“Yet there may be hope in the very instability which Africa is experiencing in the wake of this unnatural dis-Africanization. The fate of African culture may not as yet be irrevocably sealed. With every new military coup, with every collapse of a foreign aid project, with every evidence of large-scale corruption, with every twist and turn in opportunistic foreign policy, it becomes pertinent to ask whether Western culture in Africa is little more than a nine-day wonder.” — Ali A. Mazrui, 1986
Nov 08 2007
Where can you find reports on African-made helicopters (in Kano, Nigeria of all places)? Recycled junk turned into crocodiles (Kenya)? Newfangled hang gliders (South Africa)? And motorbikes that serve mobile phone customers (Uganda)?
For reports on these and other home-grown advances in African gadgetry, see the marvelous AfriGadget site whose credo is the wise phrase: “Solving everyday problems with African ingenuity.” Most entries carry wonderfully revealing photos as well.
Self-reliance is a terrific philosophy and Africans are far more self-reliant than many people around the world realize. AfriGadget deserves praise for putting the spotlight on clever Africans with a zeal for concocting new gadgets, mechanical or electronic. My one gentle advice to the creators of the site — and others who extol African ingenuity — is that wacky technologies that seem to come out of the pages of the old Whole Earth Catalog certainly have their place in the African scene. But these gadgets and associated one-off devices are no substitute for Africans gaining mastery over large-scale technological systems that delivery electricity, broadcasting and water to masses of people. Gadget-heads beware: technological cleverness is wonderul on the margin and is an outstanding reminder that Africans, like people all over the world, are imaginative, energetic and unwilling to accept irrational limits imposed on them by poverty, geographic marginalization or bad governance. But let’s not confuse individual achievement with societal sustainability. To satisfy the urgent needs of large numbers of people, large-scale technologies are required. These technologies cannot be handbuilt in workshops out of the 19th-century. To accept the need for massive, mass-produced technological systems is not to dismiss the activities on the margins of the technological mainstream. Both the standard and the unusual can co-exist and indeed co-evolve.
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Nov 07 2007
TV celeb Oprah Winfrey may be forgiven for wondering why she ever decided to assist young women in South Africa when there are so many needy youth in the U.S. What once might have seemed so simple — to assist worthy African teens with a first-rate girls boarding school — is turning into a PR nightmare for Winfrey. Her school is the scene, allegedly, of scandalous mistreatment of students by an employee. By African standards, where mistreatment of students is widespread even at relatively expensive private school, the misdeeds at Winfrey’s academy don’t seem out of the ordinary or particularly shocking. Still, Winfrey’s school has only been open only since January, and decent treatment of the girls must be a given. Who knows what comes next, despite Winfrey’s promise to pay more attention to management. The lesson: to encourage wealthy Africans to make charitable donations on their own turf — and encourage the Winfreys of the world to do the same.
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Nov 06 2007
William Easterly’s answer, in yesterday’s Templeton Foundation advertisement in the New York Times, was a resounding “no.” I’m a fan of Easterly. Especially when he bashes Bono. I agree with a lot of his observations, but actually his ideas are widely held, especially among elite Africans. Where I differ with Easterly is that Africa to him is an abstraction. He never writes about actual Africans. He seems unconcerned with African history, society or culture, and he appears to know nothing beyond sound bites in any of these areas. I’ve never heard from him any concrete ideas about the future of Africa, even in terms of its economic growth. Such nostrums (as in yesterday’s paper) as “free enterprise has been the tried and true vehicle for escaping poverty everywhere” are vapid and even incorrect. In the next breath he cites India and China as examples of this principle when neither country practices free enterprise except at the lowest economic levels. He offers the same simplistic notions for African politics and even on Aid has never publicly called for reductions in Aid only that it be spent differently. Still, he’s a needed contrarian, an original thinker and is absolutely right to say that the low expectations for African self-reliance are unfair and destructive.
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Nov 01 2007
17% of sub-Saharan Africans now have a cell phone. That’s nearly one in five people. The World Bank, source of these estimates, is declaring the African mobile phone market to be the “fastest growing in the world.” The potential for ethical development remains enormous, since in the pell-mell race to “wireless” Africa, concerns of equity and fairply have largely been ignored. Prices for airtime are scandalously high in Africa and interconnections between rival mobile companies are often poor. In Nigeria, rival networks won’t even accept each other’s calls as a matter of policy. Stronger regulation of mobile providers — by both government and civil society — is an urgent need or Africa’s unexpected technological revolution will achieve lopsided benefits. That regulation need not be ham-handed or effectively constrain the democratization of communication in Africa.
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Nov 01 2007
In today’s Washington Post, Craig Timberg provides an excellent analysis of the wrenching re-evaluation of approaches to managing AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa. After reading Helen Epstein’s wonderful “Invisible Cure,” which seems the inspiration behind Timberg’s analysis, I wonder whether much of what Westerners have done in Africa on AIDS is misguided. Yet that can’t possible; not even I’m that cynical. And yet this chilling observation jumps out from Timberg’s article:
“It’s criminal not to put money into the things that work, and the things that work are relatively inexpensive,” says Malcolm Potts, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former head of Family Health International, a research group with extensive experience in fighting AIDS. “We’re spending money in the wrong places.”
And a lot of money. $10 billion in annual spending on Aids, much in Africa.
To be fair, though, that figure is probably less than the monthly cost to the U.S. government alone of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Nov 01 2007
â€œEverybody wants to say theyâ€™ve gone global, but itâ€™s almost a Catch-22. In the more developed economies in Africa, thereâ€™s not much scope for Nigerian banks. But if you go into the others youâ€™ll find thereâ€™s no serious players there â€“ the market is too small.â€ — Atedo Peterside, chairman of IBTC Chartered Bank.
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