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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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?"Skip to next paragraph
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.
Kenyan leaders, angry that fellow politicians might face trial for international human rights charges from the postelection violence, have urged other African nations to join them in boycotting any future cooperation with the International Criminal Court at The Hague. And then there's Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who tends to tell his Western critics to simply "go hang."
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Is all this just members of a "Dictator's Club" protecting their own interests? Sure. But what about those African intellectuals who are critical of their leaders, yet still insist that Africans need to develop their own ability to solve problems?
Last year, I got to meet the son of a man whose influence ripples far beyond his native South Africa. Nkosinathi Biko, the son of slain black-consciousness leader Steve Biko, has tailored his father's message of pride in African heritage to the post-apartheid age. It's a time when young black schoolchildren know they have political freedom, he told me, but when many young black South Africans still lack confidence in their culture. Being proud of who you are, he said, is key for black South Africans to find their place in their world.
I found that pride in extreme places, like the Touloum refugee camp in eastern Chad. Having talked to a Darfuri woman displaced from her farm in Sudan, photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman and I were preparing to leave when the refugee woman insisted on giving us tea and biscuits. Her poverty was no excuse, in her mind, for not offering typical Darfuri hospitality for guests from afar.
4. Africa is 'backward'
If it is difficult to turn Steve Biko's vision of black consciousness – confident Africans doing things for themselves – into action, it isn't because Africans lack the motivation or inventiveness to do so.