Notre Dame caught fire on 15 April 2019 – and with the flames rose our complicated past (and present, to be honest) with Europe. The West mourned its beloved relic and Parisians sang “Ave Maria” with candles and roses in hand as the fire took its final breaths. The straight-shooters among us on the African continent turned to social media to remind those who were catching feelings why it was not their place to send tears to France because she and Europe would be fine. President Macron, the wealthy elite, insurance and the extensive network of Catholics would ensure that “Our Lady” rose from her ashes even more majestically than before. In true form, two days later a billion dollars had been raised.
Why are we angry?
Arguments about misplaced sympathies pointed out that a huge sum of money was raised so quickly for a building, albeit an important one, while millions across the globe are starved of proper infrastructure. Understandably, Cyclone Idai relief has been one of the main examples given of a far more humanly devastating tragedy in recent memory; one that was surely worthy of being prioritised for financial aid.
In a fair world, these facts would be no-brainers. But the world is not fair. We human beings have an affinity for taking care of our own, and only more so depending on how close we are to our own. Is it really that shocking that white people rallied together to rescue a symbol of their heritage, culture and civilisation? Are we really shocked that all most of us sent to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi were thoughts and prayers and a meagre US$350 000 from the African Union? The statistics may be riddled with inconsistencies but Africa’s middle class is growing. We actually can afford to take money out of our pockets to donate to worthy causes, and we do not have to be as rich as Europe to do so.
Instead of being salty and criticising the West for stepping up to handle something they consider an emergency, should we not be reflecting on ourselves as a society and what our priorities are? The history lessons in the form of long Twitter and Facebook posts are great, because knowledge is power, but what comes after the complaining and berating? What are the solutions? How are we fixing our psychology as a people? Are we even attending to the restoration of our own monuments? The Timbuktu Shrines were destroyed in 2012 and only partially restored by UNESCO and reopened to the public in 2016. Did we join arms in solidarity with Mali to try and prevent something like that from happening again, or did we leave things to be handled by the International Criminal Court – which, by the way, only issued a nine-year sentence for the crime. Does this mean we are okay with the West handling our affairs after all? Or does this only apply sometimes?
The Rova of Antananarivo Royal Palace in Madagascar was first built in 1609, with additional buildings erected over the following centuries. In 1995 it was engulfed by fire and only reopened to the public upon Madagascar’s 50-year independence celebration in 2010. The restoration project, however, is ongoing to this day. One might argue that we did not have social media in 1995 and so the destruction did not grab as much attention, which is true. However, is this not the conversation that we should be having now, instead of investing so much of our energy in policing white tears and tactics? How do we ensure that iconic monuments spread out across our continent are protected and become part of our collective memory and consciousness? Is this not the kind of knowledge that should appear in our children’s school curriculums, for example?
To each his own?
Whiteness takes care of its own, this much is clear. What it gives to us is part of how its value systems are cultivated, but it invests in itself first and foremost. Yes, our histories are intertwined, with a severe imbalance of power for sure, but what else does the Western world have to do before we stop centralising it in our own story?
Another thing is this: Can we really blame the people who are in their feelings about the fire when conversations around religion, the idea of civilisation, history, heritage are still so sensitive? For one thing, a huge portion of the African population is Catholic. Do they not have a stake in Notre Dame, regardless of whether they will ever set foot there or not?