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.

Monitor staff file photo
This file photo shows girls gathering wood in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Monitor staff writer Scott Baldauf recalls his time covering Africa in the August 8 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Here we were, stuck axle-deep on a muddy road in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after a very impressive midafternoon rainstorm. Ten miles behind us was a small village with a deep hole in the ground where the village men would dig up chunks of tin and sell them to traveling salesmen. This was the last village under government control before the tin trade fell into the hands of a genocidal rebel group called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

So, with dusk falling, the rain starting, and a mile or two to walk to the closest friendly village, there was nothing to do but get on the cellphone to inform my wife I wouldn't make it to the hotel that night in Bukavu. Later, in the village, my colleague Stephanie Nolen of the Toronto Globe and Mail would send an e-mail from her BlackBerry to her paper's editors, explaining that she was safe.

Welcome to the jungle. Now complete with 3G mobile phone connectivity.

I'm not sure what I expected when I arrived on the African continent. Having lived in India for five-plus years, I knew enough to distrust the "white man's burden" perspective of British colonialism, or the quaint "noble savage" messages embedded in Belgian comics like Tin-Tin. Instead, I buried myself in the African fiction of Chinua Achebe and the plays of Athol Fugard, and hoped that I would quickly find people in our new home in Johannesburg, South Africa, to guide us toward a real sense of what Africa was all about.

Five years later, having served as Africa bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor – living in the upper-middle-class comforts of Johannesburg and traveling to the squatter camps of Chad, the artisanal tin mines of Congo, the deserts of Timbuktu – I have plenty of stories to tell. But while I have seen the same violence you read about in the news, and share the same concerns others have about the state of governance here, I remain convinced that much coverage of Africa remains needlessly tilted toward the negative.

Nobody I know here denies the problems of this continent, but too few outsiders hear about the positive strides being made and the people who are making them. Think of all the images one gets of Africa – starving babies, child soldiers, incessant conflict, unapologetic greed. Certainly every one of these images is based in fact.

Is there starvation in Africa? Ask someone who has visited the Horn of Africa, with its horrific drought and its decades-long civil war.

Is there violence? Ask a Tutsi woman who has lost her entire family in the 1994 genocide; or ask a Congolese family whose male children have been kidnapped as child soldiers by the Lord's Resistance Army. But these images don't tell the whole story of Africa.

Here are a few of the more common misperceptions: Africa is poor; Africa is violent; Africa is technologically backward; Africa needs "our" help; and my favorite, Africa is a country.

Add those all up, and you start to wonder why people live here. Repeat them out loud, and you might annoy some of your African friends. Report on them, year after year, and you can spend a very fruitful career in Nairobi or Dakar, in Cairo or Johannesburg. If you never look for Africans who are perfectly aware of these problems and who are actively searching for solutions, well, it's almost certain that you'll never find them. Yet those people do exist. Here are some of the people I met along the way, who changed how I saw Africa.

1. Africa is 'poor'

I met Olga Thimbela and Pontsho Monamodi in their tin-shack dwelling in an informal settlement outside Roodepoort almost four years ago. On paper, they were among the poorest people in South Africa. In a good month, Pontsho earned 1,400 rand (about $200) working as a security guard, protecting the homes of middle-class South Africans.

Olga had just given up a part-time job as a housecleaner in many of those homes to look after her children. Considering that she had eight to look after – two of her own, and six others who were the orphaned children of relatives who had died of AIDS – Olga had work enough to manage at home.

Olga and Pontsho are part of a massive demographic trend in South Africa, the surviving relatives who must care for the children of the estimated 2 million South Africans who have died of AIDS in the past decade and a half. It's a disease that has disproportionately struck the poorest of the poor, those who must travel long distances to seek work and those who often have little information on the dangers of unprotected sex.

And it's a disease that has massive economic and social consequences for a nation that should be building for the future, but instead is struggling with looking after an entire generation of children – as many as 1.4 million orphans in all.

The striking part of Olga and Pontsho's story is that theirs is a common narrative. More than a quarter of all South Africans are jobless, according to official statistics. More than 65 percent live on less than 550 rand ($75) per month, or $2.60 a day. And yet, the gross domestic product, on a per capita basis, is $10,700. What those figures suggest is that South Africa isn't a poor country: It's a country where the wealth is concentrated in a few hands.

Sitting in Olga and Pontsho's home – with a throng of young faces staring at me – I was dumbfounded by their generosity. Many middle-class families give to charity, perhaps with a check to Oxfam or by volunteering to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. But when charity becomes a matter of daily life, it is taking the concept to another level.

South Africans call it ubuntu, a Zulu word that means "humanness." In the philosophy of ubuntu, you are only a human being if you are connected to and helping out other human beings. For Olga, ubuntu was as natural as breathing.

"I do a lot of stuff for my kids and my sister's kids because I didn't want to see these kids to go to eat in the dustbin or to go to steal," Olga told me, her voice shaking with emotion. But she trusted then that doing good for others wouldn't cause her own family harm. Bulelwa, a seventh-grader and the daughter of Olga's aunt, said that Olga "give us equal food. She doesn't call us names. She treat us equal like her children."

