July 6, 2005

Woe The Bicycle


(If this sounds callous at first, bear with me.) 

Perhaps the real obstacle to helping Africa (and the tens of thousands of children like this) is that we can’t take enough interest in the bicycle.  In other words, it’s easy for the West to feel it’s heartstrings for this boy in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, but the case is entirely different when it comes to generating the kind of focus and ongoing concern for the broken structures (the countries and it’s internal institutions) necessary to get the people off their feet and going somewhere under their own power.

In James Traub’s article, The Congo Case, in the last NYT Magazine, the maddening political dynamics of that country could be represented by this two-wheeler.  If the idea is to “seat the populace,” it seems there’s no way for that to happen without the tandem wheels of a viable political and economic structure.  And then, you need a legitimate political base (consisting of a politically aware population and a reasonably honest professional class) to pedal. 

Where you would expect to find plenty of strong wheels in a country with the rich resources of the Congo, however, instead you find a thoroughly corrupt government with the aim of enriching itself, and a network of warlords and tribal leaders that make a mockery of a working government by colluding as legislators.  Sadly, the corruption seems to have also compromised the international organizations on the scene that have, otherwise, moved the situation out of anarchy.

If the hard politics don’t form a clear or compelling picture, however, how are well intentioned Westerners supposed to access the problem?  And, do these kinds of images — as seductive as they are — actually get in the way of a more clear eyed focus as to what’s underneath?

(Revised: 6/6/05. 2:32 PST)

(image: Karel Prinsloo/AP. Friday, July 1, 2005. Nairobi. In Yahoo News.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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