, by Western standards. But needs were also around us all of the time while we were in Africa; we could feel those needs in certain settings: in certain shops and certain restaurants, in certain market stalls and certain street corners.

When Ruth and Peter Bechtel spoke recently about their experiences with resource-extraction in Mozambique, I thought about this difference between wants and needs. I thought that we Americans wantnatural gas, because it will reduce the cost of our home heating bills, and it will assuage our “climate change” guilt about burning coal (for electricity) and oil (in our furnaces). But Africans need many–if not most–of the resources they extract to stabilize their economies or to provide for the basics of their lives. They need minerals that will fuel their national economic expansion, or they need precious metals that will raise their basic standard of living and fuel our Western computer industry: our IPADs and Blackberries, our cellphones and laptops.

Most of what we have in America now is primarily what we want. Much of what people have in Africa now is mostly what they need. We Americans need to spend more time thinking about this difference, and then perhaps we will want to help bring about the changes that will improve this imbalance.


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