Five Myths about Africa

The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Baldauf has written an article to which I came late, called “Five Myths About Africa”

It supposedly undermines the lazy stereotypes of the Western media to get to the real heart of the continent, but is actually a perfect example of a new kind of journalism about Africa, one which tries to undermine facts with anecdotes and emotional manipulation. The piece starts with the photo on the left, of two obviously poor girls in rags collecting brushwood. Hardly breaking down people’s preconceptions, is it?

Here are the five myths that the article seeks to repudiate:

1: Africa is Poor.

In this section the article describes a family ground down by “greed by family members” who expected to be given a portion of the welfare check received by a woman called Olga Thimbela who has taken in AIDS orphans. It is very important to recognise that a common theme in Southern African culture is that you must help your relatives no matter what (very important in a country with such terrible poverty).

The trouble with what Scott Baldauf calls ‘cultural wealth’ goes much further: when someone reaches political or administrative high office they will be again expected to use their position to provide for their relatives. This cultural trait, often remarked on favourably by Western journalists among the poor, is responsible for a great amount of the corruption and misallocation of funds that keep that poverty going.

2: Africa is Violent

Baldauf quotes unnamed friends from Mexico and Brasil who say that their home countries are more dangerous than South Africa. In 2008 in South Africa there were 34 murders per hundred thousand population; in Brasil 22, in Mexico there were 12.

3: Africa needs our help

Baldauf talks here about the Mbeki AIDS policy which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, Mugabe’s brutal rule in Zim, Kenyan pols avoiding prosecution for post election violence, Malawi rejecting aid in order to keep corruption for its leaders and poverty for the rest. That sounds like a region in need of some help, but this is a myth because of… Nkosinathi Biko (son of Steve Biko, advocate for African pride) and a lady who hosted a tea party for him and another journalist? Surely it is possible that a proud and hospitable people can still be in need of assistance?

4 Africa is backward

The CSM points to the practise of using cellphone credit as a makeshift mobile currency as evidence of innovation. Certainly this is true, but Baldauf leads onto this:

In fact, it was this common practice of using airtime to send money that attracted the attention of the cellphone company Safaricom and the British Department for International Development to launch a new service called M-PESA. Today, M-PESA serves effectively as one of Kenya’s largest banks, with some 75 percent of the 9.5 million M-PESA account holders using it to store money, according to a study by theMassachusetts Institute of Technology. The project worked so well, it has now spread to South Africa – a country with a world-class banking sector – and plans are afoot to take it elsewhere in Africa.

How does the fact that Safaricom (part owned by Vodaphone UK and run for the last ten years by a white South African who has just stepped aside to be replaced as CEO by a British retail manager) has done a deal with the UK Department for International Development to create a new service say anything about whether Africa is innovative or not?

The other examples given, of farmers making cellphone calls and refugees using solar cookers are not good examples to go alongside William Kamkwamba (the Malawian windmill boy), who while very ingenious indeed, is but one person.

5 Africa is a country Well this one is obviously not true. Africa isn’t a country the way Europe isn’t a country. Hard to fault this one, but it comes at the end of a problematic list.

Go Well, readers.

1 comment
  1. It’s interesting how many misconceptions you can have about a country until you visit. I thought I would see a lot more monkeys in Brazil until I paid a visit and didn’t actually see too many. I like your point that these misconceptions can cause problems like misallocation of funds.

You should write what you think about this here, especially if you disagree- help smash my media bubble!

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