All of Us Are African

There's an exchange in the film Beyond the Gates that transcends the script, transcends even the Rwandan genocide. It illumines a subtle mood in the West, a deficit of empathy toward Africa that persists 20 years later. Rachel, the BBC reporter, tells Joe, the schoolteacher, that she cried every day covering the Bosnian genocide, but in Rwanda, "not a tear." Then she makes an unforgettable confession: "Any time I saw a dead Bosnian woman, a white woman, I thought that could be my mum. Over here, they're just dead Africans."

What is it about Africa that makes so many of us tune out and turn away? Is it guilt about the devastation our ancestors wreaked through colonialism and slavery? Is it subliminal racism (among Anglos, at least) toward the millions of Africans who are black? Is it the impression that the continent is hopeless, that the wars and coups and corruption and famine and disease we've seen in the headlines prove that Africa is a problem without a solution? Or is it, as Rachel puts it in the film, that, "we're all just selfish pieces of work in the end"?

Whatever the source of the poison, there is an antidote. The human heart is moved to empathy when we see our own faces in the faces of strangers. What we need is an undistorted lens of perception--part prism and part mirror--that can separate our prejudices from the truth at the core of our humanity: that the blood that runs in my veins is the same blood that runs in the veins of a Rwandan, a Zambian, a South African, and so on, that beneath the epidermis of ethnicity and culture and language and history we are all the same.

One might think that experience is the lens. But sense knowledge is insufficient. We can see something with our eyes, hear it with our ears, and still shrug it off with our hearts. For empathy to happen, experience must connect with feeling.

The lens we need is story.

There is a reason that story is the world's oldest language. It teaches us who we are. It awakens the conscience to right and wrong. It conveys truth in the vernacular of the heart. As a novelist, I admit I am biased, but I have seen the humanizing effects of story in my own life, both in the works of others and in researching my own work, including my recent novel about Southern Africa, The Garden of Burning Sand.

It was a story, in fact, that inspired Garden--the story of a Zambian girl with Down syndrome who had been raped by a neighbor and whose abuser never would have seen the inside of a jail cell if not for a team of courageous non-profit lawyers who intervened and ensured that justice was served. I traveled to Zambia and spent time with these lawyers and with their colleagues in medicine, law enforcement, and development, investigating the epidemic of gender-based violence in their community. I went into the compounds and met kids with intellectual disabilities--a little boy with cerebral palsy whose parents weren't feeding him, a child with Down syndrome who loved to laugh. I spent time in South Africa with epidemiologists and health workers who care for people living with HIV. The stories I heard broke my heart and made me fall in love with Africa.

My goal as a storyteller is simple--to evoke empathy in my readers. In writing The Garden of Burning Sand, I hoped to bring Africa alive in all its splendor and brokenness; to give faces and names to women and girls who suffer in distant lands but who are no different from our own mothers and daughters; to remind us that gender-based violence is a human problem, not an African problem--that rape and abuse happen all around us; and to inspire us in the West to extend our efforts to protect the most vulnerable in Africa and the developing world from exploitation and provide life-saving medical care to those who cannot afford it.

It doesn't take a celebrity like Bono or a philanthropist like Bill Gates to care about the future of Africa. All it takes is a person honest enough to admit what science and religion already tell us: we all come from the same womb. In the end, all of us are African because all of us are human.