It is a chaotic mixture of tribes large and small. Artificial man-made borders cannot contain historic conflicts and rivalries. Inter-marriage is rare, incest within the group common, as are predatory raids. It is a cash culture, but also one of barter. A variety of dialects - too many to count - are spoken. I'm describing, of course, the international aid community, and especially the development professionals who work in Africa.
Type 5 -- The Financiers. All Africans live on less than $2 day. Since this denomination is too small or the concept overly complicated for most individual Western donors to get their head around, NGOs translate that into the accusatory-sounding "That's less money than you spend on your daily cup of coffee." Sleepy early-morning riders are confronted with this castigation from posters and billboards on subway and Tube station platforms. The intended effect is similar to 'Uncle Sam wants you!' army recruiting posters that 70 years ago tried to shame conscientious objectors or those with flat feet.
Today, "That's less money than you spend on your daily cup of coffee" only confuses the poor coffee-drinker in London or Washington, DC, who is upbraided and humiliated for sipping latte on the one hand, then enters Starbuck's and is effusively praised as a hero and humanitarian for purchasing certified Fairtrade beans grown in Ethiopia.
Many in the target audience, ignoring naysaying female Silicon Valley executives who now proclaim you can't 'have it all', give in to their impulses and buy their coffee as their body is urging them to do, while also vowing to contribute heartily to that financial inclusion NGO, maybe a really generous donation, the equivalent of the 4-5 venti cappuccinos they plan to imbibe that day.
They slink into Starbuck's, checking both ways at the door first for a Judas from a Christian child-sponsorship charity who might betray you, or a minor British Royal with pleading eyes representing land-mine victims. People resent having to skulk about for their morning joe, so end up suffering violent mood swings as one moves from being branded an uncaring fat-cat, practically complicit in genocide, to a compassionate global citizen, someone who should really think of changing their surname to include 'Sans Frontieres' in it.
It is a tragic but little-known fact that most Africans do not know their credit score because (wait for it) they do not have a credit score. It angers Western organizations that individual Africans are not triple-mortgaged, nor do they know where to go to save 15% on their car insurance. This is a bad thing, blamed on something called 'financial illiteracy'. So financial inclusion NGOs employing the 'cup of coffee' marketing strategy, take a whole bunch of $2s from those guilt-driven emotionally-manipulated individual donors, and run expensive financial literacy education programs to teach poor Africans how to calculate compound interest rates or figure out the amortization on a 30-year APR mortgage if you put only 5% down.
Type 6 -- The Conservationists. To an ecotourism chief of party, Africa is the Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, there are people there too. The presence of Africans in Africa is a huge obstacle, an encumbrance. Africa's animal flyways and migration corridors should be sacrosanct. Africa could be the world's first 'Continental Park'. But that is not possible if Africans insist on maintaining national borders, building roads, or using precious natural habitats like lakes or rivers for drinking purposes.
From the biodiversity sustainability consultant's perspective, most of sub-Saharan Africa's 910 million people should be employed as park rangers. But instead too many become poachers instead. This is because the private parts of virtually every animal in Africa turn out to be an aphrodisiac in China.
The problems are many. Western researchers spend years in West Africa searching for the exceedingly rare pygmy hippo and come away with only a few grainy camera-trap images that could as easily be snaps of a yeti. (In Vietnam there is a similar conservation program to capture the 'Asian unicorn' or 'saola', still never seen in the wild by a scientist).
Rascally locals tell peer-reviewed American academics that pygmy hippo meat is excellent roasted. (Some Africans believe bushmeat endows them with special powers, and tastes better than cultivated food. More 'outreach' programs are needed, for example around gluten-free options.) While distressing, this news encourages the visiting biologist, persuading her that the pygmy hippo exists in those parts, she may still get tenure back at Cornell, and that it is worth persuading a Western government to invest in building a national park to protect the endangered/possibly apocryphal species.
You can probably see a pygmy hippo or an Asian unicorn in the Berlin Zoo. Or sample either species flambée with a gooseberry coulis reduction at a Shanghai eatery. But it's not the same thing.
Inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina. To be continued.