On a recent long haul flight, I soothed my jet-lagged brain with the National Geographic magazine, specifically, the Special Issue on Africa (September 2005). Like many people, I'm inexplicably attracted to this amazingly large, diverse, and complicated continent. Perhaps it's primal. Trace the human family tree far enough back and we're all Africans in some genealogical sense. Yet with all of the faddish policy noise Africa has received in the wake of the G8 conference -- positive in many respects but annoying in others -- I've found myself tuning out when it comes to Africa. We only have so much psychological space for doom-and-gloom stories.
Fortunately, this National Geographic issue has brought my attention back to this continent in a fresh way. Visually stunning as always, this September issue is a relatively easy entry point into some of the positive, as well as disturbing, themes and developments in parts of Africa. With a tag-line, "whatever you thought, think again" -- if I can be so bold, quite Worldchangingesque in attitude! -- the issue tries to dispel some of the conventional perceptions and assumptions we have about Africa, i.e. it's going to hell in a hurry. While I'm no expert on Africa (we have Ethan Zuckerman in that department), I think they mostly succeed.
Biogeographer Jared Diamond sets the tone in his essay on the Shape of Africa. "Is the African continent doomed externally to wars, poverty, and devastating diseases? Absolutely not." Even for Diamond, geography is not destiny.
On my own visits to Africa, I've been struck by how harmoniously ethnic groups live together in many countries—far better than they do in many other parts of the globe. Tensions arise in Africa, as they do elsewhere, when people see no other way out of poverty except to fight their neighbors for dwindling resources. But many areas of Africa have an abundance of resources: The rivers of central Africa are great generators of hydroelectric power; the big animals are a major source of ecotourism revenue in eastern and southern Africa; and the forests in the wetter regions, if managed and logged sustainably, would be renewable and lucrative sources of income.
There are also nicely crafted, slightly quirky and personal pieces on: the Congo's Mbuti Pygmies, a balanced piece on Chad's experiment in overcoming the "curse of oil" that has plagued other African countries, and a touching Nairobi native's meditation on his megacity. So if you see a copy lying around the Frequent Flyer lounge you happen to be in, pick it up! Or a local library would do, just leave that one behind.
Oh, one more thing: this venerable publication has pioneered what it means to be a socially responsible organization long before CSR became a term. Most recently, they have launched Good Companies Good Works , a " marketing platform designed to recognize and celebrate our advertising partners whose philanthropic efforts effect community at large." Looks like National Geographic is trying to use its brand and publication platform to create a seal of good corporate citizenship with its patrons. Keep a look out for this logo, and we'll watch closely if this innovative campaign has an impact on the actions of their sponsors. This could be an important symbiotic relationship that makes a difference.
(Thanks Dad for always ensuring we had this subscription around the house growing up, and putting this one in my path on a recent visit.)
Posted by nicole at September 8, 2005 05:21 PM