Africa Needs Your Faith, Not Your Pity

04/01/2015 02:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

In a recent episode, a well-guarded member of the Kenyan Parliament was shot dead. That single piece of information would sound normal enough, considering the series of assassinations that have recently come to characterize African politics. What stands out in this instance is that he was executed at one of the busiest roundabouts in the Nairobi Central Business District. His family, who were being transported in a separate vehicle, watched helplessly.

This incident deeply bothers me. Not because it highlights my own vulnerability as an average-profile Kenyan, but because it adds an item to the long repository of anecdotes that the western world will refer to when discussing how doomed the African continent is. This list is often cited to reinforce the belief that their pity-driven benevolent intervention is one of the few things that can save the sinking ship of Africa.

Don't get it twisted. My continent, most of it anyway, is grateful for the investment, both emotional and otherwise, that is directed towards solving the pertinent issues. I am sure that thousands of people in northern Kenya are immensely grateful for the food aid that essentially stands between them and starvation, and that the West African countries hard-hit by Ebola appreciate the additional medical personnel arriving to mitigate the situation. What I, and my continent by extension, take issue with are not the methodologies of helping so much as the motives that shape the help.

I am an alumnus of the African Leadership Academy, an institution I credit with shaping my understanding of Africa's image in the eyes of the world. The world's perspective of my continent is molded almost exclusively by foreign media outlets, which have developed a predilection for covering news items that appeal to strong human emotions in hopes of bolstering viewership. From a quick search for "Africa" on the website of a renowned media outlet, I was faced with the following: coverage on Boko Haram's attack of a city in northern Nigeria, an article on Chad's former head of state who will be facing trial for crimes against humanity, and an exposé of the mismanaged funds, originally allocated to contain Ebola, by government officials in Sierra Leone.

I have nothing against these stories being covered. After all, they are based on facts. But where is the article on Kevin Olusola, the "celloboxing" genius born to Nigerian parents whose band recently won a Grammy? What about the one detailing how Nairobi, Kenya's capital city, is now one of the world's most "intelligent" cities, evidenced by a mobile banking and money transfer service, invented almost a decade ago, that have revitalized Kenya's economy? What about the one on how 40,000 acres of land were recently set aside in Northern Kenya for wind turbines in what is set to be Africa's largest wind energy generation project? There surely is more to Africa than terrorism, disease and corruption!

I thought misconceptions of the African continent were a myth, until I participated in an academic exchange program with an American high school three years ago and had to endure questions like "Are you a refugee?" and "Do you guys like live on trees?". To the latter, I fought really hard to resist the urge of retorting with a "Yes, we actually do. The father of your President used to live in the tree right across from ours."

I am currently a student at the University of Notre Dame, where thankfully such questions do not abide. Yet I still feel that conversations about the needs of the African continent are often treated with a subtle indelicacy, perhaps resulting from Pavlovian tendencies instituted by the media. When I hear students discuss about what they can do to solve disease, penury and homelessness in a third world country, I can't help but think, "Parts of America face the problems you speak of. Why travel thousands of miles to solve a problem that exists on your own doorstep?"

The mentality behind benevolence is what defines the line between the misappropriation of monetary and material donations for those facing famine in Northern Kenya and the success of initiatives such as M-Pesa whose infrastructures have benefitted immensely from foreign investment. One party gives with good intentions and, overwhelmed by pity, empowers untrustworthy individuals to oversee their altruistic endeavors, resulting in exploitation. The other gives with good intentions at heart, but also trusts the promise of prosperity enough to maintain a presence. This leads to a self-sustaining investment that ultimately follows with positive returns for both themselves and the people they seek to help.

Don't think of Africa as the generic place affected by disease, famine and poverty. Think about it for what it is: a continent with its struggles, but one with a bright future that lies ahead. Help not just because you feel sorry, but because you wish to be part of something that will outlast your physical and monetary presence in the continent.

Give Africa a hand up. Not a handout.