Ithaca College hosted Katie Meyler, the founder of More Than Me, on April 22 for a talk that drew a rather enthusiastic audience, which filled up most of Emerson Suites. Following Meyler’s talk, many students in the audience approached me, an open critic of the organization, about how negatively Liberia was portrayed. They felt that the presentation implied that Liberia and Liberians were the cause of their problems and needed some outside Western help.
In her interview with The Ithacan, Meyler said many of the students who opposed her organization were those who had not been to Africa at all. I am a Sri Lankan who grew up in Africa. The reality is that most of us who are critics are also African, have lived in African countries and whose parents are still in Africa.
By no means am I stating that Liberia, or any country for that matter, is perfect. While problems exist, they should not become the identity of an entire nation, let alone a continent. I’ve heard the words “famine,” “rape,” “civil war” and “poverty” used synonymously with the word “Africa” far too many times. Last semester, More Than Me peaked on campus and people were excited about “voting for Abigail” by a simple click of a few buttons. Is this our idea of changing the world?
This form of “charity” is reshaping and changing the way we see the world and our roles in it. These initiatives take the voice and identity away from the people they claim to represent. The way societies in the developing world are presented creates a sense of hopelessness and fortifies the myth that only outside organizations can create a solution. But only the power of self-liberation can set the people of a particular country free. It is this understanding — that the ability to move toward prosperity and development is not only within the hands of, but is also the sole responsibility of, the citizens of a country — that will truly liberate them. The continent of Africa is no longer identified by its beautiful and varied landscape from country to country, as the most diverse continent in the world nor as a place of amazing resources and unfathomable greatness. Instead, Africa is identified today as the continent that has lost all hope and the continent whose people can only be saved by outsiders.
I am speaking as an individual who, for far too long, has witnessed the voices of people from all over the developing world be dominated by individuals who are not and have not been members of those respective societies. To those of you who truly want to make a difference, and I am sure there are many, please understand the historical context of the discourse you are getting into. I urge you to understand the ramifications of how you present people because, in reality, they are not just pictures or videos of inanimate objects on a presentation; these are people who have had their voices taken away when they are more than capable of liberating themselves and those around them. These are people who do not need any more motivation or empowerment to climb out of a situation, because their entire lives are the very motivation they need. These are people who do not need college students thousands of miles away to tell them what or who they are. Instead, they are people who need you to fight and question the international institutional restrictions placed upon them to succeed.
Please, listen to our voices before you pass judgment on our countries and before you prescribe and broadcast solutions while casting our societies in an extremely negative light.