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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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Hezron Masitsa was one of those young men. As a practicing Quaker and a trained mediator at the Alternatives to Violence Program in Nairobi, Hezron had helped Christian and Muslim communities along the Kenyan coast rebuild trust after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States soured relations between the two communities. At the time, Christian pastors were telling their flocks that all Muslims were terrorists, and Muslim preachers told their followers that Christians were determined to destroy Islam.

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To get the communities talking again, Hezron invited elders of each side to attend a meeting, and then made them participate in "silly games" and trust-building exercises. When I met him in mid-January 2008, he had hopes of doing the same thing in Kenya's Rift Valley. But he knew he had to wait until tempers cooled. Some 800 Kenyans had just been killed in postelection violence, and the murderous wave was still spreading.

"The emotions are very high right now, so first we need to talk with people, find out what they are feeling, and create a space where people can speak freely," Hezron told me at the Quaker church he attends. He said that when violence was occurring, it was too difficult to get local elders to sit down with their perceived enemies. But when it ebbed, Hezron would be there, creating a place for enemies to air their views and to establish the conditions once more for peaceful coexistence.

"It's not easy; you can't expect people to go back to normal when all this is going on," Hezron said with a sigh. "We need to build trust in one another again."

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.

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.


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