Does Africa need Bono and Geldof?

“Ireland,” I answered the taxi-driver’s question when I first went to Ethiopia in 2006. “You know … Bob Geldof, Bono?”, I continued, confident he would recognise me as a countryman of the two rockers who many Westerners think fed the world during the 1980s.

“You know … Bob Geldof, Bono?”, I continued, confident he would recognise me as a countryman of the two rockers who many Westerners think fed the world during the 1980s.

“Bondof?” came the puzzled reply. “Oh, Ireland! … You mean Roy Keane! Gerry Adams! IRA!”

And so began a pattern of national identifiers that has lasted for my three years in this country the Dublin singers first introduced me to as a child during its ruinous famines. 

Footballing legend Roy Keane. Political firebrand Gerry Adams. Irish Republican Army. In that order.

Rarely a ‘Bono’ or a ‘Bob’ spoken.    

It’s not just that the people of this beautiful Horn of Africa nation are largely ignorant of the two men who still say it affected them like no place ever has.

It’s that, when they are mentioned, it’s usually in a critical tone that would surprise most Westerners.

Journalists often peg stories about the continent to what two of its most visible advocates say. “Africa aid levels a disgrace, says Bono”, “Give us your ‘effin money, says Geldof”.

Some say we journalists are lazy, others say their fame gives us a convenient way of getting stories into the Western media.

“For most Africans it’s a turnoff when Geldof/Bono are used to present a range of African issues,” Max Bankole Jarrett, a Liberian living in Ethiopia responded to one story last month.

“It perpetuates everything these guys claim to be speaking out against — an Africa that is weak and incapable of picking itself up.”    

Whether rich nations should focus less on aid and more on encouraging foreign investment in Africa is a hot topic for debate on the continent right now.     

“Even though Geldof and Bono now talk about investment, they will always be associated with negative images of Africa and that discourages investors and tourists,” says David Thomas, a Briton working on private sector development in Ethiopia.

“These Irish singers have been a great help to us. And we thank them,” Meti Yilma, a 30-year-old Ethiopian radio presenter told me recently. “But they need start to paint a more positive picture of Africa. Or else move aside for some African voices.”