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The Africa you don't know: there is much more to the motherland than negative media highlights.


Nigerian journalist Gbemisola Olujobi likes to tell the story of how on a recent trip from Lagos to Washington, D.C., she passed the time at Dulles Airport engaging in small talk with an airport employee.

"I hear in Africa, people are very poor and hungry, that they don't have anything to eat." he said. "I saw a documentary on Africa a Few days ago on CNN, and there were all these hungry people, dying children, with flies all over their faces.... But you look well fed."

Not knowing exactly how to respond, the British-educated writer let the clueless American know that Africa is not "one huge expanse of waste," but 52 countries in different stages of development, repair, disrepair and despair.

"Famine in Niger does not mean hunger in Nigeria, just as war in Liberia does not mean child soldiers in Lesotho," she told him.


The short lecture seemingly had no effect. The man asked, "But what is the problem with Africa?" as if he hadn't heard a word Olujobi had said about Africa's vast diversity.

The frustrated African does not blame the American from the airport or countless others who have come to her with similar questions. She's been asked whether Africans keep their cowry shells (once used as currency in parts of Africa) in banks, or how she "picked up such good English." Instead, Olujobi, like many Africans from every part of the continent, points to the Western media.

"No one should blame these people or anyone else who displays such profound ignorance about Africa," says Olujobi. "Rather than educate and enlighten by disseminating fair, balanced and accurate information, all that the Western media seem to be keen on showing the West about Africa is backwardness, disease, hunger, want, deprivation, banditry, brigandage, slaughter fields, child soldiers, gang-raped girls, harassed mothers, wasted children, flies feasting on the living and vultures waiting to devour the near-dead."


Ongoing problems of war, genocide, famine, political corruption and the HIV/AIDS epidemic that dominate American media coverage of Africa are, in fact, still serious issues challenging many countries in Africa. But the distorted view of the continent that perpetually focuses solely on these problems is perhaps as big an impediment to the progress of many of these nations as the actual problems themselves. For without an accurate understanding of what Africa is really like, it is difficult for most Americans, Black or White, to understand why the continent is so important to the world, and why they should care about what happens to Africans all over the continent.


What Olujobi might have told that American is that, contrary to what he saw on CNN, there is more to Africa than what is on TV.

First, she could have told him that Africa is not a country. It is the world's second-largest continent and the second most populous, after Asia. Indeed, Africa comprises 20 percent of the Earth's landmass, measuring about 5,000 miles north to south and about 4,600 miles east to west. That's about four times the size of the United States.


Then, she could have told him that the 890 million people who live in Africa account for nearly 14 percent of the world's population. They belong to thousands of ethnic groups and clans, and speak about 2,000 languages, including +Swahili, Yoruba, Bantu and Arabic.

She also could have told him that, far from being loincloth-clad, spear-chucking natives who reside in mud huts among lions, elephants and hyenas, an increasing number of Black Africans live in modern cities, go to modern schools and work in modern buildings with the same amenities he is used to in the United States. From Johannesburg to Abidjan, Dares Salaam to Dakar, many African cities sport towering skyscrapers, complex infrastructures and a sizzling nightlife. And far from being perpetual recipients of foreign aid, Africans make significant contributions to the world economy, with an estimated combined purchasing power of more than $2.5 trillion, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).


Most Americans may know that Africa provided the slave labor that developed the New World, enriched the Old World and built early America. But few are aware that today, Africa provides columbite-tantalite, the mineral from which most computer chips are made. Or that Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Nigeria supply 20 percent of the world's petroleum and natural gas. Or that Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa together produce 50 percent of the world's diamonds, while Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe together produce nearly half of the world's gold.


Americans might also be surprised to know that Africa also contributes 70 percent of the world's cocoa supply each year, 34 percent of the coffee and 50 percent of the palm products. The United States imports 30 percent to 60 percent of key African products, such as oil. France gets more than 90 percent of its uranium, cobalt and manganese, 76 percent of its bauxite (aluminum ore), 50 percent of its chromium and 30 percent of its iron ore from Africa. Britain imports 80 percent of its chromium, 65 percent of its lubrication oil, 55 percent of its manganese and 54 percent of its cobalt from Africa. And China, which imports nearly 30 percent of its oil and gas from sub-Saharan Africa, is raising eyebrows around the world as it sets up African facilities and buys African commodities at an astonishing rate to fuel its own economic boom. Indeed, for the many single-commodity economies of African nations, Chinese investment has been a windfall.


According to the Rev. Charles R. Stith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania who now heads the African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC) at Boston University, the demise of Western colonialism in Africa and the end of the Cold War--which respectively robbed Africa of its vast natural resources and kept it embroiled in conflict--have opened the door for African nations to become the benefactors of their own natural wealth.


"Three of the biggest impediments to African advancement have been the legacy of colonialism, including a lack of human resources and infrastructure; the Cold War, in which the United States and the former Soviet Union were dumping billions of dollars into the continent to check each other; and apartheid--during which South Africa had the potential to be the economic engine for the rest of the continent, but instead launched incursions into neighboring countries," says Stith, who has spent much of his adult life trying to show Americans and others the Africa they don't know.

