A Chinese, Latin American, and North American student are sitting in a classroom. The teacher pulls out a map of Africa, and asks 'tell me what you see". The Chinese student speaks of opportunity and business; South African steel, Congolese minerals, and Angolan oil to power his country's growth, and an endless list of future contracts for Chinese-built roads, bridges, and infrastructure to link the continent. The American reflects on Darfur, the Rwandan Genocide, thatched-roof villages, famine, Bono, Madonna, nonprofit work, and starving children. The Latin American student draws parallels in a tragic reflection of the worst parts of his own country; nefarious warlords, corruption, and poverty.
Who is right, and who is wrong? No one. And everyone. The complexity of this mighty and expansive continent can hardly be confined to a single narrative. Over one billion people. 54 independent states (as recognized by the UN). Nearly 3,000 languages. And as remarkably diverse as the continent is, so too should be the stories that emerge from it.
As I stepped through doorway of my concrete apartment in Nairobi, Kenya the other morning, I had the strange feeling I'd done something terribly wrong. I had just returned from two weeks traveling by local transport -- bus, boat, motorcycle, and foot -- through the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and as it happens, had an incredible, inspiring, and uplifting time.
Before you barrage me with your criticisms, and claim perhaps I'm blind, insensitive, ignorant, or arrogant for eliciting pleasure from my time in the D.R.C., let me explain myself.
The journey went hard against the grain of the typical Congo narrative; I did not pay a single bribe. Immigration officials turned out to be the friendliest and most helpful bunch I met. No men with AK-47s kidnapped me. I spent Christmas day hunting with Mbuti pygmies in the world's second largest rainforest, swimming in crocodile-infested rivers with their children. I met with grassroots NGOs and social entrepreneurs that were changing communities and bringing hope. I encountered warm smiles, and generous hospitality. I saw a beautiful, untold side of the country.
In short, I was fortunate enough to be able to peer behind the constant narrative of war, conflict, corruption and poverty. I saw real people. I saw real lives. I saw raw potential. Disabled women breaking down stereotypes in their villages by starting small tailoring businesses. Young men, left crippled by the war, training to be carpenters and welders. Communities that massacred each other just nine years ago, collaborating economically and socially. People returning from being refugees and attempting normalcy -- school, business, family.
If you were to look only at the bleeding headlines, it would appear that the eastern D.R.C. is a dangerous black hole, like the old maps which demarcate unexplored territory with "Here be dragons". A no-man's land of endless bloody conflict, rape and abuse, driven by our consumer demand for diamonds and iPads, by ethnic divisions and land boundaries. Some parts are. But then again some parts aren't. Ituri, where I traveled, was once dubbed 'the bloodiest corner of the Congo' by the UN. Yet since that report, little news has emerged.
The theme here is that much of Africa is more than what is so commonly seen. It's a rapidly changing continent full with hope, enterprise, entrepreneurship, a growing middle class and everyday life. Congo may be an extreme example, as it is a barely functioning state that hardly serves its people, but it is an example nonetheless.
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", a piece most writers can hardly avoid referencing when speaking of the 'dark continent', continues to leave a lingering hangover in the international media and global perceptions. As a result, the continent continues to suffer from a severe image deficit, one which goes both ways. America views Africa through nonprofits and disaster-craven media, while America is viewed by many on the continent through the glorified prism of movies, TV, and the extravagant, excessive, over-indulgent culture we export around the world. Jersey Shore isn't all of America. And Darfur isn't all of Africa. Thank god, on both accounts.
This isn't to say all is hunky-dory in Africa. The list of problems, conflicts, killings, corruption, famines, crop failures, rape, and abhorrent abuses of power seems to grow by the day. And they are absolutely worth covering -- the world needs to know, and more importantly the world needs to act. But the point is, there is more to the story.
Take for example Kenya. Several months ago, I wrote a HuffPost piece called "Potential, Poverty, Politics & Parties: Why Kenya Attracts America's Best & Brightest Young Social Entrepreneurs", which, to my delight, was enthusiastically received by my Kenyan friends, here and abroad. While near-famine conditions were striking northeastern Kenya, journalists flocked to Dadaab refugee camp to cover the influx of emaciated Somalis seeking refuge. Though no one stuck around to see what has been happening in Nairobi.
The bustling capital city has become an extremely strategic regional center for business, banking, development, and politics, and is attracting talent and interest from around the world. What's the draw?
The mobile phone revolution, from services and applications like MPesa, Ushashidi, M-Farm, Kopo-Kopo, and dozens of others have unquestionably ignited a newfound interest from foreign investors in the tech sector, and international companies are beginning to put Nairobi on their map as an emerging market waiting to be served. Places like the iHub in Nairobi serve as incubators to attract, develop, and give a platform for emerging local talent.
The country's slowly improving education system is churning out a new generation of university graduates who are aggressive, ambitious, and hungry for a better future. They are fiercely proud of Nairobi, and feel they hold the responsibility for its economic future and its emergence in the global spotlight in their hands. Additionally, plenty of the young Kenyan diasporas, after living, studying, and working abroad are returning home to their families. They want to be a part of Kenya's movement -- in art, film, technology, finance -- and they spot Nairobi as the place to make it happen.
This scenario isn't just limited to Nairobi. Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; and even Kigali, Rwanda, are quickly becoming centers of innovation and entrepreneurship, catching the world's attention.
It's this, the 'good news' out of Africa, that needs to be -- is begging to be -- told, shared, exported. But there will be no content if there are no readers, advertisers, or funders.
So here's the call. Speak up, stand up, and demand both sides of the story. The good, the bad, the ugly. Take a look at the African narrative of the past decades -- pictures of fly-covered street children with dirt-clotted snot dripping off their face, plastic bags full of human excrement floating through flooded slums -- and ask, where are the stories of the young African entrepreneurs? What about the students relentlessly pursuing an education to make their own future? What about the real, community-driven changes that don't involve a UN or USAID contract?
"Your Pity is No Longer Required," which I once saw on a t-shirt in a Nairobi night club, is in my mind a fitting new approach. The West has often "pitied" Africa, and organizations have offered solutions that sometimes marginalize, embarrass, or worst of all create a fundamental dependency on Western aid.
Africa is a place of vast wealth, and vast potential. Just ask the Chinese government -- they've been skillfully, diplomatically, and mercifully navigating inroads in all corners of the continent for years in hope of tapping into both. The continent could grow enough food to feed itself- and the planet. It could provide the resources and minerals to power the world's growth engines. Its labor force could power the next great industrial giant. Africa is not poor, my friends here say, 'just mismanaged.'
For decades, much of what happens in Africa just hasn't been 'fit for print'. It's time to make some room, and get the world to see, understand, and believe in the lighter, more promising side of the proverbially mismanaged 'dark continent.'
Follow Jonathan Kalan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kalanthinks