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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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.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Monitor photographers in Africa
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"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.
But when it comes to long-term development – taking a very poor and underdeveloped nation like Rwanda, for instance, and turning it into a high-tech oriented information center like Singapore – many African politicians and intellectuals say they want the West to butt out. Western aid comes with strings attached, including lengthy lectures on the merits of democracy, good governance, and human rights. Many Africans are tempted to interrupt this sermonizing with a question: "What about Guantánamo Bay?"
Across the continent, a new generation of leaders is starting to put its growing self-confidence into action by rejecting outside assistance, for both noble and ignoble reasons. Prominent among them was former South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose mantra of "African solutions for African problems," guided everything from the country's disdain for European-led peacekeeping missions to American-funded drugs for AIDS treatment.
More recently, Malawi's president, Bingu Mutharika, decided to forgo £22 million in British development aid this year, rather than comply with strict British rules for reforming its economy and imposing good-governance measures.