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Africa’s image

Out of Love with Africa

The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola

By Paul Theroux

(Hamish Hamilton 353pp £20)


‘I am not an Afro-pessimist,’ writes Paul Theroux, looking back on a journey that has taken him from the slums of Cape Town to the musseques of Luanda. You could have fooled me. The Last Train to Zona Verde is imbued with a pessimism that verges on Afrophobia, peppered with sweeping, doom-laden conclusions about the state of Africa, triggered by a trip that takes in but a fraction of a vast continent.


Given the nature of most of the stops on Theroux’s journey, the gloomy tone is not surprising. It begins with Khayelitsha and Guguletu, the Cape’s two sinkholes of humanity; takes in northern Namibia, ‘a land of drunken men, idle boys and overworked women’; visits the Kalahari home of what an eminent anthropologist calls ‘the most victimized and brutalized people in the bloody history that is southern Africa’; and ends up in Angola, a country cursed by its huge oil wealth, which has been siphoned off to personal overseas accounts by members of a regime as corrupt as any in Africa.


If the destinations are depressing, the manner of travel seems intended to make things worse. Theroux relishes his discomfort, which he wears like a hair shirt, chronicling nights spent in seedy dosshouses; hour upon hour in miserable buses with shouting, jostling passengers, peeing children and dying chickens; and unpleasant encounters with aggressive border officials.

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Africa’s image and reality

© Petterik Wiggers

© Petterik Wiggers

The debate about the “image of Africa” seems to be reaching a consensus. The starving African child represents a reality that is rare and local. We must clear our minds of that image as representative of Africa, all of it, always. The growth figures show that Africa is apparently doing well economically and many of the conflicts, which were always local, often quite small but created terrible suffering, have come to an end. Medication for AIDS and other diseases has become more widely available. No one speaks of the hopeless continent any more.

Some people have tried to say that the image of the starving child was “wrong”. But it wasn’t invented. From Biafra, to Ethiopia and more recently Somalia and Niger, it is an occasional shocking reality which we will almost certainly see again. On the other hand there is a new image which projects Africa as the new China, the driver of the world economy in a few years time. This image shows Africa as young, smart, dripping in bling and driving a flashy car. These are simplistic reversals of the old image, and as unrealistic as the hopeless continent.

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Men and The Horror Of Rape: Patriarchy

Patriarchy in Africa

Most will know, but a reminder still. An Indian student drives back from a movie with her friend, on a bus. She gets raped, brutally molested and thrown out of the moving vehicle in Delhi, like an emptied soda bottle. The woman is now in Singapore, fighting for her life, in a hospital that is specialised in organ transplant, while suffering ‘significant brain injury’ (editor’s note: the lady has since succumbed to her wounds). The perpetrators have been arrested, riots have rocked the streets of Delhi, and a debate has exploded in India on the way women are seen, used, abused and sacrificed.

Africa has its share of sexual and domestic violence, too. What happened in India happens in Africa, too. Large scale sexual abuse in Eastern Congo, tens of thousands of reported rapes in South Africa. Abuse of children by family members in the slums of Nairobi. There’s a war in the bedroom, and very few men dare speak about it.

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Food security: a photo-essay by Petterik Wiggers

Click on the image to view Petterik’s galleryFood Security in Africa

Also see the articles on Flower farms in ancestral Ethiopia: a choice between large or small, by Richard Dowden here on The Africanists

Africa’s Fabulous Mineral Wealth that isn’t ALL there



Copper mining near Lumumbashi in DRCongo. Photo Koert Lindijer

Copper mining near Lubumbashi in DRCongo. Photo Koert Lindijer


So let’s assume for one moment that you are an international corporate executive responsible for your company’s emerging market strategy. You are hearing a lot more about Africa of late, and feel strongly that your organisation needs a well-researched and informed strategy on a continent that has for so long evaded your radar.

Be careful though how much store you place on stock wisdom about Africa packaged as authoritative.

You may find that such commentary does not always enlighten, so that, in a paradoxical sort of way, the more you read the less truly educated you become.
Before you begin to ponder what avenues may be available to your company as it seeks to escape this information trap, let me illustrate what I mean with a classic example.

There is a near-universal belief that Africa is the richest continent on Earth from a natural resource point of view. This belief is most strongly associated with mineral wealth, which is the form of natural resource endowment easiest to measure.

