I was living and working in Africa at the time of Band Aid 1984. I found the song Do They Know it’s Christmas? cloying, but I recognised that it was mobilising ordinary citizens towards concern and compassion.
When I returned to the UK two years later, I lived in Faversham – where Bob Geldof also lived. I would see him and his family in the marketplace and it was impossible to shake his achievement from my mind. I did not admire how he and Bono, for a time, moved with the great and not so good but felt that, in their own ways, they were trying to further the cause of a better world. Gradually, I forgot the song.
Then, in 1992, I was working in Eritrea. Back in 1984, it had been part of Ethiopia, and had been severely hit by the famine of that year. I was there directing a project of reconstruction after the bitter 30-year war to attain independence. I was in Massawa, the second city of Eritrea, by the Red Sea, and it had been bombed to ruination. I visited the execution ground used by the former Ethiopian dictator and counted hundreds of bodies. I was not in a good mood when, walking on the beach, I was joined by a youngster who spoke broken English. On hearing I came from England, he spoke about the famine of 1984. I never forgot his words: “I hear there was a singer then who tried to help us.”
Cloying as Geldof’s song may have been, the intention behind it had given people hope. Someone – someone with an identity as a singer, not a nameless bureaucrat – tried to help.
The latest Band Aid song, which aims to raise money to fight Ebola, has been greeted with far more controversy than its predecessor. Should we still view Africa as an object of pity, as an epicentre of starvation and, now, disease? Is this not now condescending and dated, given the dynamic progress Africa has made?
I think this is a legitimate concern. I feel it myself. But it is important not to be politically correct in any generalised way about a continent of 54 countries, not all of whom have emerged from poor governance and the kind of wretched living conditions that allow the spread of disease.
Those conditions constitute an objective fact. The disease that breaks out of these conditions, and the disastrous human toll it takes, are objective facts. Doing something about it is not a bad thing. If that something is the wrong thing, it takes its place alongside great confusion, slowness and hesitation to do the right things. In these circumstances, it is often even difficult to identify the right things to do. Having an enlightened view of Africa does not in itself do anything to help people.
There are ironies of course. A lot of the money Geldof raised and governments gave in 1984 was spent on sending food. Not enough medicine was sent, so that those weakened by hunger succumbed to disease. In the Ebola outbreak, governments ill-advisedly quarantined slums without first providing the slum dwellers with enough food. Meanwhile, everyone is hoping for the vaccine, the silver bullet that will change the course of the disease. Nothing completely right has yet been done.
I wonder, if the latest Band Aid song does any good by way of money and succour whether any of the beneficiaries will care about the fact that it’s a clammy number sung by spoilt superstar children, led by a tousle-haired middle-aged singer? I doubt many people will even hear the song in West Africa.
But if a single life is extended or saved because of it, perhaps the comment I once heard by the Red Sea will be spoken again. The big question of course is a simple one: even if the song, its message, and the image of Africa it conveys are bad, what are its critics doing about Ebola? A middle class politically correct drawing room is ominously like an air-conditioned recording studio in its distance from things that are terrible.