Not so hopeless

2009-01-15 00:00

It’s time to stop seeing the African continent as one made up only of dictators, war, famine and disease. This is the view of author Richard Dowden, who is director of the Royal African Society and has been described as “the Africa experts’ Africa expert”. He contends in Africa — Altered States, Ordinary Miracles that Africa has been misunderstood. The book guides the reader through sub-Saharan Africa’s past and present. It reports on real Africans without falling back on the generalisations which are often made when Africa is treated as one country.

Dowden, who first went to Africa in 1971 as a volunteer teacher in Idi Amin’s Uganda, has drawn on more than 30 years of experience on the continent, where he has spent much time as a journalist and then as Africa editor of the Independent, and later of The Economist.

Dowden said Africa is seen as a hopeless continent, largely due to the way it is presented in the media. However, he said, Africa has turned a corner and is doing a great deal better than many people think.

Interestingly, he was Africa editor of The Economist when, last March, it featured a map of Africa on its cover, with the headline “The Hopeless Continent”. It was not an analysis he agreed with. “Africa is seen as the continent of dictators, war, famine and disease. This is because there are two things operating here.

“Firstly, if we look at the former Yugoslavia, we know about Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. Nobody ever heard about Slovenia, the success story. Second is the New Orleans syndrome. When New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, we didn’t think the whole of the United States had been flooded. That is because we know that a normal U.S. exists and flourishes. People don’t know that about Africa. They have images in their minds of the 19th-century dark continent. They don’t have a sense of the ordinary Africa.”

That was one of the things Dowden wanted to address in his book. “Even where there were disasters, I always tried to look for local people who were doing their own thing. I wrote a lot of stories about ordinary Africa and tried to follow those through strongly in the book.”

Despite Africa’s setbacks, during the past five years African economies have grown more than five percent. “Until the great financial collapse, Africa was the one part of the world where the World Bank and the IMF were revising estimates upwards. I am not saying that Africa is all fine. It certainly is not. But it is doing a lot better than it was for various reasons.”

The first reason is due to the “China factor”. The second is the impact of cellphones, and third, the role of the new professional middle class.

“Economically, China’s involvement in Africa has been good for the continent. It has brought wealth to the continent.”

Dowden concedes that China’s involvement in Africa is problematic in some respects. “In both Sudan and Zimbabwe they deal government to government regardless of the legitimacy of those governments. China pays no attention to what the government is doing in relation to its own people. However, China is realising that this policy won’t work. It is increasingly assessing the impact of its engagement. This came to light during the strikes at mines in Zambia where the main opposition candidate promised that if he came to power he would throw out the Chinese. Whether China likes it or not, it will have to recognise that good governance is an issue in Africa.”

The impact of cellphones has been amazing economically. “We see nomads in Somalia borrowing cellphones to call Saudi Arabia to find out the current prices of camel, goat and sheep meat. To be able to make a call to the coastal plains to find out if there is a boat in town and if the merchants are buying on a particular day could make all the difference between sales and no sales. Women in Africa are using cellphones to check with traders on the prices of potatoes and other goods.

“The cellphone has had a huge impact politically too. I watched two elections in Ghana, during which local radio stations said that if people saw any irregularities, they should call the station and it would broadcast them immediately.”

The new professional middle class in Africa is increasingly demanding that countries and businesses are run according to international standards. “They are voicing their determination that, at a bureaucratic level, the countries should be better run. These are Pan African groupings, often returning diaspora from the United Kingdom and Europe, who are returning to their countries. Many people are unaware that this is happening.”

Dowden believes that the most lasting impact of imperialism on Africa has been the psychological impact. “What resulted was the loss of African self-confidence and the loss of belief in Africa. Among the first generation of African professionals who came through in the sixties, there were many who were schizophrenic. They did not know whether they were Britons or Frenchmen or whether they were African.

“The new generation is completely confident about being African. They choose to do things in the traditional way, even though they are flying to New York for meetings with law firms and banks. I put that down to a restoration of self-confidence in Africa and things African. I think that Thabo Mbeki’s idea of the African Renaissance was a good idea. He caught the spirit of the time … a new middle class of competent professional people is coming through.’’

Asked what he thinks is in store for South Africa economically and politically, Dowden replied: “One hears the voice of doom in relation to recent political developments, but it would take a long time for South Africa to fall to pieces. The big question is what will the foreign investors do. South Africa might face the prospect of withdrawal of investment because of funds needed at home to stabilise banks.”

Asked what he finds most disturbing about South Africa, Dowden said: “Thabo Mbeki’s attitude to Aids was catastrophic. I could understand his position on Zimbabwe because of his relationship with Mugabe, but not on Aids.

“I also cannot fathom how the South African government missed the energy crisis. In history, Mbeki will be remembered as the man who let the lights go out.

“Another thing that concerns me is the xenophobia. I was talking to a Congolese man recently. He said the xenophobia is ongoing and that he has no rights here. Despite the fact that he has official refugee status, the police pick him up and try to bribe him. That’s terrible. If the ANC is such a grass-roots organisation, why was it not able to prevent what happened last year?”

Dowden finds the people of Africa warm and willing to talk. “In human terms, it is easy to operate as a journalist in Africa. I have been rescued by Africans on more occasions than I can think.”

So, where does the hope lie? “The hope lies in Africa’s people,” said Dowden. “It is not ‘The Hopeless Continent’. I have never encountered hopelessness, except during the Rwandan genocide.

“I saw terrible despair, but even in the worst famines and wars, there has always been an attitude of ‘we will survive, we will carry on and we will get by’. I have always found there is a great sense of a future. Africans survive things that would make most people I know … curl up and die just thinking about them.”

• Africa — Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden is published by Portobello

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