In what has become the accepted narrative, Africa is poor both because of and in spite of its fabulous mineral wealth. The logical implication of such a view is clearly then that Africa has to do little more than just chuck out “its greedy dictators” and/or “incompetent governments”, for its natural endowments to translate into economic and financial wealth. Obvious enough.

But is Africa that super-endowed?
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The Other Virgin Myth

© Aernout Zevenbergen

Usually the question comes from a middle-aged man. White. Well-educated and well-read. A man of the world who engages. He engages not just with his co-workers, but also with his wife and his children. He is part-and-parcel of South Africa, albeit at times from a distance. He has sincere ideals for his society, and is willing to do his best in tackling some of its most pressing issues.

He wants to know what happens around him. And he wants to make sense. He wants to make sense, so he can play his role as best he can. According to his own set of morals and ethics, which have – over the past few decades or so – shown to be malleable and flexible.

So, he attended a presentation on the theme of “What does it mean to be a man, today, in Africa?” He came, so he could listen and engage, be tickled and surprised. To hear stories of men, of manhood, of masculinities. In an era of great intimate violence. Violence against women, against children. Against toddlers even.

For the first half an hour, the speaker would try and take his audience on a journey. A journey through a different kind of Africa. Not one based on horrendous atrocities and indescribable suffering, but one based on individual men speaking about their hopes and frustrations, their dreams and their disillusionments. Honest talks. Heart’s talks. Subtle nuances, delicate complexities.

Experiences of neither victims nor perpetrators, but instead of a selection of men, from all walks of life. They are experiences that can open up the way to understand some of the currents driving other men, men who are perpetrators, acting out their pent-up anger on others through violent crime.

What is the smell of rage in your life?, for example.

Or: How does temptation feel to you?

Maybe even: Does bliss in your life come in a green, or in an orange wrapping?

After those first thirty minutes, the floor is open. Questions come. A wide variety of questions.

And surely that one; the one that always comes. As if it is the most ideal lubricant out of a potentially awkward situation. A situation where a mirror has been raised, and everyone looks at the delicate insides of one’s own life. One’s own role in this amazingly vibrant society called “South Africa”, which unfortunately also has a few deep scars and – even deeper – carries a hint of trauma.

“You have spoken about fear and anger. But isn’t the level of sexual violence better explained by the belief that having sex with a virgin will cure someone of HIV?”

Aha – the Virgin Myth.

Or what I prefer to call “The Myth of the Myth”.

Allow me to take you on a little journey.

Pagan Myths

With only a few more weeks to go before Christmas, what does your lounge look like? Will you install a tree, again? Hang Angel’s Hair from it’s branches? Decorate it with shiny balls? Where will Father Christmas be allowed to enter your home, and leave his presents? Or has the economic downturn affected Santa Claus such that your household will have to settle for symbolic gifts? Will your children perform in a Nativity Play, with a donkey, three wise man, a stable and a bright star?

Christmas as we know it today has become a hodgepodge of rituals, customs, traditions and beliefs. It’s a melting pot of over two thousand years of myths from all over the Northern Hemisphere; of stories that have merged in today’s birthplace of global culture, the USA, and have since disseminated again.

Santa Claus? His mythical origins lie in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, where he was called Sinterklaas, the patron saint of children. Up to today, his birthday is celebrated with an official arrival, broadcast life on national television, of the “holy man” from Spain on an old steamboat, carrying gifts for those who behaved well, and adorned with ‘Black Petes’ who will spank those who acted out of bounds.

Your Christmas tree with ‘candles’ on it’s branches? Most likely the remnant of a ritual found widely in Western Europe of millennia ago, whereby a tree was slowly burnt as a way of honouring the darkest of dark days in Winter. The reindeers and their sleigh likewise find their origins in Scandinavia.

And then there is, of course, the Mass of Christ, which only centuries after the birth of Christ is supposed to have happened, was set by Church authorities to be celebrated on December 25. Almost all over Europe, this date originally hosted a pagan celebration – a feast to honour the end of the darkness of Fall, the return of the Light. To aid the spread of the Gospel, Church Fathers decided to ease the competition by co-opting many of the pagan dates and many of the pagan celebrations.

Christmas is a period filled to the brink with stories. The dominant one, of course, is the story of a Virgin and her Immaculate Conception. For most Christians this story is a factual description of what happened, just over two millennia ago. Their Christmas tree has no other meaning than pure decoration. Every other ritual with its roots in paganism has been stripped of its pagan meaning, and now is exclusively seen as a prop in ‘spending quality time with loved ones’. The story of the ritual has changed, so the ritual itself could stay. It’s a matter of the baby and the bath water.

