African tapestry


To most in America, the Africa that exists beyond the game parks and tourist attractions is a continent mired in poverty and famine, rife with disease and despair, resistant to persistent efforts to raise it out of its terrible state.

Even many who take pride in tracing their heritage to its soil can do little but blame those who have oppressed and exploited Africa for its seemingly never-ending travails.

There is no doubt that these problems exist. In some parts of Africa, merely surviving is a daily challenge. Refugee crises, war, drought and famine can dominate life and capture headlines. But there is also more to Africa than the hollow-eyed look of despair. Amid the myriad difficulties, in many places, people are daily demonstrating an amazing resourcefulness and ingenious intelligence as they create a rich cultural tapestry of life.

"There is a focus on people, rather than acquiring things, to make peoples' lives rich," says Elizabeth Schmidt, who teaches African history at Loyola College and often travels to the continent. "There is generally this sort of vibrancy and optimism. They are not defining their lives as impoverished as an outsider looking in might. That is not to romanticize poverty, but Africa is not always catastrophe, AIDS, genocide and civil war."

She describes a "vibrancy of culture."

"You especially hear it in the music," she says. "There is a real joie de vivre all over the place, even in the midst of horrendous living conditions."

To those used to the comforts of the industrialized world, there is a disconnect - such scenes are not supposed to be seen in the midst of such poverty and disease.

David Gordon, who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park, says this can shock Westerners.

"Our economy and lifestyle has changed so much from the semi-subsistence type of economy you see in Africa," says Gordon, a South African who has studied societies in northern Zambia near Malawi. "There is a whole different way of living. People consume far less and often destroy a lot less of the world's resources and in many ways offer a great alternative to our society."

Schmidt says she first traveled to South Africa two decades ago when apartheid was in full force. "I went in thinking there was going to be despair, anger and depression," she says of going to black townships. "I assumed people would not be receptive to me as a white person. But there was none of that. ... They were incredibly welcoming. I was so struck by the singing and dancing that would spontaneously break out in people's homes."

Schmidt emphasizes the importance of family in Africa - not the nuclear family that dominates in industrialized societies, but large extended families whose ties extend from native rural villages to the cities and mines where members have traveled seeking work.

"They come together for celebrations - of birth, marriage, coming of age - huge feasts," she says. "There are no invitations, everybody just comes and brings things. All the women get together and help with the cooking."

The frustrating aspect to this is why the strength of small communities found all over Africa never translates to the larger scale of a nation state. There dysfunction replaces vitality, corruption emerges from resilience, incompetence from ingeniousness.

The explanations are many. For one, colonial powers never drew nation boundaries along ethnic lines, meaning that the nation state could not evolve as it did in other parts of the world. The independent states were rife with ethnic divisions that continue to be exploited by political leaders.

"Part of the legacy of colonialism is that the governing structures were never linked well with African societies," says Gordon. "Their success was based on being apart from African society, not linking with it."

Schmidt finds that the love of family that provides such strength in African communities becomes problematic in larger contexts.

"There is such a culture of hospitality and helping people out," she says. "The pitfalls of that situation amid such scarcity is that if one family member has a job either in private industry or with the government, there is enormous pressure to provide for 20 or 30 other family members who are unemployed."

This precludes the accumulation of capital needed to develop businesses, to build an economy. This endless distribution of money is like pouring water into the sand instead of building it up behind a dam.

Schmidt points out how it can also lead to the type of corruption endemic to African governments. "There is not just temptation, but enormous pressure to put your hand in the till, because if you don't, you are viewed as not helping your family or village or ethnic group.

"So, what in a situation of plenty would be a good quality - as it was in rural areas prior to colonialism - in the modern economic crisis of Africa becomes one of its real weaknesses," she says.

Still, most who have seen the vitality of Africa cannot help but be intoxicated by it and to fervently hope that its people get all the help they need to develop the institutions they deserve.

Michael Hill was The Sun's Africa correspondent from 1993 to 1996.

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