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Five myths about Africa

Matt Damon, listen up: After five years of covering Africa, our departing correspondent tells how his perceptions have changed about a complex continent, including why some Africans resent celebrity visits.

By Scott Baldaufstaff writer / August 6, 2011

This file photo shows girls gathering wood in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Monitor staff writer Scott Baldauf recalls his time covering Africa in the August 8 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

Monitor staff file photo

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Johannesburg, South Africa

Here we were, stuck axle-deep on a muddy road in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after a very impressive midafternoon rainstorm. Ten miles behind us was a small village with a deep hole in the ground where the village men would dig up chunks of tin and sell them to traveling salesmen. This was the last village under government control before the tin trade fell into the hands of a genocidal rebel group called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

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So, with dusk falling, the rain starting, and a mile or two to walk to the closest friendly village, there was nothing to do but get on the cellphone to inform my wife I wouldn't make it to the hotel that night in Bukavu. Later, in the village, my colleague Stephanie Nolen of the Toronto Globe and Mail would send an e-mail from her BlackBerry to her paper's editors, explaining that she was safe.

Welcome to the jungle. Now complete with 3G mobile phone connectivity.

I'm not sure what I expected when I arrived on the African continent. Having lived in India for five-plus years, I knew enough to distrust the "white man's burden" perspective of British colonialism, or the quaint "noble savage" messages embedded in Belgian comics like Tin-Tin. Instead, I buried myself in the African fiction of Chinua Achebe and the plays of Athol Fugard, and hoped that I would quickly find people in our new home in Johannesburg, South Africa, to guide us toward a real sense of what Africa was all about.

Five years later, having served as Africa bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor – living in the upper-middle-class comforts of Johannesburg and traveling to the squatter camps of Chad, the artisanal tin mines of Congo, the deserts of Timbuktu – I have plenty of stories to tell. But while I have seen the same violence you read about in the news, and share the same concerns others have about the state of governance here, I remain convinced that much coverage of Africa remains needlessly tilted toward the negative.

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