Our species is one that needs stories. We have been endowed with consciousness; this ever grinding buzz that tries to make sense of the world around us, and the world inside of us. Stories are the vehicle that connect what we see around us, what we feel inside us, what we think, what we perceive, what we dream, hope and aspire.

The thing with storytelling is, however, that some stories at one point or another start living separate lives, detached from their source. Stories tend to become uprooted. It’s almost as if they are caught by a bubble that encapsulates them, and takes them up, up and away to a world of their own.

What I packed in the back of my head from his words are that statistics and stories are two different things. While at some times statistics help us understand the world around us, at other times stories are as efficient, and maybe even more. Statistics appeal to reason, stories appeal to emotion. Human beings are made up of both. Both aspects are so crucial in our lives that each of our brain halfs is dedicated to one of them. The right hand side provides us with everything needed to be creative, to be empathetic, to appreciate, to communicate. The left hand side gives us logic and reason.

Stories and stats

If one looks at the different stories of the Virgin and Her Immaculate Conception and one compares historical facts from the Gospels with historical facts from independent sources, it becomes clear that Mary must have been pregnant for about ten years.

The stats say something about the storytelling. They give clues as to how to wonder and wander through what is written. When facts contradict each other, it challenges a reader to take his own responsibility. When facts contradict each other, interpretation will have to bridge the gaps. And interpretation is just one shape creativity can take. There is nothing wrong with that.

Interpretation is what happens in the most advanced departments of science, at the best universities in the world, especially in the cutting-edge sciences of astrophysics and quantum mechanics. No scientist really can claim to know what is happening now at the tiniest level of existence, or what happened during the Big Bang. What the wisest of scientist will tell you, however, is something along the lines of: “This is what we now, knowing what we know and having tested what we have tested, think…”

The best of theologians will give you the same answer. Only the fear-driven ones claim to have found the one and only Path To Truth, and will do so while speaking in tongues. If the divine mystery could really be understood by humans, it wouldn’t be much of a mystery. Some mysteries therefore are beyond understanding.

The best any sensible and reasonable person can say about the Myth of the Immaculate Conception is: “We have no idea how it happened, and even if it happened. But this is what the story means to me…”


What then about that other myth of virgins and their purifying effect on people with hiv? What about this persistent Myth of the Myth?

The myth of the purifying virgin has roamed the planet for centuries, if not millennia. It was alive in Victorian England in the 19th century, and it can be traced today to certain regions in contemporary South Africa.

Let’s just for sake of ease dissect this particular Myth of Having Sex with the Virgin, as it tries to explain sexual violence. The myth goes more or less as follows: being infected with a virus makes the infected person ‘dirty’. To be cleansed of that dirt takes a cleansing procedure. The best procedure is to be engulfed by the opposite of dirt, which is anything or anyone completely clean from outside influence.

On this earth of ours, only novices are believed to come close to that quality of purity. Children. Virgins. Just like the Virgin Mary, or so the story goes, was needed to receive the embodiment of Good, it is believed a virgin is also needed to wash away evil.

However, as an explanation for the level of sexual violence, the Myth of the Myth lacks everything needed to make a compelling case. Three quick points to explain that.

  • The myth needs HIV positive men to make up a large chunk of the rapists of babies and girls, and they also all need to know their status, otherwise the myth can’t make any impact on them; one of the major problems however in the fight against aids has been the difficulty in getting men to test for their status
  • All these HIV positive men who have gone for testing and waited for the results then need to actually go and visit a sangoma who advises them to go and rape to cleanse themselves; if that were the case then the legal system in SA would have or should have taken all these sangoma’s to court for incitement; nothing of the sort has happened, no warning was ever issued, no public outcry for that to happen has ever materialised
  • All rapes of children and babies must have happened in communities where there is a substantial following of the Myth; this is not the case, in general the coloured comunities of South Africa do not embrace neither sangoma’s nor the practice of muti, still these same communities are plagued by these crime, with with the infamous case of Baby Tshepang in Louisvale near Upington being a case in point – it was this case that gave birth to the Myth of the Myth.

It should be clear that the (possible) existence of a belief in a curing effect of having sex with a virgin can not even make a dent in trying to explain the levels of sexual violence in South Africa.

Journalists & “Dark Africa”

However, as myths go, it is especially popular amongst European and American journalists. They will never admit to believing the Myth itself; they claim to be reasonable and rational beings. Waves of journalists however have created a monster where there was none before. Rape in post-war Liberia? “Liberians believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of HIV.” Sexual violence in rural areas near Livingstone, Zambia? “There is this belief…”

Is there?


