The Big Continent
It’s BIG. Well, you probably knew that, but did you know that the entire landmass of the USA, all of West Europe and east Europe as far as Moscow, New Zealand, Argentina, India and China, will fit into Africa with room to spare?
The Congo river drains a region the size of India. The Sahara desert is bigger than USA. And the distance west to east (from Dakar to the eastern most point in Somalia) is similar to that of north to south (Cairo to Cape Town). Belgium can fit into Dr Congo 80 times.
The Hopeful Continent
Africa is one of the fastest growing economical regions in the world with several “Lion’s”, including Senegal. According to the World Bank, 5 of the top 10 fastest growing economies are African states. Africa has been the second-fastest-growing region in the world over the past 10 years, with average annual growth of 5.1 per cent over the past decade, driven by greater political stability and economic reforms that have unleashed the private sector in many countries. But it’s not always easy to be an entrepreneur – in 2010, to complete procedures to start a business took an average of 216 days in Guinea-Bissau.
Poverty is supposedly on the retreat. A new consuming middle class is emerging with an alleged 31 million African households joining this since 2000. At the point when household incomes exceed $5,000/year, consumers begin to direct more than half their income to things other than food and shelter. The continent now has around 90 million people who fit this definition and that figure is projected to reach 128 million by 2020.
However, contrary to the current thinking that Africa is rising, is it? Although the media often reports statistics like those above, it’s worth remembering they’re starting from an incredibly low base, so a small improvement seems disproportionately impressive. But it’s still a hopeful sign.
The Connected Continent
Mobile phone subscriptions have risen from 90 million to 475 million in sub-Saharan Africa within the last seven years. Their spread has changed not only the nature of communication but the state of banking, commerce and investment on the continent.
But, while three quarters of Africans have access to a phone, only 16 per cent of them access the internet, down to 1 per cent in Ethiopia and South Sudan. Much of this will be through handsets rather than computers. I keep hearing that a high speed line was laid along the entire west coast of Africa and this was switched on last December, providing the capability of fast speeds but I’ve yet to see any signs of improvement and it often takes me two hours to download a few emails.
The Luminous Continent
In western imagination, Africa has long been known as the dark continent, presumably due to the darkness of the skin, the darkness of the forests and the lack of knowledge of the region – even now, there are those that believe dinosaurs exist in the vast jungle swamps of the Congo. It also it refers to a dark place for humanity – a place where terrible things can happen – the wars, the genocide, the famines, despite the fact these terrible things can happen anywhere in the world. It’s true that I often hear stories of witches, child sacrifice and cannibalism here in the present day Casamance. Perhaps due to the depths of poverty, the corruption and the low levels of development we cannot lose this label and there is an assumption that Africa is inherently more barbaric and less civilised than the rest of the world.
One of the first sensations I experienced, and one I experience most days, is that of blinding light and for much of the year, Senegal is a bleached out landscape. For me at least it is more the luminous continent that the dark continent.
The Historical Continent
Africa is the birthplace of mankind. The oldest known skeletal remains of modern humans were excavated at sites in East Africa. Human remains were discovered at Omo in Ethiopia that were dated at 195,000 years old, the oldest known in the world.
There’s often an assumption that there’s not too much history to be seen. Yes, much has crumbled back into the ground – that tends to happen with mud and wood and the climate is brutal. But there are many historical sites, from the Roman ruins of northern Africa, the pyramids, the Great Zimbabwe monument, ancient libraries of Timbuktu (well, those are being destroyed by the current invaders) and Chinguetti, the mud mosques of Djenne and tragically the slaving castles of the West African coast line. These are just a few and there are many more examples.
Far from being the primitive dark continent, here are some things that Africa is now known to have pioneered: fishing expeditions (90,000 years ago), mining (43,000 years ago), basic arithmetic (25,000 years ago), cheques (Ghana in 951AD), glass windows (Ghana 1116AD) and crop cultivation (12,000 years ago). Scholars in Timbuktu knew that the planets revolved around the sun 200 years before Galileo and Copernicus “discovered” the fact. The medieval city of Benin had 10,000 miles of defensive wall on a scale comparable to the Great Wall of China.
The cliched continent?
And finally…Africa is not one country, but 53 recognised states with more than one billion people speaking 2000 languages, Senegal’s Aids rate is less than 1%, not every day has an amazing red sunset, some people are obese and North Sudan has 223 pyramids – far more than Egypt.
This is Africa and not everything is as it seems.