Review: The Bright Continent, Dayo Olopade

The universe is more diverse! If you aren’t already participating in Aarti’s wonderful September event A More Diverse Universe, you definitely should. Check out her amazing recommendations here and here and here, visit her blog to check out what other people are reading, and follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on Twitter.

My first read for this event is Dayo Olopade’s The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, a book I’ve long had my eye on because of its brilliantly colored, eye-catching jacket design. It’s also a terrific book, an antidote to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story.” Dayo Olopade has heard that single story a hundred times: the story of Africans who are passive-as-in-not-active and passive-as-in-suffering. The Bright Continent is aware of the suffering, the civil wars and the corrupt governments, but the stories it tells are of African ingenuity. Africans who are fully aware of government inefficiency and broken promises, and who work around those things. Africans who do not wait around to receive resources they don’t have yet, but who make the most of the resources they do have.

Olopade is sharply critical of top-down efforts to improve the lots of people in Africa. She argues that the models that work are those that come from Africans themselves, the people who know the country’s culture and shortcomings and have figured out how to work within them. Quite often these interactions are so informal that nobody in the West reports on them, and standard measures of economic growth and prosperity (such as GDP) miss them completely.

Many efforts by Westerners to send assistance to African countries are actually harming their economies, Olopade argues. When Tom’s sends a pair of shoes to Africa for every pair of Tom’s shoes you buy, it eliminates jobs in shoe-making that could otherwise exist in those countries. And also, people in Africa don’t necessarily want shoes the most. There are very likely other things they want much more. Or in many cases, foreign aid from developed nations comes tied to contracts with companies from the donating nations, and the money leaves the recipient nation almost as soon as it arrives.

Instead Olopade praises the solutions that take advantage of existing structures within African countries. The Tanzania company EGG-energy, for instance, wires houses for electricity and supplies rechargeable batteries to power the houses. When one battery wears out, subscribers return it and receive a new one.

The informal economy does EGG’s legwork. The company runs central charging and swapping stations but also enlists kiosk owners to stock its batteries alongside the soaps, chocolates, and mobile airtime typically for sale. When a subscriber swaps out a battery, the kiosk owner gets a cut.

 

“We’re trying to use the same distribution networks that already exist,” says [company founder Jamie] Yang, “people who go around selling produce on motorbikes, who walk eggs on bicycles or use wheelbarrows.” These extended networks enable EGG to reach ordinary people 30 or 40 kilometers outside the biggest city.

Reading this book was tremendously heartening. Because Olopade is right (and Adichie is right): The stories you hear about Africa tend to be stories of failed governments and civil wars. Those stories remain true, and we should listen for them; but they aren’t the only stories — they aren’t even the main stories — of what goes on day to day in the countries of Africa. And those day-to-day stories are worth telling.

Very much recommended!

  • I’ve heard that comment about Tom’s Shoes too. It’s a shame because they seem so well-intentioned with their efforts.

    • Gin Jenny

      I know! A lot of people are well-intentioned, but not well-intentioned enough to actually do the work to discover whether their project is a good and useful one once they have it running.

  • rivercityreading

    This is the first I’m hearing of this book, but I’m totally marking it down. Thank you for putting it on my radar, it sounds like some very important reading!

    • Gin Jenny

      It is, and it’s also really enjoyable reading! Olopade comes from journalism and writes in a very engaging way, plus she’s telling lots of excellent and interesting stories.

  • Lots of people are well-intentioned–for instance, with mission trips to places they haven’t studied much ahead of time–and those efforts seem to me potentially as patronizing and tragic in consequence as any, if for nothing else than the smugness upon their return to their own country.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep. I completely agree with you. And a lot of mission trips seem to be going on very little research. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a book about contemporary missionarying? Why doesn’t that book exist? I would read it twice.

  • Sounds like a very interesting read and I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it. The event A Diverse Universe also sounds interesting and something i should check out.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, do! It’s a terrific event, and Aarti has worked really hard to organize it. I’m so excited to see all the different books people are going to read.

  • tuulenhaiven

    I keep accidentally reading books about Africa lately, but I’ll be more intentional about reading this one…! Sounds excellent.

  • This sounds like a really worthwhile read. It really does seem that most stories (fic and nonfic)you hear about Africa are just so dark. I appreciated the travel documentary mini-series Long Way Down, because they would visit with ordinary people along the way, and it was a more genial picture of Africa then we usually see in the news.

  • I’m not a big nonfiction reader, but this sounds interesting. I like the idea of charity that uses existing economic networks!

    (And I know that about Toms, but I still buy them because they’re one of the few shoes that are comfortable through the work day on my weird feet.)

  • Damn. I really like my Tom’s for purely shallow aesthetic reasons… And comfort reasons. Sounds like there’s a heck of a lot going on in Africa I’ve not given much thought to. Yay Diversiverse!

  • That sounds like a really interesting read! I’ve been reading a couple of books for the event unofficially, but I haven’t written about them yet.

  • Thanks for the link to Diversiverse; what a great, timely idea! The Book Smugglers are having an Octavia Butler readalong this month, if anyone wants to join: you can read a book by one of the first (and still few) black female science fiction writers.

  • Sounds great. Thanks for mentioning it. And here here for this reading challenge!

  • I just got it from the library! Woot! This sounds like really interesting reading. Lots of things I need to know.

  • What an excellent book this sounds – lovely review, Jenny!

  • Oooooo I really want to read this!! Going to see if I can find it this weekend.

  • aartichapati

    This sounds amazing! And the library has it – hurrah! I shall read it soon(-ish). I like the title itself, and how she refutes the Dark Continent.

    Someone told me some time ago that everyone wants to save Africa, and that most people or groups have someone of their own to represent them. Africa, though, has Bono and Angelina Jolie. It was said in a much more eloquent way than that, but it really resonated with me.

  • Sounds interesting! It would be a fresh change to read a book about what is working in Africa. Nice to get a nonfiction review too.

  • Eva

    Oh, definitely want to get this from library on my next visit! And yay for any post that quotes Adichie. 😀

  • This sounds like such an interesting read. I love nonfiction that tells stories I haven’t heard before – I think I will really enjoy this book.