The sad state of Africa’s war-scarred nations is not terribly shocking news to anyone in the United States. Corporations and pop stars alike tack themselves onto causes, promoting the view that they care about the degenerating human race by “raising awareness” of the deplorable conditions African orphans suffer every day. Commercials advertise Africa’s misery, and ads call for Westerners to “make a difference” by donating a couple dollars to a starved, HIV-riddled continent. Thousands of posters and billboards display children’s dark faces staring out desperately, slideshows show stick-thin legs and grossly distended bellies, and brochures reveal crying eyes, torn feet and bloody hands. When it comes to Africa, Americans are very well-informed and very willing to help. Right?
According to Peter Chilson, Americans and Europeans are completely missing the point.
Peter Chilson’s “Disturbance-Loving Species” decidedly takes the reader beyond the common sympathy-inducing stories that highlight desolation and then charge the reader to become the ultimate bringer of justice. The book pleads with the reader to understand that Americans in general do not understand Africa at all.
“Disturbance-Loving Species” is a collection of Peter Chilson’s five fictional stories inspired by his years in Africa, first as a Peace Corp volunteer and second as a freelance journalist. Chilson explores Africa from the eyes of Americans: the visitors, the volunteers, the adventurers seeking to “broaden their horizons.” Always in first person, Chilson presents five utterly unique accounts of experiences in Africa, each infuriating in their own way as injustice spears through every story. The stories reveal the severely ignorant nature of many Americans’ understanding of the African people. His characters blunder rudely about, unable to see or refusing to acknowledge the true state of the people they are trying to help. Chilson shows how Americans’ passing-through attitude and pervading sense of entitlement block them from understanding the African people’s circumstances. His characters continually disrespect their African neighbor’s customs and values by insisting to live their own way regardless of the people around them. They fail to grasp the effect of Africa’s past on the people’s present and future because they lack the curiosity and courage to ask the right questions.
Chilson does not hold back for sake of propriety. His descriptions are stark, rendered in the true reporter’s style; the blunt, chillingly inhuman events that unfold in Niger’s cities and understaffed hospitals bring tears. But Chilson also reveals that Africa is not all misery and gloom. Africans are complex, strong, enthralling, beautiful people, and that is what many Americans and Europeans fail to see.