Dispatches from Africa

Paul du Toit

Taking stock of a changing continent, in words and images.

Africa is more than three times the size of the United States, a checkerboard of 55 nations and counting, made up of a hodgepodge of opposing trends. Yet there’s a shared sentiment across its length and breadth—especially in the sub-Saharan region—that makes Africa the locus of one of the most exciting switches in continental identity we’ve seen since China threw away its Little Red Book. We’re thinking of the continent beyond Hemingway’s green hills and Bono and the endless flow of aid, beyond the clichéd—and now misrepresentative—magazine covers of AK-47s and starving children. We’re coveting Africa for its inspirations, its tastemakers, its business leaders. Afropolitanism, to borrow Taiye Selasi’s felicitous coinage, is on the rise, and the continent is gaining faith in its own global cool.

Take a look at the Pan-African pulp-fiction magazine Jungle Jim, which rewrites the African story in a boldly imaginative new way, more James M. Cain than J. M. Coetzee. Listen to Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, whose new album, Beautiful Africa, stands in exuberant defiance against the onslaught of Islamism in her homeland. The tapestries of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui have the contemporary art world transfixed. Nollywood, Nigeria’s 20-year-old film industry, is now producing more movies a year than Hollywood. From L’Uomo Vogue to The Economist, there’s consensus: Africa is the next hot spot.

The reason? Among other factors, a radically changed political environment, which is also encouraging giant leaps forward in direct foreign investment. We’re not denying the persistence of instability (currently pronounced in North Africa, not covered in this issue), and it’s remarkable that Mugabe clings to power in Zimbabwe while next door in South Africa Mandela remains an icon of democracy and an inspiration to the whole continent. Yet the balance is shifting. Kenya’s general elections in March passed relatively peaceably. Representative governments are gaining traction across the continent. AIDS- and malaria-related mortality rates are in decline. And sub-Saharan Africa boasts six out of ten of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

This optimism is what our Africa Issue is all about—a celebration of the sustainable shift in mood, reflecting the sense of opportunity you feel when you travel much of the continent. Of course, extremes still exist; in the African lion nations, the division between rich and poor has become even more pronounced. The Angolan fat cats are buying Porsches at a rate that’s hard to imagine, and the oil-rich Nigerians are now among the top ten Hennessey-consuming populations in the world. Then there are the millions still living on less than a dollar a day, for whom clean water is a basic necessity they remain without. But change is afoot. In reporting this issue, we have become convinced that for all its contradictions and complexities, Africa is on the rise.

“Imagine if the early colonizers drew the world map the other way around: What would the perception of Africa be like today? In the universe there is no up or down. Africa is a big place, and the perception in scale of modern maps shows some of the European countries far larger than they are and many African countries smaller. So my thinking was of turning the map of Africa upside down. It is still distinctly recognizable.” —South African artist Paul du Toit on his “Top of the World,” pictured here, created specially for DEPARTURES.

Taiye Selasi's Motorino Diaries
The Power of African Food
Youssou N'Dour Has Left the Building
Paul Theroux: The Malawi I Loved
Reading "Jungle Jim"
Abercrombie and Kent: The Last Hunt
What Rwanda Did Right
Richard Mosse Shoots the DRC
Cape Town for the Pleasure Seeker
The Oases of Lagos
Who Is El Anatsui?
How to Buy African Art
Apocalypse Rhinoceros
The Monarchs of Nigeria
Stealing Home
In Dedication: Nelson Mandela