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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The striking part of Olga and Pontsho's story is that theirs is a common narrative. More than a quarter of all South Africans are jobless, according to official statistics. More than 65 percent live on less than 550 rand ($75) per month, or $2.60 a day. And yet, the gross domestic product, on a per capita basis, is $10,700. What those figures suggest is that South Africa isn't a poor country: It's a country where the wealth is concentrated in a few hands.Skip to next paragraph
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Sitting in Olga and Pontsho's home – with a throng of young faces staring at me – I was dumbfounded by their generosity. Many middle-class families give to charity, perhaps with a check to Oxfam or by volunteering to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. But when charity becomes a matter of daily life, it is taking the concept to another level.
South Africans call it ubuntu, a Zulu word that means "humanness." In the philosophy of ubuntu, you are only a human being if you are connected to and helping out other human beings. For Olga, ubuntu was as natural as breathing.
"I do a lot of stuff for my kids and my sister's kids because I didn't want to see these kids to go to eat in the dustbin or to go to steal," Olga told me, her voice shaking with emotion. But she trusted then that doing good for others wouldn't cause her own family harm. Bulelwa, a seventh-grader and the daughter of Olga's aunt, said that Olga "give us equal food. She doesn't call us names. She treat us equal like her children."
Olga's choice took her on a very bumpy road during the four years that the Monitor followed her. With relatives pestering her for a portion of the government-provided $90 monthly child-welfare grants, her marriage with Pontsho broke up. Little Bulelwa rebelled and became pregnant. In our last meeting, last year, Olga blamed herself for taking on so much responsibility.
But getting to know Olga a bit over the years, I can't imagine her not shouldering such a great burden. It wasn't poverty that tore up Olga's family: It was greed by family members. Today, Olga blames generosity for her downfall. But that generosity speaks of a cultural wealth that is still deeply felt in most South African communities.
The word ubuntu has been so often used by politicians that it is fast losing its credit, but as long as the impulse remains, South Africans will have a foundation stone for building a new, more equitable South Africa.
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2. Africa is 'violent'
On a sunny March morning in 2007, I was robbed at gunpoint. I had just gone to our local bank in Johannesburg to withdraw a large amount of money ahead of a trip to Kenya and Somalia. From the bank, I went to a pet store (we had just gotten a parrot) a few blocks down the road. In the parking lot, I found myself facing a young man with a gun, and behind him several other men, who proceeded to shout at me and look in my car.