Africa’s offerings

Professor and visual artist Teemu Mäki was a resident in Villa Karo in the autumn of 2003 and an invited artist in the spring of 2009.

(translation. Emonie Ayiwe)

Almost 700 Finnish artists and cultural figures have already visited Villa Karo's artist residency in Benin.


What are the good and bad of this phenomenon?


Well, Finnish artists have mostly had fun. Almost everyone says they are very inspired. However, since the project is precisely an artist residency and not a holiday destination for people, this is not enough. One has to ask, how good has money, time and effort been for the artists and the locals?


A skeptical person may note that only a small percentage of artists have been recognised, and wondering whether any good art has been made in Villa Karo that would otherwise not have been done? If so, why do the experiences and comments of the artists who visited Villa Karo, sound like such nonsense? You can frequently hear the word 'paradise', a culture shock, an encounter with the “real Africa”, the authenticity of voodoo events (tailored for tourists), the opening up of Africanism (a continent with 53 states and more than a thousand languages, “opens up” to some in two weeks!), wildlife, the wonder of laughing children and sunsets, reed skirts, and brave “primacy” just like in the travel stories of colonial times, where a pale lady strapped in a helmet sees all blacks as endearing children of nature.


And what has Africa got from Villa Karo? Villa Karo and its guests have so far used the services of the Grand-Popo region worth almost 800,000 euros. For a small African village, of course, it is a lot. The business created and supported by Villa Karo is probably good, in other words, it is not degrading or ecologically destructive to the local culture. However, a skeptical person may state that this does not require 'art hippers' to go back and forth, just as it would have been possible to simply buy and import almost any Beninese product with the same amount of money. The business and employment-enhancing effect would have all been the same, with less environmental impact from air travel.

Maalaus Yvettestä.

Teemu Mäki, Yvette Odjo's portrait

And to what extent has the fuss been good for us, Finland and Europe, and with what efficiency? Why all this hassle if the only reward is for artists to travel to the unreachable of the art world to perform in awkward conditions? Would it also be great if, for example the Brazilians set up a residence in Enontekiö, made their own art projects to take home which would not interest the people of Lapland at all.

It is therefore difficult to change the view of a skeptical person. However, if Villa Karo wants to defend, how should one defend themselves then?

One can, of course, think that Villa Karo is primarily a private project, not a waste of state money but this argument remains a mere gloomy defence (“let me waste my own money on what I like”). It can be pointed out that the positive impact of Villa Karo on the local economy and life has been great because the residency activities have increased the local demand and consumption. This is essential because boosting local demand and consumption is much more important for the economic development of the so-called developing countries than accelerating foreign trade. The clear increase in overall local wealth in Grand-Popo caused by Villa Karo is great proof of this.

However, the most important aspect of Villa Karo for Finland, Europe and the world will only be revealed when we wake up to the impossibility of our own way of life. We are at a dead end which can be described even with these three concrete disappointments:


  1. Hunger is not even the most common cause of death and form of suffering, but in a world which we have created and ruled, people are still starving to death at the same rate as those who died in World War II - about 26,000 people a day.

  2. If all the people of the world consumed the same amount of natural resources as the Finns, about four and a half planets would be needed to satisfy the needs of humanity. At the level of Estonian consumption, four globes would be enough. At the U.S. consumption level, about six globes would be needed. If, on the other hand, everyone lived like the average person, half the globe would be enough for humanity.
  3. According to happiness surveys, we Finns are not significantly happier or more satisfied than the Beninese. It is embarrassing, because the gross domestic product of a Finn is sixty-six times higher than that of a Beninese and a Finn also lives more than twenty years than a Beninese.¹


We may have something to give to Benin, but even more we have to learn there, because the Beninese have not reached such a dead end as we have.

It is of course daring to say that the people of Benin are as happy as we are, because a European travelling in Africa encounters countless hopefuls who wonder if a traveler could in any way help them move to Europe. Still, I argue that a Beninese is at least no more unhappy than a Finn. And this is exactly what the people who stayed in Villa Karo probably agree with, that the locals are an incomprehensibly good-natured group.


However, my claim to happiness is based not only on my own experiences or subjective judgments of others but also on scientific research. The New Economics Foundation maintains The Happy Planet Index and a research group led by Ruut Veenhoven at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, which maintains the World Database of Happiness.²  The satisfaction of life of the Beninese on a scale of 1 - 10, wonders around 5,4 to 6,87. And Finnish people's satisfaction with life wonders around 7 to 7.85.


In the overall statistics of the Happy Planet Index, which takes into account not only people's satisfaction and happiness but also life expectancy and ecological footprint and thus try to create some kind of overall picture of the well-being of different people's lives. Benin is slightly better than Finland. In the ecological comparison however, Benin beats in Finland, as the Finn's ecological footprint is seven times larger than Benin's.


So we have no reason for any arrogance and no room for isolation. Of course, it’s always good to go far away in between, take a distance, see what it’s like to be outside your perspective. We need to get acquainted with the lifestyles that are materially poor but rich in quality of life and ecologically sustainable before it is too late.


