05/03/2012 11:37 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

Rethinking Africa: 13 Ways The Continent Is Changing

Things have changed with astonishing speed in Africa over the last few years. It is probably now the region with the world's fastest growing economies. It is relatively free of debt. The business press is enthusing over the development of the world's last major frontier markets. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese settlers.

In the U.S. and Europe, people are having difficulty grasping Africa's new dynamism. It doesn't fit with standard images of a continent of war and misery. The intelligent procedure, of course, should be to rethink our mental map, not to turn away from the reality.

This is not just a question of switching from a mode of pessimism to one of optimism. There are still plenty of nasty little wars in Africa, as the recent internet campaign by Invisible Children against the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony shows. Even more to the point, there are plenty of countries in Africa that are booming economically even while the states that rule them are dysfunctional and corrupt. Africa just doesn't fit so many of the categories by which we both organize our world and try to understand it. No surprise: Africa has a past very different from that of the North Atlantic or of Asia. It is the world's oldest inhabited continent. For most of its history it has been underpopulated. Until the twentieth century, there were few settlements south of the Sahara that could be called cities. There few bureaucratic entities that could properly be called states.

Africa is a more important part of the world than ever before, home to a billion of our planet's seven billion people. We must think of it as it is, not how we believe it should be. I wrote Season of Rains: Africa in the World [University of Chicago Press, $25.00] in order to make this easier.