A Look at Africa's Exploitation
Published on Sunday, April 16, 2006 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
A Look at Africa's Exploitation
by CÚsar Chelala

If anybody wants to understand Africa's plight today, there are few better ways than to watch Darwin's Nightmare, a documentary directed by Hubert Sauper, an Austrian filmmaker. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best feature documentary this year. Although disturbing to watch, the film shows one of the many ways Africa has been exploited by foreign powers over centuries.

In the 1950s, a new fish, the Nile perch, was introduced into Lake Victoria, the largest tropical lake in the world, in an attempt to improve its fishing yields. A voracious predator, the Nile perch rapidly multiplied and killed off hundreds of the native fish species. The exploitation of the Nile perch led to a fast-developing industry in which the fish are processed and the fillets exported to European countries and Japan.

Rather than benefiting, the local population has remained poor, unable even to eat the very fish they work to export. The film shows how locals end up eating fish carcasses ridden with maggots. The presence of foreigners with idle time and money to spare increases prostitution, which fuels the spread of HIV.

Several tons of processed fish are sent overseas every day in ex-Soviet cargo planes filled to capacity with fish fillets. But it's the first part of those cargo planes' journeys that is so disquieting. The planes arrive in Mwanza Airport in northwest Tanzania, carrying food to be distributed to nearby refugees. More ominously, though, also they frequently carry ammunition for countries involved in civil war in Central Africa. This dirty secret, which nobody wants to talk about, is the target of Sauper's ingenuity.

Through Sauper's inquisitive lens, at one end of the spectrum, we see local fishermen and workers, homeless children, and Tanzanian prostitutes. At the other end are World Bank officials, African ministers of government, and European Union commissioners. While they celebrate the success of the Nile perch industry, locals continue to live in misery.

Although filmed under the roughest of conditions, the documentary is filled with scenes of poignant beauty. As Sauper has remarked, "It was easy to find striking images because I was filming a striking reality. But it was also easy to get into trouble." The small crew had to disguise themselves as pilots and loadmasters and carry fake identification. Constantly questioned by police officers and held at checkpoint, they spent a large part of their budget on bribes and fines.

Sauper speaks to his subjects, be they the cargo-plane pilots, the workers at the fish factories, factory owners, or prostitutes. What emerges are the candid opinions of those involved, giving us special access to a troubling world of greed and survival.

The film painfully illustrates how exploitation by so-called civilized societies can keep a country rich in resources poor and abuse its population. Nor is this an isolated process. The point is, it is happening every day throughout Africa. Sauper is right to call his film "an ironic, frightening allegory for what is called the New World Order."

It wouldn't be fair to blame only foreigners for this human tragedy. As I have been able to see in my frequent trips throughout the continent, problems in Africa are often a collusion between foreigners' greed and local corruption and incompetence. While it is true that rich nations and entrepreneurs must reexamine the way they do business with and in Africa, saying that is not saying enough. Until local African leaders place the interests of their people before their own, their countries will continue to be prey to the rapaciousness of outsiders.

CÚsar Chelala is an international public health consultant who has traveled extensively throughout Africa on health-related missions.

© 2006 The Philadelphia Inquirer