Early this year, American photojournalist John Stanmeyer captured an image of African migrants near Djibouti City silhouetted by the moonlit waters of the Indian Ocean, with arms stretched to the heavens — cell phones in hand — in search of signal strength from nearby Somalia. It filled many of us with awe.
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On the BBC website where the award-winning photo was posted in February, and was tweeted, retweeted and shared by hundreds of people around the world, Jillian Edelstein, one of the judges of the prestigious World Press Photo, noted that “the photo raised issues of technology, globalization, migration, poverty, desperation, alienation and humanity.”
Her conclusion is in many ways the story of modern sub-Sahara Africa. In “The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa,” Dayo Olopade, a young Nigerian-American journalist, engages everyday Africans and plows into the contradictions of modern Africa.
Ms. Olopade unveils a story of a surging continent buoyed by the power of its market growth; the ingenuity of its people in the informal economy, and the innovations of an increasingly younger generation of sophisticated and tech-savvy Africans crafting solutions to meet their needs.
On one hand, modern Africa gleams with skyscrapers, modern shopping malls, exotic cars, broadband Internet connections and all the amenities of middle to upper-middle-income lives. Yet it is still plagued by extreme poverty, hunger, disease, authoritarianism and strife — all of the things that the global economic superpowers pledged to help solve at the dawn of a new century when they claimed that the 2000s would be the era of the African.
And for all of the incremental accomplishments, the continent’s decades-long maladies persist. And yet there has never been a more hopeful time for Africa’s development trajectory.
Ms. Olopade — who spent some three years living and talking to ordinary Africans in 17 countries across the continent — contends that Africa ought to be viewed through a prism of African entrepreneurship, not through the assumption that “poor and passive Africans exist only in the shadow of Western action.”
From Somaliland to Lagos, Nairobi to Johannesburg and elsewhere, Africans are increasingly confounding the narrative of dependence on what Ms. Olopade calls the “fat economies” of the developed world for both foreign aid and creative thinking.
In East Africa, for example, phone companies are not only connecting rural and modern life at a maddening pace, they’ve also devised instantaneous money transfer applications that have the effect of creating banks for the “unbanked” common man in the informal sectors of the economy.
In Malawi, a fantastic idea of using recycled touch screens has proved invaluable in processing patients and tracking data in rural health centers. Crowd-sourcing applications are now applied in Nairobi and in Lagos not only to enhance disaster relief but also to serve as effective tools for citizen activism during political elections.
“The Bright Continent” is not yet another “development” tome replete with convenient anecdotes on Africa’s structural dysfunctions and data-driven policy prescriptions to boot. Indeed, Ms. Olopade, a Knight Law and Media Scholar at Yale University, seamlessly traverses the continent, threading a narrative that shows how African innovation is playing a vital role in its own development.
She calls it “kanju,” a Yoruba term, which “literally means to rush or make haste.” But it can also suggest a form of creativity and hustle that, when combined, create opportunities for jobs and ways for simple people to make a living in hardscrabble circumstances.
Kanju, she argues, is filling the gap where African governments have failed to provide a viable framework for job creation, education, health care and other social services. And so most Africans, who make their living in the informal economy, are compelled to devise creative and practical ways to make a living, even illegally sometimes.
In its crudest and most effective form, a good example of kanju in practice was the emergence of the notorious Nigerian email scams that have swindled untold amounts of money from unsuspecting strangers eager to invest in get-rich-quick schemes.
The scammers, commonly known as “Yahoo Boys” for their predominant use of Yahoo email accounts, “have earned millions of dollars and international notoriety, solving the common African experience of economic stagnation and proving that you can make something from nothing at all.”
Putting aside the criminal enterprise that is the Yahoo Boys, this book is filled with numerous examples that ought to make you rethink your perceptions of Africa. Its very title, “The Bright Continent,” suggests that we ought to retire irrelevant perceptions such as what Joseph Conrad imagined as he made his way down the Congo River.
Karamagi Rujumba, a Ugandan-American, is a former Post-Gazette reporter who works as a project manager at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (Karamagi.Rujumba@gmail.com, Twitter @KaramagiRujumba).