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Why Africans should not aspire to be Americans

"When Africans envision the US as a model country to emulate, I raise an eyebrow."
1975
A community near the Sabi Sands reserve

There is a widespread belief in Africa that life is just better in the US. In fact, this belief is also shared by many Americans. I have a colleague who strongly argues that things are much better in America today than they were centuries ago. However, whether or not one agrees with this view really depends on one’s priorities and what one considers important in life. I have lived in the US for the most part of my life, but I have never felt like I belonged here. For those who consider community to be the most important thing in life, there is just no place for us in a hyper-individualistic country like the US. Here is why.

As someone who subscribes to the Ubuntu philosophy of life, I believe that human beings exist in relation to others. Without this relationship, all our lives would be meaningless. Accordingly, my life only matters when considered in light of who I am in relation to others. Otherwise, I am a footnote in the life of my community, an anonymous name in the cemetery. For instance, the reason it would be sad if I died today is because I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a coworker. My belief in this conception of life is so deep that I consider it to be the objective truth, despite what American society today may try to teach us. Word to Kamala Harris, we didn’t just fall out of a coconut tree.

So, when Africans envision the US as a model country to emulate, I raise an eyebrow. This is a place where my coworker argues that things are better today than they were centuries ago and, in the same breath, she tells me that she hasn’t talked to her parents in x amount of time. Africans need to ask themselves: “Is having a big house and a fancy car a fair trade-off for isolation from your loved ones? Is signing into a social media platform to see pictures of strangers and celebrities still net positive when you feel suffocating loneliness?”

In Africa and elsewhere, many believe that individuals may die, but communities live for hundreds of years. In my view, this is the most important truth there could ever be. It means that we ought to live our lives in the service of our community. That is the only way to live a meaningful life – one that makes a positive impact on our communities. Yet, it goes against the individualism promoted in the US.

In the US, profit comes before any other considerations. Life here feels like the people are a means to an end. Rather than being members of loving communities, we are mere consumers whose well-being is an afterthought in conversations about our way of life. That feeling is deeply disorienting.

Consider this. A few months ago, I came across a video of someone sharing how their sister had recently passed away from colorectal cancer. The person added that she would have to live without her younger sister. Younger sister? The person telling the story herself looked very young. So, how could someone even younger have died of colorectal cancer?

I was disturbed, but I said to myself: “Oh well, there are outliers in everything.” A few days later, another video came on my feed. And another one. A few more. So, I researched what colorectal cancer is and what causes it, because the hypochondriac in me wouldn’t rest until I found reassurance that these were all still just outliers. Unfortunately, colorectal cancer in young people is on the rise in the U.S. And what’s to blame? Almost exclusively the food we consume. This is very alarming, and yet those who complain about the issue are gaslighted by a society that doesn’t care. We are told not to be too dramatic. How did American society get to the point that having cars that drive themselves and going to the moon are now prioritized over the worrisome tragedies of 20-year-olds dying from diseases that once affected only people in their 50s and 60s?

Looking at the general indifference towards this issue, any African driven by Ubuntu values would ask, “Is this what progress looks like?”

In a hyper-individualistic society, yes.

We don’t care about the fact that baby foods are increasingly becoming poisonous. So, how do you fix a society where children die from the food they consume, and people don’t just care? How do you fix a society where people are so afraid, unprincipled, and directionless that not only do they not take to the streets to protest against issues like this, but they keep buying products from and endorsing the people who are killing the children? Anyone with an ounce of humanity in them would be rattled to live in a society that promotes such people as successful business moguls to emulate. But their victims don’t spring us into action or force us to realign our moral compasses. As it stands, individuals are so self-centred that no collective action to advance the greater good of our communities is possible. Is this what Africans aspire to?

I used to get frustrated because I thought we, Americans, are just arrogant, ignorant and selfish. I still think those things about us. Only now, I also think we are victims of this cruel system. Americans will hear scary statistics like 80 per cent of them are living paycheck to paycheckand drive past multiple homeless people on their way to work, yet no red flags will go off in their minds. They will hear about how young people are dying from cancers, and still, nothing in them will say: “Hhmm, that doesn’t even make sense!” Then there is the very well-known fact that we have cars today in the US that cost more than houses did just a few moons ago, and yet Americans chalk this up to work ethic. They uncritically embrace the miserable life conditions imposed by our corporations; it’s not even out of malice for them not to care about dying children. Clearly, there is no sense of community in our society to address the challenges we face. Surprisingly, this is the society many Africans promote as the ideal to aspire to.

Questioning assumptions about America is critical given its undeniable influence on the world, which is neither earned nor deserved. Unfortunately, even more than its attempts to spread “democracy,” the thing America has been most successful at, maybe even unintentionally, is spreading individualism around the world. This is America’s biggest crime. Individualism strips people of their humanity and replaces it with an exaggerated sense of self. This sense of self creates the illusion that an individual can work their way out of avoiding the bad things in life, like homelessness, unemployment, or even diseases and ageing. Meanwhile, the community prioritizes and enforces the responsibility we all have for each other. In the former, the “solutions” are so individual-centred that we don’t even realize we aren’t really solving any problems, only pushing them onto someone else.

Africans should not emulate America’s way of life. They should die on the hill that there is nothing in this world worth having if the price to pay is our quality of life, our morals, our humanity and our connection to one another.

For Americans and those who wish to emulate them, the sooner they heal from the assumption that there is greater meaning in material things than in our well-being as communities, the sooner they can stop being exploited. The sooner people realize that climbing the corporate ladder only brings us closer and closer in company with the people who perpetrate the evilest crimes in this world, the sooner we’ll pause to reevaluate our priorities.

There is no reason we should be in a rat race because no one needs a mansion and five cars, especially when three blocks down, there is a houseless mother with her children. And yes, again, people starving and not having healthcare and not being able to afford food is our collective responsibility, regardless of the society we live in. If you can afford to feed and clothe your children, it should still absolutely concern you that your neighbour can’t. If not for the love and care you have for them, then surely, at least for the indisputable fact that these glaring social inequalities create a fertile ground for violence. We can either save ourselves by recreating and nurturing healthy communities, or we can continue down the path of individualism as we head towards collective suicide.

On my part, I am neither here nor home since I cannot adhere to the winner-takes-all, man-eats-man, individualistic conception of life promoted in the US. With each passing day, the choice I have to make becomes more and more obvious. Fortunately, I have a home in Africa.

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