Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sterilizing Africa: The New White Man’s Burden

In 1899 Rudyard Kipling penned, “White Man’s Burden” (1) in which he exhorted the European to conquer and colonize foreign lands like Africa for the good of the inhabitants.  In his opening stanza, he wrote:

            “Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child...”

The non-European people’s were only “half-devil and half child,” who needed to be instructed by their superior civilized betters.  Though the poem has a heroic ring, the phrase has come to mean a justification of conquest and colonialism for the good of native peoples.  Most today would reject—or at least profess to reject—such an attitude, that sees it as the white man’s burden to civilize his heathen, third world brother. 

Recently, however, various groups have called for a new white man’s burden, though they do not use the expression.  Led by people like Melinda Gates, secular foreign aid agencies, and even the government of China (2), have called on first world countries to again take up the White Man’s Burden and spread “civilization” to Africa in the form of contraception and sterilization.   Like European colonizers of old, arriving in Africa, professing the superiority of Western values and culture and the backwardness of African life, western secularists arrive on the dark continent professing to civilize Africans by means of pills, IUDs, and sterilization. 

Propagandists and apologists for the New White Man’s burden suggest that the move to sterilize African women will help promote women’s health, solve the supposed over-population problem, and empower women.   African bishops have protested that this move is “deeply de-humanizing,” and it is not hard to see why (3).  On the face of it one cannot help but think that women’s health might be better served if the 4.6 billion dollars to be spent on contraception and sterilization were spent instead providing clean sources of water, sanitation systems, medical facilities, and doctors.  Indeed, one cannot easily think of Western claims that Africa is over-populated and that Africa would be better off if there were fewer Africans, without thinking of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  The Ghost of Christmas Present might as well be rebuking the pro-sterilization westerner: “It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. O to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust” (4).

To the defender of the New White Man’s burden, though, modern Africans are “half-devil and half child,” or worse and here their attitude goes from merely foolish to dehumanizing.  Like a dog that we encourage people to spay or neuter lest there be too many, the pro-contraceptive West (and East) proposes to sterilize Africa lest it should be over-populated.  Worse still, in telling women that to be empowered, they must be sterilized, contraception advocates tell the same women that one thing that is uniquely theirs as women, is a source of weakness. Certainly in rendering herself unable to have children, a woman who contracepts makes herself the equal of a man who also cannot bear children; whether this is empowering, however, is another question. 

If one were to propose a modern updating of Kipling’s poem, suitable to the situation, it might run something like this:

                Take up the New White Man’s burden-
                Allow not Africa to breed—
                Go bind their fertility in exile
                To serve your captives need;
                Sterilize them with pill and device,
                But preach “empowerment” with great guile—
                To your new caught, sullen peoples,
                As yet, unenlightened and wild. 

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