Us and them

The dark continent? Not if you listen to its people. An unprecedented survey of African public opinion is set to shatter our preconceptions, says Richard Askwith
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The Independent Online

Europeans are so used to thinking of Africa as a "scar on the conscience of the world" that we sometimes neglect the possibility that, from the point of view of the ordinary African, things might look different. We take it for granted that most Africans envy us our lives and dislike their own. And, as a result, it is easy to lose sight of one of the most important aspects of that much misunderstood continent: namely, its inexhaustibly positive spirit.

Europeans are so used to thinking of Africa as a "scar on the conscience of the world" that we sometimes neglect the possibility that, from the point of view of the ordinary African, things might look different. We take it for granted that most Africans envy us our lives and dislike their own. And, as a result, it is easy to lose sight of one of the most important aspects of that much misunderstood continent: namely, its inexhaustibly positive spirit.

So it is both unusual and instructive to consider the findings of a new survey of African attitudes, thought to be the biggest-ever of its kind and published here for the first time. "Pulse of Africa", commissioned by the BBC World Service, is based on interviews with 7,671 Africans in 10 countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Ivory Coast. The subjects lived in urban areas and were a representative sample of people in those areas.

Unlike most studies of Africa, this survey tells us little about GDP trends or natural resources. Rather, it gives voices to the continent's most valuable resource of all: its people. You can get a flavour of this from the various charts and figures on these pages, and from the selected quotes on the front cover.

The simplest and most important fact to emerge from the study, which was conducted in April and May of this year, is that most Africans feel positive: about themselves, their countries and their political leaders. Around this central finding, several intriguing nuances emerge.

Most of these Africans believe they are perceived by the rest of the world as peaceful, polite, kind and hard-working; but they are also conscious of the negative stereotypes associated with particular nations, including their own. There is more agreement than disagreement with the proposition: "I have confidence in my country." Two out of three have confidence in their education system, and 79 per cent think their government is doing well at tackling HIV/Aids. And politicians are the people Africans admire most. Yet, if they could choose any country in the world to live in, most would not choose their own, preferring prosperous places such as South Africa, North America, the UK and France.

In social attitudes, the interviewees were conservative, but not rigorously so. They tended to wear a mixture of traditional and Western dress, but generally preferred to listen to music from their own regions. Most believed that families should sit down together for meals (91 per cent); that children should look after their elders (91 per cent); and that the man should be the head of the family (84 per cent). Yet there was also widespread support (41 per cent) for the proposition that children should, where necessary, be sent to another country. And there were signs of erosion in traditional gender roles. Just 29 per cent agreed that women should be involved only in family/household matters, especially in East and Central Africa: in Rwanda, a mere 10 per cent agreed with that proposition.

Poverty was repeatedly identified as the most important problem facing the continent - not surprising, when only one in five of those questioned has a full-time job (and one in four has never been to school). But only a tiny minority (2 per cent) thought of crime as a significant problem.

Asked about Africans they admire, or who they would like to represent their continent, the interviewees tended to choose politicians, sports stars and musicians. The cult of the media personality seems non-existent.

The international leaders they most admire are Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Thabo Mbeki. Among the 21 per cent of the sample who were Muslim, Tony Blair is significantly less popular than Osama bin Laden. Overall, Bin Laden is resoundingly disliked, but among the Muslims questioned he gets marginally more approval than disapproval, with President George Bush taking the role of archvillain. Interestingly, 54 per cent of the interviewees - not just among Muslims - saw the US as a threat.

To say that these voices are uniformly positive would be wrong. Most of the sample felt that their governments were failing in the fight against corruption and nepotism, for example. But the general level of positive thinking is encouraging, perhaps even inspiring. More people consider their family's position to be better than it was a year ago than consider it to be worse (31 per cent to 29 per cent).

What can we learn from these figures? Different people will draw different conclusions, but few will dispute that it is a refreshing change that the voices of so many ordinary Africans are being so resoundingly heard.

'Courage, intelligence, and determination'

Emma Thompson celebrates Africa's indomitable spirit

Popular imagery has made Africa seem like a dependent continent. I am tired of hearing that Africans don't know how to help themselves. That is so far from the truth that it is insulting.

I have just visited Ethiopia, and I am conscious of the decades of images seared into our minds, associating Ethiopia and the whole African continent with famine and misery. Yet, despite Africa's many problems, its people are very positive about themselves, their countries and their continent. This comes out clearly in the BBC World Service survey. We have got to alter our perception of Africa. We should listen a bit more to what Africans say about themselves.

Working with ActionAid, I see a lot of poverty, but I have learnt to avoid preconceptions about "poor people". An ActionAid worker went to a village in south-west Uganda. A meeting was called, and everyone began discussing the community's needs. After some time, the person who was chairing the meeting asked the visitor: "Who told you that this community was poor?"

The world is not divided neatly into haves and have-nots. There are large groups that do not have certain resources, such as land, food, water or - vitally - rights. The specificity is extremely important. What they do have is resilience, the like of which most of us could never dream of. What they have is courage, determination, intelligence, knowledge and ideas - and they know how to put those into practice.

When a child makes a kite out of plastic bags, we should not feel pity. That shows initiative; not need. There is this strange idea that poor people are different; that they don't really have lives. People seem to think they just sit around being poor, or they don't have the same issues any other human being would have if they had to walk seven hours to fetch water.

Communities in Ethiopia have to deal with great challenges and a fragile environment. Mostly, they cope well. But it would be a great help if we could extend just the very little support that they need. They can do a great deal with tiny amounts of support. While I was away, I spent a couple of hours talking to a girl called Meroni. She was 10 when her mother died of Aids.

She went out to find someone to bury her mother. No one would help, because of the stigma. She remembered a woman her mother used to visit; a woman with breast cancer. When Meroni asked her to help, the woman replied: "Your mother was a friend to me and I will die before I let her go unburied." Holding her wounded breast in one hand, she made a coffin with the other hand.

I talked to Meroni about the organisation that was helping her and her brother, giving them just that little bit of support. "When I found out there was another woman in the neighbourhood who was HIV positive, I went to visit her," she told me, "because I realised it wasn't Aids that had killed my mother - it was the stigma." Just a little support can help people to make that kind of transformative leap.

You have to be careful how you approach a situation like that. You have to be sensitive. You have got to start listening more and you need to take the time to do that. People in Africa are better listeners than we are. They are not bombarded by the media as we are, though, as the survey shows, they do listen to a lot of radio.

We need to listen to the voices coming out of Africa, and understand that famine and suffering are not the whole story.

And we have got to stop thinking of ourselves as givers and helpers. Positive engagement is the order of the day.

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