The Bright Continent, by Dayo Olopade.
The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014), Hardcover, 288 pages.
An alternative overview of sub-Saharan Africa emphasizing the creativity with which Africans are resolving their problems outside formal political and economic structures.
Dayo Olopade is a bright young journalist, born in the United States of Nigerian parents who retained strong ties to their homeland. She is excited by the under-recognized strengths of sub-Saharan Africa. Traveling throughout the region for three years, she gives readers concepts and examples for thinking about the region in innovative new ways. She knows there is no magic solution for the problems facing Africa, but she wants to enlarge our conversations about it. Like those about whom she writes, her book is innovative and worthy of attention. This is post-colonial journalism at its best.
Constructing new conceptual maps grounded in African lives and practices, Olopade provides a framework and examples to help us think outside the structures that constrict our understanding of Africa. She rejects the terms “developed” and “undeveloped” and instead formulates the gap between the “fat” and the “lean” parts of the world. Fat regions have generally solved the problems of survival, made luxury seem average, and pursue trivial goals. Her book documents numerous examples of groups and individuals filling needs that most of us in “fat” countries assume that governments can be counted on to supply. Lean regions, including much of Africa, are still struggling with basic survival issues. As resources decline globally, she suggests that those of us who live in fat cultures can learn from the lean.
As Olopade explains, Europeans discovered and explored Africa, but they failed to understand its peoples and resources. The boundaries they drew for their colonies were artificial and arbitrary, ignoring the reality of the land and of tribal groupings. Today’s independent nations have retained those boundaries and still lack natural unity. These governments have become weak and corrupt with little respect or loyalty from their peoples. Funneling traditional aid through existing formal political channels has proven to be of little use. In addition, philanthropic aid planned by those outsiders does not always match what Africans most need. In this situation, Olopade sees hope in the informal grassroots efforts that Africans have created to address their problems. Many of these bypass their governments, even acting on the edge of being illegal.
Instead of following a traditional national approach to her reporting on Africa, Olopade has written a pan-African book based on five conceptual “maps.” Superimposed on each other, these overlapping maps give us a new framework for understanding the region. For each map, she provides numerous concrete examples of fascinating projects that are attempting to create public and private answers to Africa’s needs.
For Olopade, the family lies at Africa’s core. Including both blood kin and fictive relations, it extends from isolated villages to include the larger diaspora. She sees the family as the glue that holds Africa together by providing identity and place within hierarchies. As she describes, families foster a sense of seeing yourself in those around you. In the absence of effective national states, they provide resources, communication networks, and social safety nets. Rather than encouraging individuals to leave villages for over-crowded cities, projects need to build on family and the connections they provide.
The second map that Olopade draws focuses on technology, especially the communication technology that is revolutionizing African lives. Adequate phone systems based on landlines never existed in the region. When cell phones became available, they were extremely popular even among those without spare resources to buy them. Today they have become essential, and unlike elsewhere, they are revolutionizing everything from banking to medical care. Any project in Africa today needs to recognize what this means.
Commerce is Olopade’s third map. She identifies trading and the constant negotiation that it entails as a long-standing practice among Africans. Both non-profit and for-profit businesses are important, but to succeed they must meet actual African needs, not the desires of outsiders. Africans with few resources have proven willing to pay for what they value such as cell phones and education. While micro-loans have kept their recipients from starving, they are not enough to help small businesses grow into viable businesses. More investments in small to medium sized ventures are needed.
Nature and natural resources are the focus of another of Olopade’s maps. Noting that colonizers have been quick to seize these for their own use, she notes ways in which they must be redirected for local consumers. Today, while only one in three people have reliable energy, decentralized solar energy is spreading. She also emphasizes the important of agriculture and the need for better growing and marketing structures. She sees the potential of both big agribusinesses and tiny one-acre plots to offer hope for Africa to provide food sufficiency.
In her last section, Olopade discusses the extreme youthfulness of Africa’s population and its implications. Seventy per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 30. Youth unemployment is rampant, as high as 50% in some places. At the same time, governments are led by people in their 70s and 80s with little contact with the young people. Educational experimentation and mentoring must help integrate this part of the population into adult responsibility.
Olopade goes out of her way to point out that she does not believe that governments should be weak. Instead she claims that where they are, people are creating alternatives. Ultimately she sees the need for a balance between formal or legal power and that which is informal and based in communities. As a person living in a country where conservatives have deliberately weakened government in recent decades, I have some concerns about that process. In my view, government is essential in maintaining balance and fairness for its entire people. Olopade writes primarily about grass-roots groups creating their own solutions outside of government, but I worry that her approach opens the door to the international actions that thrive on squeezing out everyone else.
But even if I question some of Olopade’s assumptions, her book is an excellent example of how post-colonial writing can push us all to think in new ways. I recommend it highly to anyone who cares about Africa—and that should include all of us. In addition, those interested more generally in government and policy will be pushed to reconsider their own assumptions by this book.
I decided to include this book in the Africa Reading Challenge, because Olopade certainly considers herself to be an African voice despite her childhood in the USA. I would also like to know what those of you in Africa think of her ideas.