• Thursday, February 29, 2024
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BusinessDay

Good news from Africa, a young continent that celebrates its elders

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Suspend, for a moment, your concerns about religious extremists in Nigeria. Set aside your fears for Somalia. Take a break from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the horrors of Ebola. There are glad tidings from Africa — you just need to know where to look.
This good news comes in different forms, and can appear in unexpected places. It can be found in the continent’s cultural renaissance, now well under way. It includes the bustling generation of internet entrepreneurs, and the emergence of business leaders with global impact. And, finally, it can even be seen in the reception accorded my elderly mother on a holiday trip to Mombasa, in an assertion of values that seem eroded in the west.
From a conventional vantage point, democracy is struggling. Measuring good governance is a tricky task, but the closest one comes to an authoritative annual yardstick produced by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, created and funded by the Sudanese-born mobile phone billionaire. Its latest report makes disquieting reading.
While overall “performance has registered a slight improvement” in the five years to 2013, the pace of that improvement has slowed. “Every African country has shown a decline”, according to the report, in one area or another.
Equally unsettling is the widespread failure in leadership. In 2006 the foundation set up a $5m prize to honour the leaders exemplifying a commitment to democracy and good governance. Last year, for the fourth time in five years, the prize was not awarded.
Despite these setbacks in governance, however, Africa is steadily recovering the self-confidence that had been shattered by successive traumas: the transatlantic slave trade, the arbitrary carve-up of the continent by European powers, the era of colonial rule, the convulsions of cold war played out in proxy by east and west, the horrors of apartheid and the harsh economic medicine imposed by the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s. All of this has been compounded by bad post-independence political and economic management.
Today there is a boom in Africa’s culture. Its novelists thrive, its artists flourish. Its music is pervasive. It exports style and fashion. Skills and talents are being liberated by the internet and the mobile phone, driven by an entrepreneurial “born free” generation catering to a growing middle class. And part of this renaissance is an assertion of traditional values that have survived the continent’s many upheavals.
Perhaps mine is a partisan perspective, for it is shaped by my upbringing in a small town in Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe. A white boy learnt to respect the elderly, the importance of family, loyalty to kin, hospitality to strangers — values that were all bound together by resilience under hardship, patience under pressure and the laughter that liberated.
I must have been six when I decided to run away from kindergarten. I had not gone very far when I was spotted by a delivery “boy” — in fact, a man employed by the local store to deliver the orders of their white customers which were carried in an enormous wicker basket attached to the handlebars of the bike. He scooped me up and placed me in the basket, atop the various parcels, and delivered me to a grateful mother.
Decades later, my heart is warmed by the reactions of Kenyans to my mother when we pass through Mombasa airport, on the way to a beach-house holiday.
From airport staff to taxi drivers, from street vendors to house stewards, the response is the same. Faces light up, and the revelation that “Mama” is 93 is greeted by intakes of breath, polite whistles of incredulity, smiles and handshakes. How fortunate, they declare, how richly blessed, to have a parent who has reached such a venerable age.
Back in London, the reaction of almost all my British friends to the same news could not be more different. No congratulations. Their faces cloud over. They commiserate, and murmur their sympathy and concern. Talk turns to retirement homes, to the failure of the state adequately to provide, and to the cost of private care.
Africa is youthful. Britain is ageing. Compassion comes at a price, demographics count. But in meantime the continent would appear to be more caring and enlightened than its former coloniser, saluting and celebrating its oldsters — not commiserating with their youngsters.
The writer is a former FT Africa Editor