Nigerian biomedical scientist and pro-life activist Obianuju Ekeocha first made headlines when she penned an open letter to Melinda Gates, cautioning her not to impose her markedly Western understanding of women’s liberation onto African countries. The Gates Foundation’s funding of reproductive health efforts in Africa, claimed Ekeocha, ultimately aims to “replace the legacy of an African woman (which is her child) with the legacy of ‘child-free sex.’”
She garnered further attention on BBC World News when she debated a reporter who claimed that the distribution of contraception in Africa would alleviate poverty and provide Africans access to what they need. “According to whom?” fired back Ekeocha. “These are colonial thoughts, so you better be careful with how you express yourself. It’s kind and generous people like yourself from the West who come tell [Africans] that what they need is contraception. So you give them contraception, and the next year they still don’t have an education, they still don’t have work. Westerners don’t ask Africans what they actually want.”
Her 2018 book Target Africa draws from “a broad array of well-sourced materials and documents,” telling “the story of foreign aid with strings attached, the story of Africa targeted and recolonized by wealthy, powerful donors.” Strings Attached, a documentary she produced last year, further exposes the neocolonialist threat imposed by Western corporations and NGOs onto African nations.
Ekeocha is an anomaly in today’s cultural landscape. Her pro-Africa, pro-woman, and pro-life rhetoric doesn’t exactly fit well in ideological boxes. This is due in part to the nature of the lines demarcating the factions in today’s “culture war.”
Many align themselves either with proponents for or reactionaries against ideals rooted in postmodern critical theory. Social justice warriors aim to subvert structures of power that have historically disadvantaged oppressed and underprivileged communities. And populists are wary of elites encroaching upon their established lifestyles and values. One tends to to carry out its goals with little regard for first principles, while the other does so with little regard for how the status quo has engendered unjust and inhumane conditions for the most marginalized.
Ekeocha’s attitude and approach transcends ideology, left or right, as it appeals not to the propagation of ideas, but to the real needs of the people. As Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium, “realities are more important than ideas.” Thus Ekeocha’s insistence that organizations seeking to further the well-being of Africans begin with asking the people about their needs, with respect to their cultural heritage, faith, family, and lived experience.
Ekeocha’s concern that Westerners are imposing their views about sex, economics, and freedom on developing countries is echoed by the Pope himself, as well as other African Catholics including Robert Cardinal Sarah and Peter Cardinal Turkson. In a 2017 homily, Francis warned against the threats of “ideological colonization”:
Freedom is taken away, history, people’s memory is deconstructed, and an educational system is imposed on young people…I know a country, a nation that asks for a loan, ‘(and the answer is) ‘I will give you the loan, but [in return] you, in your schools, have to teach this, and this, and this,’; books that have erased all that God has created and how he has created it. They erase the differences, eliminate history: from today you have to start thinking in this way. Those who do not think like this are cast aside, even persecuted.
Warnings like these should not detract from the good intentions of “kind and generous” Westerners who buy into postmodern notions of human dignity and flourishing. For that matter, plenty of non-white, non-Western, and non-elite communities have adopted these ideals as their own.
Advocates of “woke” social justice can indeed help underprivileged peoples to locate and name instances and sources of oppression. But Pope Francis, Ekeocha, and many others warn us not to be naive when considering solutions that are not rooted in a theistic worldview, for they don’t fully take into account the transcendent origin and destiny of the human person’s dignity. Further, we ought to question the extent to which ideas stemming from dialectical materialism and poststructuralism (which originated in elite European universities and intellectual circles) are capable of meeting the lived needs of the most marginalized.
In my experience, the aforementioned philosophies tend to breed a fissure between advocates of the marginalized and marginalized communities themselves. Critical theory’s notion of power and liberation typically has a hard time factoring in values like faith, family, and place, which are often deeply important to marginalized communities.
I observed this discrepancy when doing service work with college classmates in Brazil, most of whom identified as Marxists (though the university sponsoring our trip was Catholic; Jesuit, to be precise). When talking about the religious practices of the locals, they often came off sounding like parents belittling their child’s imaginary friend.
After attending a procession in honor of Our Lady of Aparecida with parishioners of the church that hosted us, I overheard classmates saying, “It’s so cute that they still do stuff like this!” and “Oh, look at that sweet little grandma praying her rosary!”
At other moments, their evaluations were not so “sweet.” “I can’t believe these women still believe in gender roles…if only they knew.” “That’s ridiculous that she has six kids and won’t get on the pill! When will these people get with the times?”
It’s hard to stand in solidarity with people you deem to be ideologically less advanced than yourself. People say that you’ll never understand someone’s struggle until you step into their shoes. I’m convinced that you’ll never understand someone until you are willing to step into their metaphysical worldview. Though there are plenty of exceptions, it would be misguided to discount the experiences of those for whom religion, family ties, and roots in a particular community are sources of liberation and meaning.
Though they may not be as widely publicized, there are alternatives to the ideological extremes presented to us as solutions to today’s social woes. There are more and more figures like Ekeocha whose writings and social initiatives are giving witness to the more authentically human, and thus, more universally appealing, principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
Charles C. Camosy’s book Resisting the Throwaway Culture covers a range of pro-life issues from abortion and euthanasia to animal cruelty and police brutality. The “both/and” logic of his book draws out the connection between sexual ethics, economic development, and social equity. Similarly, Terrence C. Wright’s recent biography of Dorothy Day portrays her radical commitment to both personal holiness and doctrinal orthodoxy, and social activism for the marginalized. And the American Solidarity Party’s “pro-life for the whole life” ethic and distributist economics offer an alternative to those tired of the Democratic-Republican “duopoly.”
Self-proclaimed “revolutionary of neighborliness” Danielle (DL) Mayfield lives with refugee communities in Portland, and works with them to establish a sense of communal solidarity while also advocating for their political rights. And journalist Chris Arnade’s writing gives visibility to the role of faith, family, and place play in the lives of those who live on America’s “backrow,” doing so from the point of view of someone immersing himself in the experiences and worldview of his subjects rather than as a detached observer.
As Ekeocha points out, “telling” people what they need will rarely effect useful changes. Real change can occur only when we approach others in a spirit of encounter and dialogue. Real solutions begin from the position of sharing life with the people one is advocating for within the horizon of achieving loving communion with them and with God. As people continue flocking to the extreme poles of political ideology, it is more crucial than ever for Catholics to offer a living witness to the alternatives that our faith can inspire in us.
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