Africa: the myth and the reality

Published in High Life magazine (16th April, 2013)

If you think of Africa, what do you see? Perhaps a pitiful picture of a starving girl with flies on her face and a hideously swollen belly. Or a boy barely in his teens wearing torn army fatigues, with terror in his eyes. Or maybe an imploring mother begging for food to feed her baby.

Such are the usual tragic images that assail us in the West, conjuring up a continent in which the four horsemen of the alleged African apocalypse — disease, hunger, poverty and war — constantly gallop across the landscape. It is portrayed as a dark place of death and devastation, a savage swamp of torment and trouble in desperate need of our salvation.

These corrosive clichés have created a false depiction of an amazingly diverse continent, treating a region of 54 nations, 3,000 languages and 11.6m sq miles as if it were one hopeless country. It was wrong even amid the worst of times, as states struggled to shake off the shackles of colonialism and were snared on the frontline of a global cold war. In fact, the proportion of people in sub-Saharan Africa hit by famine averaged under one-third of one per cent between 1990 and 2005.

The harmful narrative was driven for decades by an unholy alliance of an ever-growing aid industry, politicians claiming to be saving the world and lazy journalists happy to go along for the ride rather than challenging conventional wisdom. It was hugely damaging, twisting perceptions in a destructive manner and frightening away potential traders and tourists.

The West must wake up and change its arrogant attitude to Africa — or it will be the loser as the youngest (demographically) continent on the globe takes off. Already it is home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies, experiencing an unprecedented fall in child mortality and creating ground-breaking technologies. It has profound and deep-rooted problems like any other continent — but it is at the start of possibly the most amazing transformation the world has witnessed.

I have seen how people making inaugural trips to nations such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Nigeria are amazed at the vast gulf between their preconceptions and reality. Within hours of landing, they say such places are nothing like expected; instead, to their surprise they find people filled with the same hopes and fears as anywhere else. One recent survey found investors in Africa to be highly positive — while those not there were unfailingly negative. So think again of Africa. But this time think of booming cities, creative artists, clever entrepreneurs, centres of technology and a rising middle class on a continent that may come to define this century.

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