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Africa: Whatever you think, think again

On a recent long haul flight, I soothed my jet-lagged brain with the National Geographic magazine, specifically, the Special Issue on Africa (September 2005). Like many people, I'm inexplicably attracted to this amazingly large, diverse, and complicated continent. Perhaps it's primal. Trace the human family tree far enough back and we're all Africans in some genealogical sense. Yet with all of the faddish policy noise Africa has received in the wake of the G8 conference -- positive in many respects but annoying in others -- I've found myself tuning out when it comes to Africa. We only have so much psychological space for doom-and-gloom stories.

Fortunately, this National Geographic issue has brought my attention back to this continent in a fresh way. Visually stunning as always, this September issue is a relatively easy entry point into some of the positive, as well as disturbing, themes and developments in parts of Africa. With a tag-line, "whatever you thought, think again" -- if I can be so bold, quite Worldchangingesque in attitude! -- the issue tries to dispel some of the conventional perceptions and assumptions we have about Africa, i.e. it's going to hell in a hurry. While I'm no expert on Africa (we have Ethan Zuckerman in that department), I think they mostly succeed.

Biogeographer Jared Diamond sets the tone in his essay on the Shape of Africa. "Is the African continent doomed externally to wars, poverty, and devastating diseases? Absolutely not." Even for Diamond, geography is not destiny.

On my own visits to Africa, I've been struck by how harmoniously ethnic groups live together in many countries—far better than they do in many other parts of the globe. Tensions arise in Africa, as they do elsewhere, when people see no other way out of poverty except to fight their neighbors for dwindling resources. But many areas of Africa have an abundance of resources: The rivers of central Africa are great generators of hydroelectric power; the big animals are a major source of ecotourism revenue in eastern and southern Africa; and the forests in the wetter regions, if managed and logged sustainably, would be renewable and lucrative sources of income.

There are also nicely crafted, slightly quirky and personal pieces on: the Congo's Mbuti Pygmies, a balanced piece on Chad's experiment in overcoming the "curse of oil" that has plagued other African countries, and a touching Nairobi native's meditation on his megacity. So if you see a copy lying around the Frequent Flyer lounge you happen to be in, pick it up! Or a local library would do, just leave that one behind.

Oh, one more thing: this venerable publication has pioneered what it means to be a socially responsible organization long before CSR became a term. Most recently, they have launched Good Companies Good Works," a marketing platform designed to recognize and celebrate our advertising partners whose philanthropic efforts effect community at large." Looks like National Geographic is trying to use its brand and publication platform to create a seal of good corporate citizenship with its patrons. Keep a look out for this logo. Watch if this innovative campaign has an impact on the actions of their sponsors. If this works, this kind of relationship could be symbiotic -- helping the magazine continue with its mission while encouraging other organizations publicly to do the same -- and this could make a difference. The bar is raised for everyone in a transparent way.

(Thanks Dad for always ensuring we had this subscription around the house growing up, and putting this one in my path on a recent visit.)

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Dear Ms. Boyer,
Thank you for your effusive commendation of the Africa themed edition of National Geographic magazine. I also read it too and consider it more than a fair attempt at lifting thr veil off the multiple Africa that cohabit that iconic geographic space. But as an African, precisely Nigerian, I know that there is still much more to discover about the continent and its future. One thing I agree with you is that the primodial umbilical cord of Mitochondrial DNA will ensure that somehow we all (Worldchangers et al) remain tethered to the mother continent. So in that sense we are all Africans. The multiple choice questions that arise is what do we do about this primal citizenship? For me Africa is much more that a geographic space chockfull of problems, it is a spiritual, intellectual, cultural and emotional aggregation of spaces diffused around the world and we all somehow take a whiff of the continent each time we breath. I consider myself a worldchanger, and as I write this from home in South Orange, New Jersey, I am painfully aware of my inability to effortlessly do the same in Lagos where I actually work.To be sure, there are legions like me in the neo-disapora and Africa proper who would like to be part of the scintillating discourse feature daily on this site but cannot, either because of bandwidth restrictions or perhaps simply because they have not been formally invited to participate. I notice that Ethan Zukerman (the in house expert on Africa) has a US address, nevermind his goodworks through the geekcorps in Ghana. I think that "whatever you thought about Afica, well...think again" think especially about the possibility of Africans sending dispatches from the continent and all the other spaces we inhabit globally. If we are indeed changing the world, we must necessarily change the notion that Africa can only be understood by "experts'" ex situ of Africa.

Posted by: Tunji Lardner on 9 Sep 05

If you're interested in hearing some politically and environmentally conscious hiphop from a West African artist, I suggest checking out MC Tino 34's brand new album 'La Guerre c'est de L'enfer (War is Hell)'. He is from the nation of Togo. My sister, a peace corps volunteer, helped to organize a song writing and performance contest to help promote brush fire awareness. NPR and BBC's program, "The World" did a story on the competition. Out of 38 entries, MC Tino 34 came in 1st place. Since then, we have worked closely with him and a Togolese recording studio to help release his debut album. The resulting CD opens a window onto life in contemporary Togo.

Following the political turmoil surrounding Eyadema's death last year, the Togolese are working hard to change their world for the better. Inspired by American rap and traditional Togolese music, MC Tino 34 is using his voice to raise awareness and make a difference.

Posted by: Aaron Manire on 9 Sep 05

A girl I met from Nigeria, now living in the "1st world" remarked: in Africa, even when we're poor, we still laugh & have lots of fun, jokes, always laughing, but white people don't laugh much, always worrying about little things.

Posted by: Dried Flower on 9 Sep 05

On a similar note: two little guerrilla booklets by a cell of famous Africa-scholars have become the ultimate taboo for many modernist NGOs, think tanks, Bob Geldofs, anti-corruption watchers, worldbankers and other Westerners who have a (mental) presence in Africa.

They're aptly called "Africa Works: Disorder As Political Instrument" (Patrick Chabal, Jean-Pascal Daloz) and "The Criminalization of the State in Africa" (Jean-François Bayart). These anthropological studies show that behind all our false ideas of African misery, hides an extremely complex political logic which you can only grasp if you take an anthropological perspective. This expert group of widely hated scholars shows that we basically do not have the vaguest clue what we're talking about, and that we're being fooled whenever we think we're doing something important in Africa.

I always bring this along to public debates and workshops about development work Africa. The reaction often is: "you cannot say that, you cannot think that, the thought alone should be illegal, Africa is misery and we need it to be so."

Check it out:

Posted by: Lorenzo on 9 Sep 05



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