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The Uncertain Business of Doing Good in Africa


“When you pick up a book about Africa, it is almost inevitably not so much about Africa as about us. Africa is an obsession for a great many people, even some who have never set foot there…”. Thus starts Larry Krotz’s introduction to his newest book, published in late 2008, with the title The Uncertain Business of Doing Good: Outsiders in Africa (University of Manitoba Press/Michigan State University Press, 2008).

The book is an account of Krotz’s travels to Angola in 1992, Kenya in 1997 and 2004, and Tanzania in 2002. Each of these trips was a professional journey with a mandate to report on events of the moment. With a warm, personal style that is closer to a conversation than a treatise on the ethics of ‘doing good’, Krotz explores the benefits as well as the pitfalls of outsiders going in to help in situations that may be beyond their understanding, or ability to improve.

Krotz’s engagement with local people and his love for the places he visited stand out in his descriptions. But he also presents the constant danger in which many of them live, in unimaginably difficult circumstances and struggling for the most basic needs. He examines the underlying urge of foreigners, predominantly Europeans and North Americans, to participate in various forms of aid, based on the belief that they know what’s best for Africa. What makes this book especially appealing is its attempt to present a comprehensive picture, but without offering easy solutions.

Right: Larry Krotz

Larry Krotz is a Glendon graduate (Political Science and History, BA 1972) with a writing career for which the College’s liberal arts education was a logical preparation. “I was a farm kid who rebelled against the choices made by my high-school cohort”, he confides. “Most of them went to [the University of] Western [Ontario], Waterloo or Guelph to obtain qualifications which led to specific careers. I decided to go to Glendon, this college no one had heard of, on the strength of a recruitment presentation made by [then] Liberal MPP Tim Reid, son of Glendon’s first Principal, Escott Reid.” What drew him was the idea of a bilingual, national college, where he could rub shoulders with students from Quebec and other parts of the country. His Glendon years opened up a wealth of intellectual activity: discussions on varying types of political thought, social conscience, cultural identity, national and international issues that pointed to his future involvements.

Krotz’s entire career has been devoted to topics of social controversy. As a freelance writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker, his list of published writings includes several books and a whole series of articles in Canada’s Walrus Magazine and other publications (for more about Larry Krotz and his work, please see the section below). He has reported on the projects of Canadian, American, British and European scientists, NGOs, lawyers, and peacekeepers trying to help in some way in Africa; he has written about issues of Canada’s First Nations, AIDS research in Kenya, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the UNIM circumcision research project in Kenya.

Krotz has always been interested in Africa – a place of mystery and history, the origin of all human existence. His first opportunity to travel there came in his 40s, on an invitation to produce a television program for Vision TV about Angola. This was in the early 1990s, during a cease-fire in a lengthy war, a brief period of hope with U.N. elections on the horizon. Krotz returned to various parts of Africa during the ensuing years. He travelled to Kenya 5 years later to do a program on AIDS research by the University of Manitoba. “These trips confirmed in me the conviction that what you can do as an individual really matters, and that the small threads going from one individual to another can move society along”.

Krotz sees the writer’s role, telling other people’s stories and questioning the ethics of what we do, as very important. “We provide aid, but all the while protect our own interests”, he observes. “There are many conundrums – lots of ethical questions – to consider as we go into African countries to help, which is why we need communication and a deeper understanding of the issues. A great deal of thinking and writing is being done by African intellectuals about the impact of foreign aid on local initiative and the resulting dependencies.” His article in the June 2008 issue of Walrus Magazine, with the title Poaching Foreign Doctors, also examines the question of whether our development and immigration policies amount to foreign aid in reverse – a sort of reverse brain drain.

On a somewhat philosophical note, Krotz offers his conviction that so much of our life is reactive to doors opening and opportunities offering themselves. “In my experience, the best things in life are unplanned, they just happen”, comments Krotz. “And the two most important things for young people to keep in mind are to strive to know themselves and to be prepared to say ‘yes’ when opportunities arise.” Quoting Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, he also urges today’s youth to consider taking “…the [road] less traveled…”, the one that may make all the difference.

More about Larry Krotz

Larry Krotz was born near Gowanstown, in rural southern Ontario, and completed a BA in political science and history in 1972 at York University’s Glendon College. He lived in Winnipeg and worked as a freelance writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker from 1973 to 1997. He is the former president of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild (1985), and author of five previous books: Midlifeman (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000); Tourists (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1996); Indian Country (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990); Shutter Speed (Winnipeg, MB: Turnstone Press, 1988); and Urban Indian (Edmonton, AB: Hurtig, 1980). His film credits include Searching for Hawa's Secret (1998) for the National Film Board, looking at AIDS research in Nairobi Kenya; and Rising To Dance, a year in the life of Royal Winnipeg Ballet students. Krotz has taught writing at Red River College, the University of Winnipeg, and Ryerson University. He is the winner of several awards, including the Air Canada Award Canadian Authors Association, 1980; Chris Award, Columbus Documentary Film Festival for Searching For Hawa's Secret, 1999; AC Forest Award for essays in the United Church Observer, 2007 and 2008; as well as several nominations for the National Magazine Awards. Currently, he lives and works in Toronto.

Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on February 6, 2009