Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara were unlikely symbols for the plight of a continent. The two teenagers from Guinea in West Africa died some time between July 28 and August 2, probably from cold and lack of oxygen tens of thousands of metres above ground. They had hidden in the undercarriage of an airliner flying from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, to Belgium where their badly decomposed bodies were found at the beginning of this month. Fode used to look out at the airport from his schoolroom, and probably dreamed of escaping from the poverty of his homeland to the riches of Europe which he could see on a French overseas television channel beamed to West Africa. Thousands of Africans try to enter Europe clandestinely each year, but what made the case of Fode and Yaguine special was the method they chose - and the tragedy that followed - as well as a letter found with their bodies. Addressed to 'European Excellences, members and leaders of Europe', it was a cry from the heart of a continent which has largely slipped away from the world's attention. As the West has grown ever richer and Asia, recent crisis notwithstanding, has emerged as a major economic region, Africa has, with a few honourable exceptions, remained mired in poverty, exploitation, oppression and conflict. Nato went to war for Kosovo, but the international community's response to far worse instances of ethnic cleansing in Africa has been, at best, muted. African dictators are still welcome guests in Europe or the United States. Central Africa is, once again, rent by war. If Nigeria, has emerged from military dictatorship, South Africa faces great challenges from unemployment, crime and the uncertainties of life after Nelson Mandela. A couple of recent books on Africa by American and French scholars suggest that the continent has its own specific political structure based on the concept of the 'big man', be he a village chief or a president who is free to act as he wishes once he has looked after the people of his tribe or nation. In such societies, there is no dynamic for progress or improvement. At the same time, there is a heavy legacy of exploitation - from the slave trade through the colonial pillaging of natural resources to the present-day depravations of post-independence rulers. This background ensured that the letter from the two Guinean teenagers would strike a deep chord in Europe. The front-page story in the leading French newspaper, Le Monde was a simple quote from the letter: 'Help us, we suffer enormously in Africa.' The letter enumerated the problems of war, sickness and hunger that affect the continent, and called on the Europeans to fight against poverty in Africa. What gave it a particularly touching aspect was that the two teenagers knew the risk they were running - 'we are sacrificing ourselves and risking our lives because people suffer too much in Africa, and we need you to help,' they wrote. The boys took what precautions they could, bundling up in several sweaters, pairs of trousers and woollen caps. But the temperatures of between minus 50 and minus 55 Celsius during the flight to Brussels were fatal. French and Belgian newspapers sent correspondents to the funerals in Conakry last week. But the attention of European readers had already turned to the eclipse of the sun on Wednesday. Fode and Yaguine will soon be forgotten, together with Africa's problems. Indeed, before they were even buried, some officials in Guinea were suggesting that the whole thing had been got up by the opposition to embarrass the government. And, in a reminder of what African poverty means, some members of the boys' families were unable to attend the funeral in the main mosque of Conakry because they could not afford the bus fare, equivalent to HK$4.