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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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"Where is the money?" the leader yelled.

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"What money?" I asked.

They were insistent.

"Where is the money?"

I pointed at the glove compartment, where I had stowed the cash in an envelope. They grabbed it, made me empty my pockets, jumped in their car, and fled. I sank to the ground, shocked but unharmed.

Several things are important in this incident. One, it occurred just six months after I had arrived, and it made a strong impression on me about South Africa's crime problem. Two, it was definitely not random. Police later determined that a bank employee had tipped off the robbers after I had shown up earlier without proper ID and promised I would return in an hour to complete the withdrawal. Three, the robbers never touched me.

In that sense, it was emblematic: For every shootout that ends in a death, for every carjacking or "smash and grab," for every home invasion that shocks the nation – and there are plenty of those – many more criminal acts are professional, dispassionate, strictly business, like this one.

It is hardly surprising that crime exists in South Africa. This is, after all, a country with the highest disparity between rich and poor, where multimillion-dollar homes lie within sight of the tin shacks of settlements like Diepsloot and Alexandra townships. What is surprising is that more crime doesn't occur. Friends of ours from Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro have told us that crime here is nothing compared with what they have back home.

Violence on a broader scale in Africa is more complicated than it is often portrayed as well. The places where the most violence occurs are not necessarily big cities like Johannesburg or Lagos, Nigeria, but full-force war zones like Sudan's Darfur region (where perhaps 300,000 have died since 2005) or the Democratic Republic of Congo (where an estimated 5 million have died in multiple wars since 1996). Even then, the highest death tolls have come not from war wounds, but rather the starvation or diseases that result from uprooting families and moving them hundreds of miles to refugee camps.

Does the violence of these wars make Africa a violent place? Not any more, necessarily, than the violence of the Bosnian-Serb conflict of the early 1990s made Europe a dangerous place. Wars in Africa are about the same sort of stuff that they are about on other continents: power.

And just as there are warmongers in every society, so, too, there are peacemakers. In Kenya, when politicians were busy whipping up ethnic hatred among rival groups after the botched presidential elections of December 2007, there were church leaders, human rights activists, youth leaders, and others who risked their lives to appeal for calm.

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