This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.
Occasionally, the financial press experiences a twinge of conscience, or so it seems. News of Africa’s economic progress, in particular the growth of its middle classes, thrums almost daily though a range of papers. But this spring the Financial Times’ Simon Kuper slammed on the brakes.
“Poor people’s analyses rarely fit neatly into the formats through which the ruling class interprets the world,” he wrote. Such people are “rarely interviewed,” he added, concluding that “we’re exactly the media that an unequal world requires.”
A couple months later, Fortune Magazine reported on the publication of Cotton Tenants: Three Families, a manuscript drafted by James Agee, based on his 1936 investigation of Alabama tenant farmers for Fortune, his employer at the time. The magazine never used Agee’s report and it has only now been published.
Agee’s work focuses on the American south, but it illuminates capitalism’s dark underbelly everywhere, the poverty it breeds, the mindsets it fosters, and those that sustain it. His subjects don’t think of life as “in the least controllable.” They “welter on their living as on water, from one hour to the next…” They feel that “structures of government are irrelevant if not indeed inimical to them.” And, “the infiltration of all that has to do with the outside world is slow, verbal, and distorted in transit.”
Despite substantial economic progress, many in Africa, like the cotton farmers about whom Agee wrote, remain imprisoned by circumstances. “My boyfriend bought me this,” a young Malian sex worker said of her counterfeit smartphone. “We sleep together and he gives me money to buy food and other things I need. Because he is a soldier he is at least paid, even if it is not enough.” Another said of her work, "I don’t want to do this, but I have no choice. It is really bad but this is the only way for me to get money at the moment."
In his introduction to Cotton Tenants, Adam Haslett notes that “close and thorough description of people’s actual circumstances in the manner of Agee’s long-form report from Alabama,” helps defog reality. We need more of this type of genre to put Africa’s economic growth into perspective.