Reflections: New African voices

Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 1:00am

The things most Americans hear about Africa usually fall into one of three categories. There are corruption chronicles, details of another natural disaster or sports stories involving the latest victory by a marathon runner or the appearance of another basketball star, either on a college campus or in the NBA.

Individuals such as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Dambisa Moyo don’t get the ink that is given Zimbabwe’s economic problems or the devastating knee injury that ended Dikembe Mutombo’s 18-year pro basketball career, but they are two among many movers and shakers helping bring positive changes and new ideas to the African continent.

Both Liberian President Johnson-Sirleaf, the first black elected female head of state anywhere in the world, and Zambian economist and author Dambisa Moyo were educated in the West. They chose to return home and use their training on behalf of others rather than remain in American and England respectively and pursue lucrative personal opportunities.

Moyo and Johnson-Sirleaf have recently made multiple media appearances to promote new books, and each has proven sharp, formidable and articulate while being right at home with personalities ranging from The Daily Show's Jon Stewart to Tavis Smiley and Charlie Rose.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President unveils an amazing story that includes being a 17-year-old bride, then being forced into exile during a coup in the 1980s and serving as Director of Citibank in Nairobi. She later returned home to run against then president Samuel Doe, only to eventually find herself under house arrest, sentenced to 10 years in prison and again forced into exile.

Yet Johnson-Sirleaf again returned home, survived charges of treason made against her for another campaign, and then finally won victory in 2005. Despite the many abuses and indignities she suffered, Johnson-Sirleaf never sought vengeance against those who threatened or imprisoned her.

She spent her first term working for fundamental reforms in Liberia, from improved educational opportunities to expanding health care and ensuring that all children, both boys and girls, receive just treatment and a chance at social advancement.

Moyo’s new book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa is this year’s hot book in economic and political circles. It calls for drastic reductions in the amount of international aid to Africa, which Moyo says too often gets diverted into the private accounts of despots and seldom goes toward the conditions it’s supposed to correct.

Instead, Moyo proposes a policy of direct investment into specific markets and situations, with these investments centered on ways that increase community participation. She also urges a checks and balances system to ensure a direct benefit from any monies going into a nation’s economy.

Unfortunately, due to the routine distortion of language and oversimplification of complex issues that pass for political discourse in so many places, Moyo has been inaccurately characterized in some quarters as insensitive and others as merely another selfish conservative uninterested in the plight of the masses.

Actually, her book is a call to action and a demand that Africans be ultimately responsible for their economic and political destiny. She’s repeatedly said both on television and in print that she’s not opposed to all aid, just the notion that all solutions to Africa’s problems must come through massive handouts from the West doled out through organizations like the World Bank.

The book also details numerous specific instances where careful investment can reap immediate dividends, while reciting a dismal five-decade plus pattern of failed initiatives directly tied to the mismanagement of foreign dollars.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Dambisa Moyo have joined many contemporary Africans utilizing their education and experience to bring about positive changes in their homeland. Their stories don’t get the same exposure as starvation photos or stories about greedy politicians pocketing obscene sums of western aid, but they’re indicative of vital and important changes happening throughout Africa.

Wynn is a City Paper writer and columnist.