Of course, we have to give. Health care expertise, an efficient education system, scientific research, water purification, waste management and data processing technology and more; these knowledge and skills should be disseminated, as suggested by Eero Paloheimo in his book This is Africa (WSOY 2007). The message of the book is dull on the one hand, and idealistic on the other. According to Paloheimo, current development aid must be stopped as it's mainly spent on bureaucracy and corruption. 


I am in favor, but I ask in the same breath: is the world's top basic and university education enough? After all, it has not made us the happiest, more empathetic or more ecological in the world either - quite the opposite. This is partly due to errors in educational priorities, the fact that some of the knowledge we learn is inaccurate or outdated and the view of the world that emerges from this set of information is badly misleading. So our so-called top education would only be real top education if it took philosophy, politics and art at least as seriously, instead of focusing on sheer technology and economics.


I am writing this in Finland on Christmas Eve. It’s the darkest and most damaging of our days. The fate is that a large or majority of those who attend a consumer party know the ecological destruction of that party, but still consider it their duty to participate, as it is supposed to spin the wheels of the economy or the satisfaction of children accustomed to splashing.


Due to our discount status we also have a mission in Benin. Its content and message is, "Don't do as we did!" The exhortation is necessary as wealthy Beninese flock to copy Western commodity culture and consumption charm. Most people in Benin know how to be as happy as we are without our ability to consume, but that is not because they first achieved our ability to consume and then perceived it as bad and abandoned, but because for various reasons they never had a chance at our consumption behavior. If the earth were boundless, it would be fair so that every Beninese and Chinese would first try the American-European way of life and then decide whether or not it tastes good. However, because the planet has limits - a carrying capacity that we have already exceeded - it cannot afford that. Therefore, visitors of Villa Karo should represent Western dissent and counterculture, tell and show that today more and more Europeans are refusing the delicacies of consumer capitalism, both for quality of life and for ecology.


Is Villa Karo up to these great challenges? We don't know yet, because the feast of Villa Karo is just beginning.

In any case, I hope others will take the model of Villa Karo, connecting the economy, technology and art. Aalto University, where I am a professor, could undertake projects in Grand-Popo region and in cooperation with the Cotonou University - in the spirit of Paloheimo, but hopefully the Finnish education system balances civilizing and in particular, the values and the good life in an open and self-critical investigative approach.


What about Villa Karo itself? Its strength, great advantage and promise will continue to be that intercultural interaction that takes place there through art. 0ne focuses on thinking about the most difficult questions: “What is a good life?” It is the most fundamental of the value questions that science and economics cannot answer alone, so art and artistic philosophizing are also essential.


1. Kansainvälisen valuuttarahaston tilastojen mukaan Beninin nimellinen bruttokansantuote (nominal GDP) henkeä kohden vuonna 2007 oli 708 ja Suomen 46 856 Yhdysvaltain dollaria Ostovoimakorjattu bruttokansantuote (GDP PPP), joka kertoo lähinnä kansalaisten keskimääräisestä ostovoimasta sisämarkkinoilla oli vastaavasti 1 547 dollaria Beninissä ja 35 349 dollaria Suomessa. Lähde: IMF / International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, October 2008: Nominal GDP list of countries. Data for the year 2007, http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2008/02/.
Suomalaisen eliniänodote vuonna 2008 on 78,82 ja beniniläisen 58,56 vuotta. Lähde: Yhdysvaltain keskustiedustelupalvelu, CIA World Factbook 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/theworld-factbook/.
2. New Economics Foundation / Nic Marks, Andrew Simms, Sam Thompson and Saamah Abdallah: The Happy Planet Index: An index of human well-being and environmental impact, 2006, http://www.neweconomics.org.
Ruut Veenhoven: World Database of Happiness, Distributional Findings in Nations, 2000–2005, Erasmus University Rotterdam, www.worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl.
3. Suomen Gini-indeksi on 26, Beninin 36,5. Indeksi mittaa tuloerojen suuruutta asteikolla 0–100, jossa 0 edustaa absoluuttista tasajakoa (kaikilla samat tulot), 100 absoluuttista epätasajakoa (yhdellä kaikki tulot, muilla ei mitään). Tuloerot Suomessa ovat siis selvästi pienemmät kuin tuloerot Beninissä – mutta on hyvä tietää myös, että tuloerot Beninissä ovat kuitenkin selvästi pienemmät kuin tuloerot Nigeriassa (GINI 43,7) tai Yhdysvalloissa (GINI 45). Lähde: CIA World Factbook 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/.
Lapsikuolleisuus Suomessa vain 4 (1000 syntyneestä lapsesta 4. kuolee ennen kuin täyttää viisi vuotta), mutta Beninissä peräti 148. HIV-tartunta on Suomessa alle 0,1 % väestöstä, Beninissä yli 1,9 % väestöstä. Lähteet: UNICEF (http://www.unicef.org/statistics/index_countrystats.html) ja WHO World Health Report 2005, http://www.who.int/whr/2005/en/.