One of my favorite novels is Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Eugene Henderson is a loud, boorish, rich American who goes on a soul-searching journey into the heart of a mythically depicted Africa.

One of Henderson’s first stops is a village inhabited by folks called the Arnewi. He comes into the village brandishing his modern implements, lighting a bush on fire (one of many biblical allusions) and offering to shoot any man-eating lions with his gun loaded with .375 H and H Magnum.

Henderson is determined to help the people of the village any way he can. When it becomes clear that the people (and their livestock) are suffering from water shortages, Henderson leaps into action.

It turns out that the source of the problem is that the village’s cistern is populated by frogs, which the villagers understand to be a curse. The water is not itself harmed by the frog’s presence, but it cannot be used while the frogs are there. Moreover, the Arnewi are prevented from doing anything about the infection, and must wait for divine intervention to lift the curse.

Henderson, of course, is restrained by no such ceremonial inhibitions. He says to the prince, “You’re not allowed to molest these animals, but what if a stranger came along–me for instance–and took them on for you?” Henderson is dedicated to helping the people, “I realized I would never rest until I had dealt with these creatures and lifted the plague.”
His determination is related to the whole purpose of his African excursion; he’s there to find himself, and cleanse himself of gross sin. So, thinks Henderson, “this will be one of those mutual-aid deals; where the Arnewi are irrational I’ll help them, and where I’m irrational they’ll help me.”

Henderson’s idea to get rid of the frog infestation is a bomb, “One blast will kill all these buggers, and when they’re floating dead on top all we have to do is come and skim them off, and the Arnewi can water their cattle again. It’s simple.”

Rigging together a bomb using gunpowder from his .375 H and H Magnum shells, Henderson cannot be dissuaded. He is sure that he knows how to help the Arnewi. With the best of intentions, Henderson sets off the charge.

The blast throws a column of water into the air, raining dead frogs from the sky onto the villagers. The retaining wall is destroyed, and all the remaining water rushes out. Henderson sums it up best: “This is ruination. I have made a disaster.” The frogs are dead and gone, but so is the the water and any hope the Arnewi have of saving their livestock.

When I hear about all the well-intentioned efforts of the Western world to engage the global problem of poverty, I can’t help thinking of the Henderson model of aid. Good intentions aren’t enough, or as Etienne Gilson said, “Piety is no substitute for technique.” Alien models of life and prosperity can’t simply and naively be imposed on native cultures.

That’s part of the insight of the principle of subsidiarity. And it’s also why efforts to engage the developing world need to be done in sincere conjunction and respectful cooperation with local agencies and institutions.

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, discussed the recent shakeups at the World Bank and the implications for the fight against global poverty. Young felt that Wolfowitz was good for the World Bank because it needed reform: “The World Bank processes were too slow. They tended to be too European.”

In that NPR interview, Young, who also identifies himself as a Protestant Christian minister, contends, “The Europeans tend to have a colonial attitude toward the developing world, and they are extremely paternalistic. I saw Wolfowitz as having a more American point of view.”

According to Young’s analysis, the Henderson model of aid is comparable with European paternalism at the World Bank: “There’s an entrenched bureaucracy that has to be challenged.”

What makes this connection even more striking is the contrast in Bellow’s portrayal of Eugene Henderson, as an eminent example of American imperialistic capitalism in the first half of the twentieth century, fitting so well with the imperialism of contemporary European colonialism.


  • P Mangwende

    The frog story makes us Africans smile. Yes good intentions are not enough. there have been far too many good intending people cause havoc on our continent. Young is one of them. He was Robert Mugabe’s greatest supporter. I note that Andrew Young is silent these days but many of us Africans remember his condescending attitude.
    The truth is that if you want to help the people of Africa, you need to make sure that the the assistance goes directly to those who need it, not the Robert Mugabe’s of this world.