John Legend in Africa

Now, y’all know I spend a lot of rant energy on the social efforts of artists. This is kind of ironic I know, since I’m an artist who rails against social issues. But what bothers me are the fuzzy, feel-good efforts that seem inherently divorced from any reality-based expectation of actual results. So many of these I have written about seem to be predominantly self-indulgent, efforts to sanctify oneself through highly-visible acts of charity. So when I saw the headline How John Legend’s hero changes lives with fruit, I was all ready to get my bitch on.

Thing is, it actually seems like it could be a productive approach:

“I don’t want people to only see Africa as a bunch of victims,” Legend says. “The people that I’ve come across in these extremely impoverished villages, they want to work. They want to participate in their own development.”

To help people lift themselves out of poverty, Legend founded the Show Me Campaign, named after one of his songs. Partnering with economist Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Promise organization, Legend’s group adopted Mbola, a remote village in Tanzania that has little access to drinking water and improved farming techniques, according to Millennium Promise.

“The folks in Mbola are starting at a supreme disadvantage. Most of them are living on less than a dollar a day,” Legend says. “It’s difficult for them to even survive.”

On his 2007 visit to Mbola, Legend met “Mama” Mwadawa Ruziga, a single mother of two who was freeing herself from poverty. Her entrepreneurial spirit impressed Legend and solidified his belief that sustainable development at the community level can work in the fight against poverty.

Ruziga leads a local business collective that sells products — like wine, jam and juice — that it makes out of indigenous fruits.

“I was really inspired by her willingness to not just wait for a handout, but really take an active role in helping to uplift her community,” he says.

I don’t really get the specifics of the plan from this article, but the approach appeals to me more than most I see. I’m not against aid to Africa, but I’m very skeptical of the type of blanket aid that gets filtered through corrupt governments and rarely leads to any sort of sustainability. I’m a fan of Andrew Mwenda’s approach to solutions in Africa, that any real progress in Africa will come from Africans themselves (notice in the linked video that Bono does not share Mwenda’s view, and in fact heckles his speech).

John Legend seems to get this, and makes the foundation of his charity work the entrepreneurial spirit and energy of the African people. I believe that this is the best way to ensure sustainability. Blanket aid, while essential during crises, is like the old finger in the dike allegory. But give the people the tools to convert that dike into a mill and you’re working toward the future.

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