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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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Please note: It was ordinary Kenyans, not Safaricom, who started cellphone banking, a business that is rapidly giving traditional banks and money-transfer companies like Western Union a run for their wired money. It's a fact that I keep in my head whenever I hear pessimistic Africans (especially white South Africans) sigh and tell me, "This is Africa." It sounds like an obvious statement of geography. It is meant as a catchall excuse for inefficiency. What did you expect? This is Africa.

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Yet I saw ingenuity where others saw backwardness. In a refugee camp in Chad for the exiles of Sudan's Darfur region, I watched women use handmade foil-and-cardboard solar stoves to cook meals.

In Malawi, I read about a boy who had built his own windmill to generate electricity in his rural home. In Mali, I saw farmers use ancient irrigation systems to divert water from the Niger River into rice fields they had carved out of the desert, and in Ethiopia I met farmers who used cellphones to find the best price for their crops.

In the end, we all look at the same evidence and take away lessons that we want to learn. What Africa lacks is not inventiveness but rather effective governance. When Africans get the leaders who will do the job of making the power plants, water systems, roads, and schools actually work, then you'll see the beginnings of an African renaissance.

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5. Africa is a country

The young Ethiopian office workers ripped up pieces of spongy injera bread and mopped up the sauce from a spicy grilled meat dish called "tibs." They were laughing, flirting, feeding each other, and telling me about the dating scene in Ethiopia.

"I couldn't marry an African man," said one pretty Ethiopian young lady, flatly, referring to any male outside Ethiopia, and other women at the table nodded their heads. The young lady began to list her reasons why, and I won't list them here, because if a white person said them, he would be accused of racism.

What stunned me, though, was her use of the word "African." On my map of Africa, the country of Ethiopia is clearly attached to the continent. So why did these Ethiopians not consider themselves to be Africans?

The experience evoked a kind of déjà vu. In Johannesburg, my South African neighbors often would ask me, the exotic foreign correspondent, if I would be traveling "to Africa" anytime soon. When this sort of thing happens to me often enough, I start to doubt my understanding of the word "Africa." Whether we like to admit it or not, non-Africans have a picture in their mind of Africa, one that looks remarkably like the film images of "Out of Africa." But the continent is, in fact, divided up into 54 countries, along lines that have remained largely unchanged since a group of European kings and prime ministers sketched boundaries at a conference in Berlin in 1885. But there is a temptation to speak of Africans as if they are one people, with a common history, with common cultures and traits and beliefs. And it just isn't so.


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