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22 - 29 August 2007 
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Lessons from 10,000 Nameless Black Men

Way back in the late 1800s, George Mortimer Pullman targeted released slaves from the south of U.S.A to work as porters for his “restaurants on wheels” business. His Pullman Rail Company had hired 20,224 African Americans personnel by the 1920s to serve in what is equivalent to modern day air hostess. A movie entitled “10,000 Black Men Called George” dramatizes the tribulations of African Americans who were humiliated as porters but viewed as heroes by fellow black community members.


All the porters were referred to as “George,” after the founder of the company and were supposed to “lose” their real names while at work. The name “George” was supposedly meant to make it easier for white customers to identify a porter and thereby receive services. Philip Randolph (hero of American Civil Rights Movement) stepped in to improve the civil and economic rights of these workers through an organization called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

The struggle for emancipation in the Pullman company had two faces to it, the generation that had experienced slavery viewed George Pullman as a saviour and did not find the porter job degrading (after all they were being paid albeit poorly), but a younger generation felt agitated and wanted change; they wanted to be called by their real names!


Take time and read “The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen In Our Life Time” by Jeffrey Sachs; “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It” by Paul Collier; and “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” by William Easterly. Let me add one last title, “The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation – State” by Basil Davidson!  How many black men called George do you meet in these books?


I find 960 million black people called George! They are poor, do not think and do not operate on the plane of asking “what is better and what is worse.” In other words, Africans merely operate on a “hit and miss” trajectory.


The authors of these books attempt to solve the puzzle of poverty in Africa. Jeffrey Sachs argues that a $75 billion per year of Western Aid to Africa can help fix poverty problems. Paul Collier on the other hand, while sharing Prof. Sachs' view that the West can help fix Africa, argues that the younger population in Africa is responsible for conflicts on the continent (forget who funds, supplies arms and why conflicts are mostly in mineral rich zones of the continent!). William Easterly’s view is that the Western Aid cannot fix Africa, but he implicitly indicates it could if reformed! Basil Davidson is not in the class of the above three, he tackles mostly the issue of tribalism as the biggest burden in Africa… to answer him, one could read Lutz Van Dijk’s book “A History of Africa” who argues that we have only 3 tribes in Africa (Bantu, Nilotes and Cushites), all else are clans or “houses”! (enyumba ya mumbi!)


Do I hear you? Yes, under present circumstances, the international World is not ready to listen to our real names, we are poor! Two, the African intellectual is torn between the awe and esteem he is held with at home, and the derogatory emptiness the international community perceives his output. Where is his voice in this debate about development in Africa? Three, those who witnessed the salvation from “African barbarism” cannot fathom a World without thinking and instructions from the West. Africans need a Philip Randolph!


This article was first published by Business Daily, a publication of Nation Media Group

By James Shikwati
Mr. Shikwati is the Director of Inter Region Economic Network

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