End the stereotypes about Africa

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2007, 12:00am

New Africa films keep coming - this time it's the riveting Blood Diamond; last year the superbly acted The Last King of Scotland - while Out of Africa still vibrates in my mind almost 20 years after its release. But am I alone in being rather cross when my 16-year-old daughter asks me yet again: 'Is Africa really like that?'

I tell her part of Africa was like that. Some of it, a diminishing portion of that vast continent, is still like that. But most of it never was, and today it certainly is not.

I have covered war and revolution in Africa. I have seen political opponents hung from the bridges of the main thoroughfare in Conakry, Guinea. I have lived for months the village life in Lesotho and Tanzania. I walk the streets of Nigerian towns at night (parts, but not all, of Lagos excepted). But I have rarely been afraid.

Africans are usually the most courteous, hospitable, forgiving and cheerful of all the peoples I have met on God's earth. And now I rejoice mightily when I see the old continent - so beset by inhospitable terrain, demanding climate, poor soils, and the legacies of the slave trade, self-interested colonialism and imperialism - really beginning to move forwards economically and politically.

It's moving very quickly, yet most people still seem blissfully unaware of what is afoot. But Michael Klein, chief economist of the International Finance Corporation, wrote in a recent article: 'When the history of the 21st century will be written, it may become clear that Africa today is where East Asia was in the late 1950s - just about to surprise the world.'

Economists believe, he argues, that the majority of African countries have a good chance of achieving annual growth rates of 10 per cent, like India and China.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, has been dead in the water for so long, weighed down by the rocks of malign dictatorship and corruption. Now it hums with economic activity and democratic exuberance. On the other side of the continent, Tanzania was for so long a failed Christian socialist experiment. Now it has embraced capitalism - albeit a version with a human face. Its rapid growth gives it the tax revenue to spend on the things that the socialists only dreamed of: a school and clinic in every village.

Cocoa and coffee? Yes, such agriculture continues. But in recent years the much more profitable cut-flower and fresh fish business in Kenya and Uganda - with overnight flights to Europe - has blossomed. 'Nollywood', the Nigerian film industry, is closing in on Hollywood and Bollywood, and has become the world's third-largest producer of films.

Productivity, that key to economic progress, is improving rapidly. According to the International Monetary Fund, African textile and garment firms are almost as productive as Chinese ones on the factory floor. Economic reform involving privatisation, bank shakeouts, business registration and trade liberalisation is common almost everywhere. Tanzania and Ghana were among the world's top 10 reformers last year.

This is why foreign direct investment has increased from US$12 billion in 1980 to well over US$100 billion today. In Nigeria, Mittal Steel is resuscitating the old, giant Soviet-built steel works. Virgin Atlantic Airways has essentially taken over the role of the old, moribund Nigerian Airways. Two-storey houses now dominate the towns - you have to go out into the remoter villages to find a traditional mud hut.

This year I am taking my daughter to Africa to see for herself.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist