The gods were not crazy when they placed mankind in Africa.
Slave traders, missionaries, explorers, colonial officials, journalists and aid workers have sent back images of Africa for hundreds of years. But all we seem to have are the negatives, opaque impressions of a dark continent growing darker.
The prolonged drought that has affected most of Africa seems to confirm Western suspicions that Africa is dying. Having accepted the gospel of Africa's endemic political instability and economic incompetence, we now have physical evidence that the continent is doomed: denuded landscapes, abandoned villages, spreading deserts, refugee camps and masses of starving, helpless people.
It is difficult to resist concluding that trying to save Africa from its fate is futile. But those of us who have spent the better part of a quarter century working in Africa have ample reason to believe in its future. So do Africans.
They inhabit some of the planet's harshest livable environments. Yet, from Saharan nomads and rain forest pygmies to Kalahari bushmen and urban shanty dwellers, Africans have a long history of adapting effectively to their surroundings.
Africa is not a place for the weak and lazy. Africans are survivors -- of necessity. They have survived worse droughts. They survived the European and Arab slave trade. They survived colonialism. And they will survive the apocalypse of mounting foreign debt, burgeoning population growth and the greatest threat of all: a rapidly eroding natural resource base.
It may be a generation or longer in coming, but Africa will rise above today's economic dependency and political disarray.
Contrary to the patronizing and cynical Western consensus that Africans have made a hash of their independence, they have achieved much in a very short time. Having received a meager colonial inheritance of infrastructure, public services and trained manpower, they have vastly improved their people's access to education and health care.
As the last continent to modernize, however, Africa is rushing to "catch up." Mistakes are inevitable. Because Africa is thinly reported by the media, which focus on the "quick and dirty" story, we are mesmerized by accounts of the coups, corruption and natural disasters compounded by man. We do not learn much about the evolution of political systems appropriate to African conditions, about the ability of African farmers to coax food from the soil or about the "soul" of Africa -- the people's understanding of their place in the cosmos.
The late Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence in 1957, urged Africa to seek the political kingdom. Expelling colonialism and creating African governments proved relatively straightfrward. Nkrumah was not alone, however, in failing to realize that genuine African political systems and ideologies would have to develop through painful trial, error and civil conflict. Americans and Europeans flatter themselves that their own nations and government structures were immaculately conceived.
Africans are reconciling their established political traditions to the needs of the contemporary nation state. Western observers who lament the rise of one-party systems throughout Africa ignore the healthy competition that often prevails within. They have not sat beneath a baobab tree, listening to people grill a candidate for parliament or discuss plans for building a primary school. Democracy is inherent in the consensual decision-making process customary at the village level in Africa.
If Africa offers numerous examples of political instability, it also provides several sanguine case studies. Senegal, Kenya and Botswana have manged peaceful leadership changes. Many countries have enjoyed long periods of tranquility. Zimbabwe, where whites once scoffed at African political pretensions, just conducted a fair and peaceful national election.
Nkrumah also said that, once Africa gained the political heights, all else would follow. It has not. Africa is still seeking the economic kingdom. Per-capita agricultural production has declined 20 percent in the past two decades. Debt service and oil imports are consuming a large and growing share of scarce foreign exchange. Development programs are being cut back or foreclosed. Public services are deteriorating.
Grim as the situation is, Africa is too well- endowed with natural and human resources to be written off. It has vast mineral reserves and food-producing potential. Although a relatively dry continent, Africa has more than enough water -- if it is properly conserved -- to support substantial agricultural and industrial development. It also is blessed with enormous hydroelectric and solar energy capacity.
Africans already have taken to heart two hard lessons. First, national economies are built from the ground up, on a solid agricultural foundation. Second, farmers will grow surplus food if the market rewards them fairly. Most African governments have taken agriculture -- and the peasant farmer -- for granted. Many tended to rely on minerals or a single cash crop to earn foreign exchange. They also subsidized food prices for urban consumers, at the expense of low prices paid to the producers. Now the African farmer is winning renewed respect.
Two other important lessons are dawning in Africa. Governments are becoming aware that concerted action must be taken to arrest widespread deforestation and soil erosion. Africa otherwise will become largely a wasteland within a few decades. A related challenge is Africa's mushrooming population, growing nearly 3 percent annually, compared with world average of 1.7 percent. Africans once rejected Western advice to adopt family planning programs as a plot to retard their progress. Now, as population growth outstrips their development efforts, many African countries are preparing to follow the successful examples of India and China in promoting birth control.
Africans know that there are hard times ahead. They will need our help, but they also know that they have something to contribute to humanity. President Kenneth D. Kaunda of Zambia once defined Africa's gift in these terms:
"I believe that the universe is basically good and that throughout it great forces are at work striving to bring about a greater unity of all living things. It is through cooperation with these forces that Man will achieve all of which he is capable. Those people who are dependent upon and live in closest relationship with Nature are most conscious of the operation of these forces. . . . They may be simple and unlettered people and their physical horizons limited, yet I believe that they inhabit a larger world than the sophisticated Westerner who has magnified his physical senses through invented gadgets at the price, all too often, of cutting out the dimension of the spiritual."
If you believe in President Kaunda's vision, as we do, then you know the gods were not crazy when they placed mankind in Africa.