Trimming the Bushes

When I was listening to NPR last night, I heard this interesting story talking about the gussying up of a school in Mali before Laura Bush visited. It was fascinating, and well worth listening to. For those of you who are too lazy to, the basic story is that Laura Bush has been on a tour of Africa. While there, she is looking at hospitals and schools, and one particular school in Mali was chosen for her visit. Before she arrived, however, the school was given significant cosmetic upgrades so that she “would be more comfortable.” NPR’s report manages to be searing and scathing without being directly insulting, and it’s a nice bit of journalism.

I am aware that facilities are usually upgraded before the visit of a head of state. Obviously, any country would want to put their best foot forward for foreign visitors. But it sounds like the US embassy was heavily involved in the retrofitting…and that it was all temporary. One classroom was electrified for the visit, and just as quickly disconnected as soon as Mrs. Bush left. The courtyard was stripped of garbage and debris and primped up with fresh greenery, but the next morning it was muddy and garbage filled, as always. This is the creation of a false facade, and it stinks to me.

I tend to agree with one of the teachers interviewed in the piece. I believe that the primping of the school was a disservice. Sometimes the facts of poverty are uncomfortable and unpleasant to face, it’s true, but it is very important that people face them anyway. If she had seen reality, rather than fantasy, the first lady might have been more driven to donate additional funds or to find other ways of supporting education in Mali. She might not have made a statement afterwards about how great education is in Mali. Instead, she got a whitewashed and cosmetic version of the world, a feel good press opportunity rather than a chance to learn.

While in Mali, she visited only two other places: the President’s palace and the home of an American ambassador.

This is not a recipe for a honest look at Mali. Many African nations are struggling with issues like providing basic education to children. Suggesting that schools have electrified classrooms and landscaped yards and happy students suggests that Africa is in better shape than it is. This, in turn, might be used to justify a reduction of aid, or to allow funds with highly restrictive caveats attached, like only funding abstinence-only sex education programs.

I think that the first lady should have visited African homes, popped up at schools as a surprise. She should have dragged her white pumps through the mud and suffered through sweltering heat in classrooms without fans. She should have experienced the same things that Africans experience, on a continent where teachers sell their bodies to pay for food. Let’s see her smile and make mealy-mouthed speeches then.