Olga's choice took her on a very bumpy road during the four years that the Monitor followed her. With relatives pestering her for a portion of the government-provided $90 monthly child-welfare grants, her marriage with Pontsho broke up. Little Bulelwa rebelled and became pregnant. In our last meeting, last year, Olga blamed herself for taking on so much responsibility.

But getting to know Olga a bit over the years, I can't imagine her not shouldering such a great burden. It wasn't poverty that tore up Olga's family: It was greed by family members. Today, Olga blames generosity for her downfall. But that generosity speaks of a cultural wealth that is still deeply felt in most South African communities.

The word ubuntu has been so often used by politicians that it is fast losing its credit, but as long as the impulse remains, South Africans will have a foundation stone for building a new, more equitable South Africa.

2. Africa is 'violent'

On a sunny March morning in 2007, I was robbed at gunpoint. I had just gone to our local bank in Johannesburg to withdraw a large amount of money ahead of a trip to Kenya and Somalia. From the bank, I went to a pet store (we had just gotten a parrot) a few blocks down the road. In the parking lot, I found myself facing a young man with a gun, and behind him several other men, who proceeded to shout at me and look in my car.

"Where is the money?" the leader yelled.

"What money?" I asked.

They were insistent.

"Where is the money?"

I pointed at the glove compartment, where I had stowed the cash in an envelope. They grabbed it, made me empty my pockets, jumped in their car, and fled. I sank to the ground, shocked but unharmed.

Several things are important in this incident. One, it occurred just six months after I had arrived, and it made a strong impression on me about South Africa's crime problem. Two, it was definitely not random. Police later determined that a bank employee had tipped off the robbers after I had shown up earlier without proper ID and promised I would return in an hour to complete the withdrawal. Three, the robbers never touched me.

In that sense, it was emblematic: For every shootout that ends in a death, for every carjacking or "smash and grab," for every home invasion that shocks the nation – and there are plenty of those – many more criminal acts are professional, dispassionate, strictly business, like this one.

It is hardly surprising that crime exists in South Africa. This is, after all, a country with the highest disparity between rich and poor, where multimillion-dollar homes lie within sight of the tin shacks of settlements like Diepsloot and Alexandra townships. What is surprising is that more crime doesn't occur. Friends of ours from Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro have told us that crime here is nothing compared with what they have back home.

Violence on a broader scale in Africa is more complicated than it is often portrayed as well. The places where the most violence occurs are not necessarily big cities like Johannesburg or Lagos, Nigeria, but full-force war zones like Sudan's Darfur region (where perhaps 300,000 have died since 2005) or the Democratic Republic of Congo (where an estimated 5 million have died in multiple wars since 1996). Even then, the highest death tolls have come not from war wounds, but rather the starvation or diseases that result from uprooting families and moving them hundreds of miles to refugee camps.

Does the violence of these wars make Africa a violent place? Not any more, necessarily, than the violence of the Bosnian-Serb conflict of the early 1990s made Europe a dangerous place. Wars in Africa are about the same sort of stuff that they are about on other continents: power.

And just as there are warmongers in every society, so, too, there are peacemakers. In Kenya, when politicians were busy whipping up ethnic hatred among rival groups after the botched presidential elections of December 2007, there were church leaders, human rights activists, youth leaders, and others who risked their lives to appeal for calm.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

Encouraging this view are intellectual giants of the anticolonial period such as Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, and Leopold Senghor. Fighting against the colonial method of divide and rule, Mr. Garvey urged Africans to embrace a broader African unity. Senegalese poet Mr. Senghor wrote lengthy books about a Pan-African culture, common among the various colonial peoples, and called this sense of Africanness "Negritude."

But after independence, many people embraced an identity much closer to home. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, activists told me the source of their problems was the domination of the Shona-speaking tribes loyal to Mr. Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. They told me about a brutal military operation called "Gukuruhundi" against Ndebele-speaking people, in which an estimated 20,000 civilians were killed.

"We can't even think of ourselves as Zimbabwean," said one activist from a local federalist party that was seeking autonomy for the Matabeleland region that includes Bulawayo. "We are Ndebeles, and we have to look out for our own interest and govern our own affairs. This country you call Zimbabwe will never work."

It's a sentiment that the newly independent nation of South Sudan would sympathize with, now that they have freed themselves from the Arab-dominated nation of Sudan; and that Somalilanders would appreciate as well, as they declare unilateral secession from the Somali government in Mogadishu.

But it's a sentiment that policymakers in Washington and Paris and London – and aid workers and celebrity fundraisers should keep in mind. This month, when Fast Company magazine ran a story about Matt Damon's worthy efforts to fund clean-drinking water projects in Zambia, the chattering class known as Twitter murmured over the prevailing stereotype of Africa.

Reading the headline – "Can Matt Damon Bring Clean Water to Africa?" – one person tweeted sarcastically: "Really? All of it?"

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.