‘The Bright Continent’ counters the cliches with a more optimistic portrait of …

March 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $26

Rwanda is poor, with few natural resources. In the West, it is synonymous with horror: Over the course of 100 days in 1994, some 10 to 20 percent of Rwandans were murdered in a genocidal frenzy of atrocities.

“An entire generation of orphans needed homes,” Dayo Olopade reminds us. “There was no central bank, no auditor general, and no school syllabus. Archives and documents were irretrievably destroyed, and there was no institutional memory.”

Rwandans have not forgotten, of course. But now, 20 years later, the Rwanda Development Board is working hard to help rebuild a nation and restore responsible government. The board coordinates and accelerates the work of the private sector, helping small businesses launch and succeed.

A sign above all RBD offices announces the new ethic: “Welcome to Rwanda: We Value Our Customers.” And indeed they do. The Rwanda Development Board’s claim to fame is its ability to register a new business within 24 hours, something that takes a year or more in many other African countries.

The contrast between the two images – indeed, the two Africas – is a major theme of Olopade’s book, “The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules Making Change in Modern Africa” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $26).

To those in the developed world (a term that is itself problematic), Africa is often constituted as dependent, broken, sick, intractable: “In 1985, the mega-hit ‘We Are the World’ and global Live Aid concerts spotlighted starving, wide-eyed Ethiopian children with arms outstretched,” Olopade reminds us, and the images became emblematic of all of Africa’s history and foreseeable future.

But there is another Africa, infused with the spirit of what Olopade calls kanju. In Yoruba, a language of the author’s native Nigeria, kanju means to “hustle,” “strive,” “know how” or “make do.” Later in the book, Olopade characterizes the kanju spirit as “playing naughty, bending rules, and devising new games entirely.”

It is a way of seeing Africa that rejects essentialized victimhood and instead celebrates the resilience, capacity, agency, resourcefulness and healthy willingness to operate outside formal structures and conventional rules that is now evident in so many parts of the continent.

To make her case, Olopade charts current African reality using five “maps” or definitional topographies. The first, the “Family Map,” highlights the strength of familial and extra-familial networks.

Faced with dysfunctional or oppressive government and social structures, Africans “rely on tips, favors, and cooperative forces” – what political theorist Peter Kropotkin once called “Mutual Aid.” Indeed, “social ties in Africa are robust” and contribute significantly to the kanju perspective.

A second topography, the “Technology Map,” underlines how adaptive technology is transforming African connectivity and productivity, so that, for example, “Africans spend on average 10% of their daily wage on mobile airtime.” Use of cellphones, which leapfrogged over landline adoption, has profoundly altered social, business and political relations; created new and indigenous markets, services and products; and shrunk an entire continent.

Through the “Nature Map,” Olopade reminds the reader that Africa still has enormous energy, mineral and agricultural needs – and resources.

“All told, agriculture makes up nearly two-thirds of employment, one-third of GDP, and more than one in five businesses,” a reality too often glossed amid reports of famine and widespread hunger. “Soil, not oil, is its most abundant natural resource,” and Africa needs development policy that builds internal productive capacity rather than fostering external dependency.

And Africa is young. “The median age is nineteen. Seventy percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is less than thirty years old.” Olopade’s “Youth Map” offers three approaches to African development: revolutionizing memorization-based school systems to emphasize technical and occupational education; engaging young people through creative channels, such as new media; and promoting younger leadership in government and civil society organizations.

And finally, the “Commercial Map” spotlights market-based creativity in everything from solar energy to health care and education.

Together, these maps form a new mental and strategic landscape, one based on possibilities, not merely perils, and we should be grateful to Olopade for her reimagined cartography.

To be sure, in the still-unfolding aftermaths of colonialism, imperialism, war, famine, genocide and disease, tragedy abounds throughout Africa. But so does hope, and brilliance, and determination. So does kanju.

Pike is a critic in Cleveland Heights.

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