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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>David Brooks: Get to know the real Africa
Tuesday, 13 May 2014 15:36

David Brooks: Get to know the real Africa

Written by David Brooks
Abuja, capital of Nigeria  aerial picture Abuja, capital of Nigeria aerial picture

In 2005, Binyavanga Wainaina published a brilliantly sarcastic essay in Granta called "How to Write About Africa," advising people on how to sound spiritual and compassionate while writing a book about the continent.

 

"Always use the word 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title," Wainaina advised. "Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress."

 

Wainaina had other tips: The people in said book should be depicted as hungry, suffering, simple or dead. The children should have distended bellies and flies on their faces. The animals should be depicted as wise and filled with family values.

 

Elephants are caring and good feminists. So are gorillas. Be sure to show how profoundly you are moved by the continent and its woes, and how much it has penetrated your soul. End with a quote from Nelson Mandela involving rainbows.

 

There's been something similarly distorted to some of the social media reactions to the Boko Haram atrocities. It's great that the kidnappings and the massacres finally are arousing the world's indignation. But sometimes the implication of the conversation has been this: Africa is this dark and lawless place where monstrous things are bound to happen. Those poor people need our help.

 

But this is more or less the opposite of the truth. Boko Haram is not the main story in Africa or even in Nigeria. It is a small rear-guard reaction to the main story. The main story in Africa is an impressive surge of growth, urbanization and modernization, which has sparked panic in a few people who don't like these things.

 

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are growing at a phenomenal clip. Nigeria's economy grew by 6.7% in 2012. Mozambique's grew by 7.4%, Ghana's by 7.9%. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is predicted to reach 5.2% this year. Investment funds are starting up by the dozen, finding local entrepreneurs.

 

In 2011, roughly 60 million African households earned at least $3,000 a year. By next year, more than 100 million households will make that much. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200% since 2000. Since 1996, the poverty rate has fallen by 1% per year. Life expectancies are shooting up.

 

Africa should not be seen as merely the basket case continent where students, mission trips and celebrities can go to do good work. It has become the test case of 21st-century modernity. It is the place where the pace of modernization is fast, and where the forces that resist modernization are mounting a daring reaction.

 

We are seeing three distinct clashes. They're happening all over the world, but they exist in bold contrast in Africa.

 

The first is the clash over pluralism. Africa has seen an explosion of cellphone usage. It's seen a rapid expansion of urbanization. In 1980, only 28% of Africans lived in cities, but today 40% do. This has led to a greater mixing of tribal groupings, religions and a loosening of lifestyle options. The anti-gay laws in Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi and many other countries are one reaction against this cosmopolitan trend.

 

The second is a clash over human development. Over the past decade, secondary school enrollment in Africa has increased by 50%. This contributes to an increasing value on intellectual openness, as people seek liberty to furnish their own minds. The Boko Haram terrorists are massacring and kidnapping people — mostly girls — at schools to try to force people to submit to a fantasy version of the past.

 

The third is the clash over governance. Roughly 80% of Africa's workers labor in the informal sector. That's because the formal governmental and regulatory structures are biased toward the connected and the rich, not based on impersonal rule of law. Many Africans are trying to replace old practices with competent governance.

 

Too many of our images of Africa are derived from nature documentaries, fundraising appeals and mission trips. In reality, Africa faces in acute forms the same problems that afflict pretty much every region these days. Most important: Individual and social creativity is zooming ahead, and governing institutions are failing to perform the basic, elementary tasks.

 

 

David Brooks is a neo- conservative columnist for The New York Times.

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