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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.

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Nobody I know here denies the problems of this continent, but too few outsiders hear about the positive strides being made and the people who are making them. Think of all the images one gets of Africa – starving babies, child soldiers, incessant conflict, unapologetic greed. Certainly every one of these images is based in fact.

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Is there starvation in Africa? Ask someone who has visited the Horn of Africa, with its horrific drought and its decades-long civil war.

Is there violence? Ask a Tutsi woman who has lost her entire family in the 1994 genocide; or ask a Congolese family whose male children have been kidnapped as child soldiers by the Lord's Resistance Army. But these images don't tell the whole story of Africa.

Here are a few of the more common misperceptions: Africa is poor; Africa is violent; Africa is technologically backward; Africa needs "our" help; and my favorite, Africa is a country.

Add those all up, and you start to wonder why people live here. Repeat them out loud, and you might annoy some of your African friends. Report on them, year after year, and you can spend a very fruitful career in Nairobi or Dakar, in Cairo or Johannesburg. If you never look for Africans who are perfectly aware of these problems and who are actively searching for solutions, well, it's almost certain that you'll never find them. Yet those people do exist. Here are some of the people I met along the way, who changed how I saw Africa.

1. Africa is 'poor'

I met Olga Thimbela and Pontsho Monamodi in their tin-shack dwelling in an informal settlement outside Roodepoort almost four years ago. On paper, they were among the poorest people in South Africa. In a good month, Pontsho earned 1,400 rand (about $200) working as a security guard, protecting the homes of middle-class South Africans.

Olga had just given up a part-time job as a housecleaner in many of those homes to look after her children. Considering that she had eight to look after – two of her own, and six others who were the orphaned children of relatives who had died of AIDS – Olga had work enough to manage at home.

Olga and Pontsho are part of a massive demographic trend in South Africa, the surviving relatives who must care for the children of the estimated 2 million South Africans who have died of AIDS in the past decade and a half. It's a disease that has disproportionately struck the poorest of the poor, those who must travel long distances to seek work and those who often have little information on the dangers of unprotected sex.

And it's a disease that has massive economic and social consequences for a nation that should be building for the future, but instead is struggling with looking after an entire generation of children – as many as 1.4 million orphans in all.

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