Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

Few people come here, writes Richard Dowden, former Africa editor of The Economist, even though it’s only a few hours from Europe. The visitors are package tourists, back-packers, aid workers, multi-national CEOs and international civil servants. They seldom stay long. But when they do they’re often surprised by Africa’s welcome, entranced rather than frightened, because its people are friendly, gentle and infinitely polite. They have a natural ability for social skills; they look you in the eye and empathize, share and accept from others without twitchy self-consciousness.

Africa is big and dazzlingly beautiful. Outsiders lose inhibitions and feel more themselves here. The essentials of existence – light, water, food, birth, family and death – are more immediate and more intense. Visitors suddenly understand what life is about – the richness of humanity, of other people.

This positive scenario is counterbalanced by the hell of poverty, famine, disease, war, corruption and chaos in countries like Zimbabwe, Somalia and Darfur. "Africa just can’t get its act together," mutter newspaper readers in London and New York.

But as Dowden wryly points out, it’s in the media’s interest to keep Africa backward, as it is for the aid agencies too, and the arms manufacturers. A Nigerian journalist tells him: "Yes, Nigeria is chaos. But the chaos is created by the government. Chaos allows it to stay in power." And so for much of the continent.

Dowden first set foot in Africa shortly after Idi Amin came to power, in 1971, arriving as a high-school teacher in rural Uganda. Expectations were still high, institutions still functioned and the standard of living was improving. But then Africa became a proxy battleground for the two super-powers."Things fell apart", and the West, forgetting its own bloody past, suddenly became judgmental, or, in the case of Rwanda in 1994 and its aftermath in the Congo forests for the next decade, looked the other way.

Despite all this, Dowden insists that there is hope for Africa. Angola, for instance, has been plundered for centuries, first for its slaves –what is nowadays Angola supplied more slaves for the trans-Atlantic trade than any other country -- then for its mineral wealth. Western companies were pumping out oil even though the Soviet Union was ruling through a puppet regime. The country has gone through years of civil war, and is now one of the most corrupt in the world. But who should take the blame? Africans or the developed countries or both?

Modern music, he says in a lighter mood, is Africa’s gift to the world: rock, jazz, reggae and soul have their roots here. Africa’s music is defiantly self-confident, irrepressibly strong. Life is good, the bubbling rhythms throb. African music expresses African culture more than anything else. Music mingles with everything, the dust, the smoke, the hot sticky air. Africa is ruled more by music than misery, dance than disaster. Music helps them enjoy life when it is good. When it is not, it helps them endure.

Africa is also deeply spiritual. Religion is more than a mere defence against the uncertainty of life. Steve Biko, the murdered South African activist, wrote that religion is not a specialized function observed on one day a week in a special building, but "it featured in our wars, our beer drinking, our dances and customs in general." And Nigerian novelist Ben Okri says that Homer and Shakespeare would have found it easy to talk with modern Africans because they have a strong sense of the transcendent.

Is Africa stuck in a time warp? No, three motors are driving change. The first is mobile phones and the internet café. Mobiles have transformed business, especially the informal sector. (They are also effective in co-ordinating conflict, as seen in Kenya last year.) The second is China. China needs Africa’s resources and will overlook injustices and abuses on the ground to get them. The third is the growing African middle class. A burgeoning middle-class, which always springs up after a few years of peace, brings stability. Dowden is sure that African problems will have African solutions.

As an overview Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles is splendid, with some insights worthy of Ryszard Kapuscinski. Dowden should have mentioned the stark differences between African peoples, even within the same country; the growing awareness of human rights, and, in many communities, the impoliteness of saying "No." But he understands what so many newspaper readers in New York or London do not: "amid our wasteful wealth and time-pressed lives, we have lost human values that still abound in Africa… I find more hopelessness in Highbury where I live in north London than in the whole of Africa."

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.


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