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How can it be that a continent with 54 countries and more than 1 billion people is still so little understood by the country that considers itself the world’s leader?

Yes, Ebola makes it to the front page. Wars and tribal genocides crop up on the inside news pages. A famine is always ready to fill the prime time TV. But with China snapping up African natural resources and the World Bank predicting that the African continent economic growth rates will surpass parts of East Asia, maybe it is time for Americans to pay attention.

At UC Santa Barbara, there are only a handful of African specialists. While the study of African American literature, culture, and society is robust, the study of Africa itself is far more limited.

This coming year, there will be an additional focus on Africa with the arrival of one of the University of Southern California’s African experts, Dr. Shana Redmond. Redmond has been named the Ella Baker Visiting Professor in the UC Santa Barbara Black Studies Department. Her research focuses on the cultural impacts of the African diaspora as well as the limitations of traditional aid projects in Africa.

Between the 16th and 19th century, 23 million Africans were forcibly removed from their homeland, with 11 million coming to the U.S. It was the largest forced migration in human history. Out of that diaspora culture spread across the world influencing host cultures but also holding together African communities in the New World. Yet trying to make sense of today’s one Africa is difficult. “Africa is not a country, it’s a continent,” she said during a recent interview. “My thoughts about Africa are complicated because it is such an incredibly diverse region.” In the north are the Arab states of Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, all of which have been in political and democratic tumult in recent years. On the west is the Ebola outbreak that is more challenging because borders have become porous with increasing wealth. To the south, noted Redmond, there is the 25th anniversary of democracy in South Africa. In the center, bitter wars and brutal dictators.

Much of what we see is the continuing legacy of the colonial era that in Redmond’s words, “has become entrenched” with countries like Rwanda still trying to “throw off the yoke of colonialism.”

Yet Americans still know little about the continent, and Redmond points to her home institution as being woefully short on academics and teachers on Africa. She said it is “tragic” that USC has no “classically trained Africanist on its faculty.” The continent is critical to the future of the U.S., not just because of its raw materials, but also, because there will be chronic security issues from Libya to Sudan to Somalia.

Just as important is the future growth of Africa as a billion consumers enter the world marketplace. As Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del) recently wrote in the influential capital newsletter “The Hill,” when Americans hear about Africa, “we’re more accustomed to hearing about conflict and strife, disease and famine than about opportunity… Africa is home to strong growing economies, emerging middle classes, budding democracies and vast natural and human resources. There are extraordinary opportunities for investment and partnerships—built on mutuality and respect—that can both move America forward and enable African-led solutions to African challenges.”

Coons said it is time to move beyond the view of Africa through the “lens of foreign aid,” a notion that is echoed by Redmond. She believes that many philanthropic endeavors in Africa are “well-intentioned” but most are not sustainable. Therefore rather than solving problems, they perpetuate them and lead to dependency. Not unlike the deeper economic and social issues in the U.S., the solution to Africa’s problems, she argued, is “structural responses. Fundamentally, these nations are in deep disrepair and in structural crisis. No number of NGOs (Non Government Organizations) will fix this.”

Redmond is working on a book that critiques the philanthropy of the First World towards Africa and in particular the “We Are The World” fundraising campaign. Like other critics, she feels the whole “We Are The World” philosophy was that the U.S. and its artists are “The World” and the rest of the world is somewhere else. She also argued that it was an example of the U.S. culture “flexing its virility” in showing how it could “save” another continent, while ignoring its own economic disasters. “Why was there no anthem [like We Are The World] for Katrina victims,” she asked.

What is the answer for students and alumni of UC Santa Barbara?

As any professor would advise, “do a lot of reading, do a lot of talking, and find your passion,” she said. Work on learning culture and history, then search out where your passion for philanthropy lies. “I encourage people to think beyond the non-profit model. I know that is hard.” But other models like teaching or working in the media can also have impacts. So too does “unaffiliated travel” where Americans get off the “safari trail” and move among the people and cities of the world.

During her year at UC Santa Barbara, Redmond hopes to work with the campus’ Center for Black Studies Research and their Haitian research. She also plans to work as the faculty advisor to the Black Studies Journal, a collection of research papers written by undergraduates.

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