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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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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.

In Kenya, I've seen people use their cellphones for banking, an idea just gaining a foothold in many Western countries. On payday, they take their money to a local cellphone shop, buy a few scratch cards for airtime, and send the code numbers to their relatives by text message. Their family members, in turn, either use the airtime or give that code to their own shopkeeper, who gives them cash.

In fact, it was this common practice of using airtime to send money that attracted the attention of the cellphone company Safaricom and the British Department for International Development to launch a new service called M-PESA. Today, M-PESA serves effectively as one of Kenya's largest banks, with some 75 percent of the 9.5 million M-PESA account holders using it to store money, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The project worked so well, it has now spread to South Africa – a country with a world-class banking sector – and plans are afoot to take it elsewhere in Africa.


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