Five essential facts about Africa

My husband put an interesting question to me the other day: what are the five essential facts about Africa that the average American ought to know?  To keep it simple, he asked that each fact be limited to one or two sentences.  I tried to come up with responses that were concise but also acknowledged the great diversity of people and practices on the continent.

  1. Precolonial diversity: People have, of course, lived in Africa for thousands of years.  Before European colonization started around 1890, people lived in many different types of political units, from tribal groups to city-states to empires, and had active trade and cultural relations with the rest of the world.
  2. Problems of colonization: Most places in Africa were colonized by Europeans from about 1890 to 1960. Colonizers often used violent means to try to control Africans, disrupting existing social and political structures in the process.  While some colonizers did build transportation infrastructure and promote basic social services like education, relatively few African citizens ever benefitted from them.
  3. Independence and its discontents: Many countries won their independence around 1960.  Because the colonizers had put lots of different political units together into modern countries, most places didn’t have well-established national political institutions, and it was common for dictatorships to arise (generally supported by the US and USSR, which directed a lot of aid to their ideological allies during the Cold War).
  4. Transitions & crises of the 1990s: By the 1990s, many countries were facing economic and political crises after years of bad economic management, and the end of Cold War-era aid from the US and USSR.  There was a lot of pressure from both citizens and aid donors (like the World Bank) for countries to implement economic reforms and transition to democracy.  Some countries managed this successfully, while others couldn’t navigate this political crisis and fell into civil war.
  5. Recovery & growth: By the mid-2000s, most civil wars had ended, and the majority of countries were enjoying higher rates of economic growth and better governance.  Although citizens and aid donors are still pushing many governments to provide better social services, things are generally looking better for most countries than they have in a while, and several African countries have GDP growth rates that are among the highest in the world.

I have to say that part of the value I found in this exercise was precisely that I didn’t initially want to do it.  One could write a book – many books – on the thousands of years of history encapsulated here, or at the very least shrug off a request for such a stark summary with the stock phrase “it’s complicated.”  But I did end up finding it an interesting experiment in trying to think about some of the main political trends on the continent over the last 100 years in fairly general terms, and (hopefully) in a way that would be accessible to people who didn’t already know much about the region.

What would your responses be?

21 thoughts on “Five essential facts about Africa

  1. Good effort but has a few inaccuracies. In every region there were colonies prior to 1890 such as the Boer republics in the south, the Ottoman North Africa, the Dutch Gold Coast and the Portuguese province of Mozambique to name a few. Point 5 can’t be regarded as a fact either. Aid agencies and foreign donors may argue about African political leaders stance on: gay rights, fair elections and non-judicial killings but these are not social services. Aid agencies and foreign donors never challenge African leaders to expand education to all, improve healthcare and speed up wealth distribution they are only concerned with capitalist exploitation.

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    1. Hi Frank,

      Quite right about the dates of colonization. I would disagree with your characterization of aid agencies’ stance on expanding education and healthcare, though; I think that’s a high priority for many of them. Whether it’s working is a different issue.

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  2. Hi Rachel,
    This is a great idea and a strong list. Since the intention is to counter stereotypes, I would add something about the role of ODA in African economies to clarify that it is only a few economies that depend on it. In the same vein, it would be interesting to point out that South Africa and Nigeria are actually two of the biggest investors in the continent – I think second and third, after China.
    In the same vein but along a different dimension, perhaps you could mention that Africa has some of the most interesting institutional collaborations – AU, for example, has a voice and spirit that is quite different from ASEAN or GRULAC or other regional bodies. AGRA is another interesting institution that brings together government, multilaterals and private sector.

    If I may add an editorial suggestion: perhaps you could collapse two, three and four together into a point on history, tease out the economy points into a separate one and the political ones into another. The ODA point could go into the economy point and the institution-building one in the political one.

    Just suggestions. I do see your chronology logic flow. But again, great idea and good list!

    Best,
    Antara

    PS – So glad to know of your interest in RCTs. I wish there was greater use of them in multilateral M&E!

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  3. I would definitely mention the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Also, you do a good summary of political history, but I’d add something about the cultural and language diversity and the fact that great thinkers, authors, artists, etc. have come from the continent as well. These are the kind of things that will hopefully offset the negative stereotypes about it. But otherwise, well written post.

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    1. The trans-Atlantic slave trade wasn’t the only slave trade to affect Africa. There were also the East African slave trade and the trans-Sahara slave trade (both run by Arabs).

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    1. I think my husband wanted to keep it short and accessible. But the length restriction was definitely what I found most challenging – it would have been much easier to (at minimum) write a long essay than come up with 5 or even 10 snappy statements.

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      1. Agreed. As many of the comments point out, there are many other aspects of the situation. A bit like asking what are the 5 most import ant points in the Middle East, or Central Asia, or Asia, or South America – of North America. All are geo-specific and therein may lie the difficulty.

        Elizabeth Colsen, professor emeritus in the Anthropology Department at Berkeley, who is an Africa specialist, might have an interesting response. One of her specialities over the years has been forced migration in Africa. I looked at the Nubian situation in southern Egypt/northern Sudan in a seminar with her – most interesting. And followiing the growing issues of both forced and voluntary migration in Africa (here in Burundi, too, as I think you know), these issues could well form one of your 5 topics. Refugee camps are growing, outmigration expands both regionally and internationally, and few solutions seem at hand.

        From my perspective, answers to your perspective should take into consideration the context of the students involved.

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  4. A humans emerged from Africa, I think it might be worth pointing out that humans have been in Africa as long as humanity has existed. “Thousands of years” seems to imply only the recent past.

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      1. Given that many of the rises in GDP growth throughout the 00’s were associated with increased prices for commodities during the commodity boom, you have to ask yourself if the narrative of “Africa rising” is truly applicable (I find the narrative to be overly optimistic), or if African countries are merely experience a temporary windfall of revenues. If those revenues aren’t properly reinvested in the economies, then we could see negative growth in many countries, particular as populations soar.

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      2. Yes, of course there are some ongoing conflicts. But there’s been a significant decrease since the mid-1990s. There’s an interesting graph about this on p. 4 of this article from 2003, and I think more recent data shows the same decrease continuing through the 2000s. Probabilistically speaking, countries were more likely to have civil wars during the 1980s and 1990s than today.

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      3. True. I’m a believer in cautious optimism, though. The current crises in the CAR and South Sudan have been especially troubling. As for improved fiscal policy, while it’s true that some welcome reforms have been made in some countries, many aren’t coming fast enough. Malawi, as you mentioned before, is still in a mess.

        Generalizing about Africa is full of problems as you know.

        My biggest concern over the current optimism surrounding the “Africa rising” story is that it effectively masks the most difficult problems that the continent experiences. A more regional approach might make more sense, but it’s difficult when people don’t really have a good idea of even how the map is laid out.

        Good luck!

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  5. Your comments refer to parts of Africa, certainly not all. Not North Africa, where Arabs/Muslims have dominated since around 700 AD. Not Southern Africa, where Jan van Riebeeck set up the first permanent Dutch trading station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652–a full 240 years before your ‘1890s’. Your comments apply somewhat to a few of the colonies where Europeans decided to settle–again, only a minority of the colonies. Finally, for foreign support during the Cold War, I would say ‘the USSR’ instead of ‘Russia’. Also, the PRC was actively involved in supporting anti-colonial/anti-settler movements too (like ZANU/ZANLA in Zimbabwe).

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    1. Hi Bruce – your points are totally right! The goal of this exercise was to be succinct rather than comprehensive. I’ll change Russia to the USSR for accuracy’s sake.

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