Apart from a very, very, very few cases no (suspected) rapist has at any time in any court in South Africa or elsewhere hid behind this argument. So, if close to all perpetrators deny having acted upon the myth, why does it stubbornly hang around?

Because it is an ideal emergency exit out of a nasty situation for everyone else. A lubricant out of a moral quagmire. The Myth of the Myth lays all responsibility for the outrageous levels of sexual violence in South Africa in some dark belief in muti and voodoo. With the implications of course being: “Once they become like us, modern beings relying on reason and reason alone, this problem will be eradicated.”

By laying the blame exclusively in the lap of “them” everyone else can walk away from everything else that for the last centuries wreaked havoc, and so laid the foundations of today’s society. Even the horrendously malformed founding stones that allowed for all the privileges to end up where they have ended up.

Laying the blame on “them” and “their primitive ways” is washing one’s hands in innocence.

A story.

A comforting story, a cloak of warm ignorance.

It is a story which, like a bubble, has detached itself from its source, and has taken on a life of its own.

The Myth of the Myth has a stench to it. One of indifference. One of not wanting to take responsibility for events in our society. Of building walls between “us” and “them”, and letting “them” rot in their own problems.

For the story to come alive of an Immaculate Conception and all its implications preached from pulpits on the need to love our neighbours, it needs a thorough cleansing of another Virgin Myth. Only when that myth is erased can the gap be bridged between “us” and “them”.


Aernout Zevenbergen is the author of the book  “Spots of a leopard – on being a man”. These days Aernout is a psychological counsellor in Nyon, Switzerland where he offers Skype counselling and individual counselling to international clients, humanitarian workers and journalists. His specialties are trauma treatment, psychology for men, and life transformations

Dadaab: Anyone here dying and speaks English?

Galgayo, Somalia - Petterik Wiggers/Hollandse Hoogte

Cynical press
International networks and journalists shamelessly focus their cameras on hunger and death. African leaders are embarrassed. Ethiopia wants to get rid of its image as the famine capital of the world. That’s one of the reasons its government has worked hard since 1991 towards guaranteeing food security. In his book Famine and Foreigners, Ethiopia since Live Aid, Peter Gill describes how in 2003 and 2008 the government tried to keep famine victims away from Western cameras. And now it is reluctant to let foreign correspondents cover the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

“Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” The title of this book by war correspondent Edward Behr reflected the cynicism in the press coverage of the violence in Congo in the early 1960s. Africa had only recently become independent and Western journalists found it difficult to write in an informed way about the continent. The de-colonisation of the Western mind had yet to begin.

Visible bones
“Anyone here dying and speaks English?” Fifty years later this line haunts me during a visit to Dadaab, the refugee camp in Northern Kenya crammed with Somali refugees. Nobody knows the exact dimensions of the disaster. The epicentre lies in inaccessible territory in Somalia. There is no mass starvation in Dadaab, but the journalists need shocking images to reinforce their tales of misery so they go looking for death. There is no room for subtlety.

A staggering cow eating the straw from a nomadic dwelling, a desperate goat sucking the toes of his herder, these images may give an idea of the dimensions of the crisis for local cattle herders, but don’t contain enough drama to titillate the dulled appetites of Western readers. So the reporter goes for the kill. “Put your baby a bit more in the light, please”, a photographer asks a mother. And yes, take its clothes off – otherwise the bones are not visible.

Aid workers larded their announcement of the disaster at the beginning of July with superlatives: the worst drought since, the biggest humanitarian tragedy now. And the ace in the pack: worse than 1984’s famine in Ethiopia.

Referring to “the worst” seems the only way to get attention. Journalists copied the fundraisers’ chorus of woe. Hunger caused by a war raging in Somalia became a famine in the entire Horn of Africa. Some media even started talking about “the famine in Africa”.

When asked what he needed most, a Somali herder near the border with Kenya told me “I need respect”. Do aid workers and journalists show respect for the victims when they toss around figures like “four million dead in Congo” or “hundreds of thousands killed in Darfur genocide”.

When will figures become people? There is great suffering in Somalia, but how can aid workers claim that thousands of people have already died there because of the famine? Tens, hundreds, thousands? Is there a difference? Or have these calculations been made on the back of a matchbox to feed the journalists and the fundraisers? It seems perfectly understandable that African leaders are reluctant to join the hype created around this serious food crisis.