As founder and director of the five-year-old APARC, which hosts an annual African Presidential Roundtable of current and former African heads of state, Stith not only spreads the good news about the continent, but is helping African nations in the process of democratization and free market reform. Each year one of the highlights of the roundtable is the publication of an African Presidents State of Africa Report by leaders who attend the conference. Last year's forum ended with the leaders calling for Africans throughout the Diaspora to return to Africa with their skills and wealth to assist in the ongoing development of the continent.


Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda noted that there are 200,000 African scientists in the United States, more than on the entire continent of Africa, and 40,000 African doctoral graduates outside Africa. "It is important to do more than lay out a welcome mat to encourage our brothers and sisters to come back home," Kaunda says. "We must develop strategies to recruit and encourage, and demonstrate that we are serious about their return."

In the generation since the end of colonialism and the Cold War, and 14 years after the end of apartheid, Stith says African nations have made substantial progress in building infrastructure and school systems for their general populations. Levy Mwanawasa, the president of Zambia, said recently that despite the fact that he and Kaunda, who was the country's first president, are from rival political parties, he owes Kaunda a special debt of gratitude for building schools and providing him the opportunity to become a lawyer and president.


Stith says: "For the liberation-era [African] leaders, the primary question was how do we get our countries back. Now the question is how do we make them work. There is a clear cadre of leaders who get the second question. They are entrenching in democracy and retrofitting their countries. And today, the vast majority of Africans wake up ill a country where they have a right to vote, and their leaders make an effort to improve their lives."


But that is not the Africa most Americans know anything about. If they did, perhaps they would care more about the place and the people who live there. And Gbemisola Olujobi wouldn't be asked such ignorant questions at an airport, or anywhere else in America.


South Africa, generally regarded as the economic engine of Africa, is arguably the most advanced and prosperous country in Africa. Its progress over the 10-year period from 1994 to 2004 is representative of the strides African nations are making.



In 1994, South Africa transitioned from the era of apartheid to democratic governance. The year 2004 represents a decade of elected majority rule by the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.


* Estimates of the housing backlog ranged from 1.4 million to 3 million units, and people living in shacks were between 5 million to 7.7 million.

* Sixty percent of the population of South Africa had no access to electricity.

* Sixteen million people had no access to clean water.

* Twenty-two million people had no access to adequate sanitation.

* There were 17 fragmented education departments with a disproportionate allocation of resources to White schools.

* There was a 70 percent secondary-school enrollment.

* South Africa was in its 21st year of double-digit inflation.

* The country had had three years of negative growth--the economy and the wealth of the nation were shrinking.

* South Africa had experienced more than a decade of declining growth per capita--the average income of South Africans had been falling since the 1980s, and the overall wealth of the country had declined by nearly one-third.

* From 1985 to the middle of 1994, total net capital outflow amounted to almost R50 billion ($7.5 billion).

* Government had run up a budget deficit equal to 9.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product [GDP], including the debt of the so-called independent homelands.

* The net open-forward position of the South African Reserve Bank was $25 billion in deficit.

* Public-sector debt was equal to 64 percent of the GDP.


* About 1.9 million housing subsidies were provided and 1.6 million houses built for the poor.

* More than 70 percent of households have electricity.

* Nine million additional people now have access to clean water.

* Sixty-three percent of households now have access to sanitation.

* There was a successful formation of an integrated education system, even though there is a clear need for more resource allocation and capacity building in poor areas.

* Nutrition and early-childhood interventions were established to improve results for children from Door backgrounds.

* By 2002, secondary-school enrollment reached 85 percent.

* Inflation is down to 4 percent according to the CPIX [Consumer Price Index excluding the interest rate on mortgage bonds] or less than 1 percent according to the CPI.

* The country is experiencing the longest period of consistent positive growth since the GDP was properly recorded in the 1940s.

* The net open-forward position of the South African Reserve Bank rose to $4.7 billion in surplus by the end of last year.

* Public-sector debt decreased to less than 50 percent of GDP.

As cited in the African Leaders State of Africa Report: African Presidential Archives and Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass., February 2005.


Some principal exports for select countries in Africa:

South Africa: Diamonds

Namibia: Diamonds

Botswana: Diamonds

Zimbabwe: Tobacco

Mozambique: Aluminum

Zambia: Copper

Malawi: Tobacco

Tanzania: Fish

Kenya: Tea

Uganda: Coffee

Nigeria: Crude oil

Burundi: Coffee

Ethiopia: Coffee

Congo: Diamonds

Rwanda: Crude oil

Sudan: Crude oil

Chad: Cotton

Mali: Gold

Ghana: Cocoa beans

Somalia: Chemical wood pulp

Mauritania: Iron ore

ivory Coast: Cocoa beans

Angola: Crude oil

Cameroon: Crude oil

Sierra Leone: Diamonds

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
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Title Annotation:EBONY IN AFRICA
Author:Monroe, Sylvester
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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