KAMPALA, UGANDA – Beautiful women and mobile phones might not be the first pictures that come to mind when you think of Africa. But one of the more interesting things about life on the so-called dark continent is that, even here, image sells.
So much that Venatia Otto, a statuesque, 18-year-old Namibian, is the latest African beauty to be made wealthy after being chosen the 2006 Nokia Face of Africa. Picked from thousands of hopefuls, Otto and nine other semifinalists from across sub-Saharan Africa first went through “Model Boot Camp” in Botswana, before being jetted off to Nokia Fashion Week in Sun City, South Africa, where 30,000 watched their final runoff.
Otto, who has Grade 10 schooling, has now cat-walked to a three-year, $150,000 US modelling deal in New York City.
She has a new mobile phone, plus enough jewellery to shame the Queen of Sheba.
Africa has an uglier side, more like the unsightly, chicken-chested Congolese man who once stared humorously into my camera, apparently befuddled by the technology.
Look closer at Congo, where this year more than 1,000 people have died every day, mostly from preventable diseases, from what’s been called the planet’s worst conflict since the Second World War.
Or look east to Somalia, where Islamicists are returning that country to civil war; or south to Zimbabwe, where inflation is 1,200 per cent; or north to Sudan, where you can’t even get a bar of soap in some regions; or here to Uganda, where more than a million northerners live in refugee camps.
The other side of Africa’s face is rather dirty. And bloody. And worn.
Still, between such beauty and despair, the daily beat of life goes on, and, surprisingly, plenty of folks love presenting a good image of themselves. For example, at the Ugandan university where I work, many students may come from homes without enough food, but their clothes are always neatly pressed and “smart.” If I have a wrinkle or two, I’ll hear from my house-help. “Mr. Thom, you can’t go out like that!”
And Ugandan women easily spend a week’s pay on their hair.
In short, one is to look and act properly, despite the price, because unlike in the individualistic west, this culture is based on community. It’s not unlike the Arab world, where maintaining honour and avoiding shame is the goal of any interaction.
So, many everyday Africans are keeping appearances admirably, with a spirit of gentleness and courage that would humble some of the world’s wealthy. At the same time, this social paradigm can easily become a pseudocommunity.
Good manners and nice people may dominate, but if nobody knows how to resolve everyday frictions and conflicts, they simmer and boil over all the bigger. And with a weak sense of self, few people can lead. Thus, African dictatorships have come easy.
In fact, it can be argued that the key, and challenge, to build a new infrastructure and future for Africa is to develop societal leaders in what is, in essence, a culture of followers.
There’s a certain criticism, especially from some Africans, that the west has defined, and still defines Africa’s identity. Maybe.
Global trade barriers have hurt developing nations.
And it’s certainly true that we all hold mirrors up to each other in some fashion. No man, or continent, is an island.
But Africans have also had the freedom to create their own reality and present it to others in ways of their choosing. Colonialists left African states independent 50 years ago. Since then, this continent has seen 26 major wars, and gone from a huge food exporter to one that can’t even feed itself.
Twenty years ago, Angola alone could feed the whole continent. This year, 22 sub-Saharan countries, the same ones those Nokia judges recently toured, have suffered severe food shortages, not mainly from regional drought, but political turmoil.
By now it seems painfully clear that, alone, sub-Saharan Africa in particular can find neither the sustained development nor the deeper healing it so desperately needs.
The challenges are only growing. If it cares, the rich side of the world needs to risk and partner and work for a new future that goes beyond keeping its own appearances.