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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If you meet one Hezron Masitsa, you'll think he's an anomaly. But spend enough time as a reporter in Africa, and you'll find a peacemaker like him in nearly every community. It may be a doctor like Denis Mukwege setting up a gynecological hospital for the rape victims of eastern Congo. It may be a Wangari Maathai planting greenbelts to prevent the desertification of northern Kenya. It may be an aid worker like Emmanuel Uwurukundo, who lost much of his family during the Rwandan genocide and decided his survival gave him an obligation to help others, such as Darfuri refugees in camps in eastern Chad.Skip to next paragraph
Pessimism is terribly fashionable these days, but optimism tells me there's a reason societies produce peacemakers, and they should be given as much attention as the warmongers.
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3. Africa needs our help
It wasn't long after my arrival here that I noticed a steady stream of celebrities to Africa.
Oprah Winfrey would come to check on her boarding school for girls outside Johannesburg. Former President Bill Clinton would come to Nairobi. George Clooney and Mia Farrow would visit the Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad. Angelina Jolie would visit refugee camps in eastern Congo, and later give birth to a child in Namibia. Madonna would come, twice, to adopt children, and to set up an Oprah-style school for underprivileged girls.
Some of these celebrities had studied their material, as Matt Damon appears to have done on drinking water projects in Zambia. Others – let's just leave them unnamed – had not. Yet the derision of many Africans toward these famous outsiders was often the same, regardless.
"Oh, look," one South African friend muttered to me one day, seeing the perfect jaw line of a Hollywood star in a magazine article about that person's activism in Africa. "Another white Tarzan has come to save us benighted Africans."
It has taken me a while to get to the root of this ridicule. Is it because these famous politicians, supermodels, or box-office giants are making a big deal about a small problem? No, certainly genocide in Rwanda and war crimes in Darfur are matters that deserve attention. Is it that they are using these good acts to burnish their image? Maybe so.
But the real reason has to do with the perception that Africa is incapable of solving its own problems. Everyone needs a little assistance during a natural disaster, of course. In the ongoing drought in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya, food aid will keep millions of people alive who might otherwise die. During the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the US, even the world's richest nations were willing to take assistance from other nations, and Africa is no exception.