Hugh Reilly: Plight of Africa shames us all

The reunion of Midge Ure and Bob Geldof has split charitable opinion. Picture: Getty
The reunion of Midge Ure and Bob Geldof has split charitable opinion. Picture: Getty
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Whether they know it’s Christmas or not is irrelevant: the continent is beset with problems and it’s up to us to help, writes Hugh Reilly

LAST week, rock and pop millionaires put calls from accountants offering tax avoidance schemes on hold to gather around a studio microphone and alert a blissfully unaware UK public to the fact that Africa is experiencing problems. Thirty years ago, appalled by the plight of starving Ethiopians brought to the screen by the BBC, an unbeknighted Bob Geldof organised Band Aid to raise millions. Geldof’s lyrics were put to music by Midge Ure, the collaboration producing a hit single, Do They Know It’s Christmas? To be fair, Ethiopians probably didn’t, as that country follows the Orthodox calendar which celebrates Christmas on 7 January.

Singers on the record included the likes of Simon Le Bon, Tony Hadley, Boy George and Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17, more evidence if it were needed that the 80s didn’t exactly represent the acme of British music. Despite this line-up, it became the fastest-selling single of all time in the UK, selling a million copies in the first week alone, hogging the No1 spot for five weeks and achieving more sales than Paul McCartney’s interminable Mull of Kintyre.

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The title of biggest-selling single stood until 1997 when Elton John released a revised version of Candle In The Wind after Lady Diana’s death. Amongst other alterations to the original lyrics, “Goodbye England’s rose, may you ever grow in our hearts” replaced “Goodbye Norma Jean, though I never knew you at all”. It became the biggest selling single in the USA and UK since records began.

Doubtless noting that tinkering with lyrics to suit the occasion has enjoyed great success, Sir Bob Geldof decided to fiddle with the original words of Do They Know It’s Christmas? to reflect the Dark Continent’s latest affliction. He invited stars such as Rita Ora, Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran to sing their hearts out for the world’s poorest (Myleene Klass had to decline her invitation due to work being done to her £3 million garage in Kensington).

Poor Sir Bob, wishing only to highlight the Ebola disease that has killed thousands in West Africa, changed the lyric “where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” to “where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear”. Bono’s guilt-tripping line, “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you!” has been replaced with, “Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you”.

Unfortunately, these touchy-feely lines sparked off a firestorm of criticism, some of it from within the Band Aid 30 members themselves. Emeli Sandé, who was definitely not writing in a fit of pique after her proposed song edits were rejected, tweeted that a whole new song was required. Apparently, the song reinforces negative images of Africa. She commented that “no offence or disrespect to the beautiful and prosperous continent was ever intended”.

I think most would agree with Miss Sandé that, as far as landscape is concerned, Africa is beautiful – only those stuck behind a caravan in the middle of the Sahara desert would demur. However, the idea that Africa is prosperous needs to be explored. According to the UN’s Human Development Report, of the 50 poorest nations on the planet, 35 are in Africa. Worse, with regard to the top ten most impoverished countries, African nations take the first nine spots, with only Afghanistan (in tenth) preventing a clean sweep for the continent.

When I was a school kid, I enthusiastically contributed every last penny given to me by my mother to help the Black Babies (the nomenclature of the charity clearly indicates this was before the dawn of political correctness). On donating a set amount, the donor had the honour of naming a child. Being a tad impish, my friends and I christened those we had saved with names such as Fred, Nigel and Rupert. In our innocence, we imagined that in the years to come, black lads wearing rough-cut, animal-hide speedos would be living in mud and wattle huts but calling each other by their quintessentially English names. Giving cash to help starving Africans was all the rage in the mid-Sixties when the Biafran war brought home to British viewers the savagery of tribal war. In the Seventies, the awfulness of dictatorships – more often than not supported by western governments – was epitomised by the rule of Idi Amin, the self-proclaimed King of Scotland.

Fast forward 40 years and, on the surface at least, little has changed in Africa. Some of the blame for this can rightly be apportioned to the USA, Europe and international agencies. For example, in many instances, foreign aid has resulted in a dependency culture or, worse, food and medical aid finding its way on to black markets. Colonial rulers departed the scene of the crime and failed miserably to create a peaceful pathway to filling the power vacuum they left behind, a root cause of many of the civil wars and abysmal lack of democracy in that part of the world. The imposition of the IMF’s market forces dogma led to instability, the eradication of food subsidies a cause of social and political unrest in countries such as Ivory Coast.

At least one thing has changed. Thanks to the Ebola outbreak, the heart-tugging imagery of emaciated children on intravenous drips or the pitiful sight of kids staggering around feeding camps with swollen bellies has largely disappeared from our television screens. Instead, we are treated to news loops of goggled men in bio-hazard onesies bearing stricken virus victims to their final resting place. Of course, should the patient have the good fortune to be white – perhaps an Evangelical missionary or volunteer nurse working in the region – every effort is made to get him/her out of the country inside what appears to be a hermetically sealed bag and into the hands of the best possible medical assistance.

In my view, Geldof should not be crucified for the lyrics of Band Aid 30, even if the money raised will be less than a sticking plaster for West Africa’s Ebola woes.

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