When I first started working in Africa, as a U.S. Peace Corp volunteer more than 30 years ago, John F. Kennedy remained a warming American glow. In West Africa, where I was deployed, Senegalese would praise the long dead President, alluding to his charisma and grace. Kennedy’s popularity was no doubt burnished by his late brother, Bobby, who had visited South Africa, subtly criticizing that then apartheid state.
Ronald Reagan was President when I first arrived. While not beloved in the way Kennedy was, he was respected. As were George Bush and Bill Clinton, who, from the perspective of the Kenyans, Nigeriens, South Africans, and Tanzanians I spoke with, presided over a period in which the United States had economically overwhelmed its advisory, the Soviet Union, welded its global power generally responsibly, and exported exciting films featuring American tough guys and fabulous explosions.
America shined despite the fact that our charitable work in Africa had mixed success. U.S. dollars effectively supported HIV/AIDs prevention, improvements in agriculture and eco-tourism, and Fistula clinics. But we also intermittently imposed restrictive rules about how to plan parenthood, and invested disproportionate funds on fielding American contractors – I was one of them – who often vended cultural inappropriate or simply thoughtless, dead end, economic development and nation-building strategies.
Things began to wobble, African attitude-wise, under George W. Bush. As his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on America was increasingly seen as feckless and reckless. Then came the near collapse of the United States economy, with its nasty ripple effects across the globe. Simultaneously, Chinese power was emerging. Where previously, with the exception of Indians, it was rare to see an Asian face in Africa, Chinese began to pop up everywhere, initially as ubiquitous project managers for road projects, but soon enough as proprietors of restaurants and small shops.
Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan, resurrected America’s standing in Africa. “I like the way he speaks,” an Ethiopian said to me. At internet cafes people hunched over dusty computers, carefully molding their Facebook pages, the latest must-have American export-innovation. But China’s influence continued to surge, now including trophy buildings, complete with outside video screens proclaiming the excellent amenities available inside.
Then came Trump. After pitching the environmental attributes of an affordable housing project I’m working on in Rwanda, a government official responded with a scowl. “As environmentally friendly as your President’s attitude towards climate change?” he spat, ending the meeting.
Several months ago, I was sitting on the patio of a worn café that fronted a dilapidated plaza in Axum, Ethiopia, watching a couple of boys fight over a broken cheap watch they’d found. In addition to bottled water, the only beverages on the menu – and being nursed by a smattering of patrons – were Coca-Cola products: Fanta, Sprite, and, of course, the corporation’s eponymous drink. As I sat with my own Coke, purchased reluctantly for a lack of anything else to buy, I wondered whether, after a high tide of an American century, this is what we’ll leave behind. Bottles of sugar water, at best filled with empty calories, at worst gateways to obesity and diabetes. I really hope not.