Sunday, August 7, 2011

Five Myths about Africa

Departing words by Christian Science Monitor Africa's  chief correspondent Scott Baldauf after five years covering the continent. Interesting reading most specially when the Horn of Africa is  again  in the agenda of corporate media. 
Africa´s political map from Nationsonline

With the insight of five years on the ground and a summary of his travels around the continent; Mr. Baldauf proceeds to debunk five myths about Africa which shape international coverage of what happens in a 54-countries and 2,000 languages continent: "Africa is poor; Africa is violent;  Africa is technologically backward; Africa needs "our" help; and my favorite,  Africa is a country. " An interesting piece to improve our understanding of a huge continent of extreme contrasts.

 Five myths about Africa

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.

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