The other day I was chatting to an African friend when he asked a question that took me by surprise. “Is it safe to come to Europe,” he queried. “And if I do come, can I leave my hotel and wander the streets without danger?” Puzzled by his question, I asked him what on earth he meant – so he started talking about the problems ripping apart our continent.
The more he talked, the more I understood his fears. Look at our continent and you could see a place cursed by corruption, scarred by communal struggles and riddled with racism. It might look a terrifying place from the headlines with gut-wrenching poverty, feuding drug gangs and growing hostility to visitors, alongside shattering youth unemployment and broken political systems.
Take corruption. The European Union admits its extent is “breathtaking”, costing £99bn annually according to a new report. It found bribery common in many countries; in Greece, where it was a key cause of the economic meltdown, almost everyone said it was rife. Even in our comparatively clean country, nearly two-thirds of Britons said “connections” helped people get the best out of public services.
The EU fails to devote much effort to tackling this corrosive problem. But last month Romania’s former prime minister was jailed for taking bribes, while in France the last president must testify over alleged kickbacks from arms sales and in Spain even the royal family is linked to a corruption scandal. Britain boasts of being the home of parliamentary democracy, yet scores of MPs fiddled expenses with several ending up behind bars.
Meanwhile, use of food banks is spreading for starving families while the rich get richer. Perhaps this is unsurprising when Europe seems so lax about tax-dodging, whether it is secretive states such as Switzerland that help the super-rich hide their assets or countries such as Britain that allow blatant tax havens to exist under their rule. These are the places where so much stolen money is stashed – much of it guided by smooth City operators.
Then there are the communal tensions, the tribalism, the religious bigotry. This is, after all, the continent that saw the world’s most systematic genocide, while people are still being imprisoned for atrocities that erupted during the more recent conflict in the Balkans. Nine members of a Serbian paramilitary gang who killed 120 Albanian civilians have just been jailed. Sectarian Irish paramilitary groups remain active, with bombs sent last week to British army career offices, while some Scots try to break free from the regime in London.
Far-right groups are on the rise across the continent, founded on hostility to foreigners and fostering a climate of race hate. In Eastern Europe, their leaders target the Roma “who shouldn’t be allowed to exist”, in the words of one. In the West, they spew out bile against migrants and Muslims. Even in Britain there has been a surge in Islamaphobic hate crime, while black people are picked on for police street searches and there are an average of five racist killings a year.
I was beginning to understand my friend’s concerns. Then he mentioned aid groups trying to help the hungry and homeless in Greece, where deadly infectious diseases are on the rise. The black Italian MP called an “orang-utan” by a colleague in Italy. The anti-gay laws in Russia. The crucifixion of a Ukrainian protester, the beheading of a British soldier, the children who can be euthanised in Belgium, the teenagers taking horse drugs for kicks, the towns devastated by dead-eyed gambling and drink-fuelled violence. Even disabled people are not safe, abused in homes and slaughtered on the streets for being different.
So many problems, some deep and profound. Yet Europe remains a largely peaceful place that is safe to visit. It was not an African who asked those questions, however – it was a British friend travelling to Africa, so often seen as one lethal cesspit of a continent. These are questions I hear often, for Africa’s image in the West has been trashed by an unholy trinity of aid groups, the media and politicians spewing stale clichés and self-serving narratives.
Like our own and other continents, Africa is home to conflict, corruption and communal tensions while scarred by poverty and poor governance. But we need to ditch destructive old stereotypes and wake up to the reality of a vast place – bigger than China, India, the United States and much of Europe combined – that is home to 55 very different countries, with diverse communities, rapid growth and rampant change.
I have travelled with many musicians making their first trip to Africa; within minutes of landing they say how different it is to perceptions. Just as it would be daft to tell an African not to come to Europe, so it is no less absurd for Westerners to worry about travelling to Africa whether for business or pleasure.
We need to forget the fear factor – and fast.