Stephen McGinty: New light in dark continent

David Livingstone only converted one person to Christianity. Picture: Getty
David Livingstone only converted one person to Christianity. Picture: Getty
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LIKE many a pupil of the 1970s, my image of Africa was shaped by the school trip to the David Livingstone Centre, in Blantyre, and the mandatory collection for the “black babies”.

My abiding memory of the David Livingstone Centre was standing in a reconstruction of the room and kitchen in which the failed missionary and successful explorer was raised and thinking just how small it was for such a large family. Our teacher told us how young David, at the end of a 14-hour shift in the local cotton mill would settle down at the kitchen table and by candle-light study Greek and maths until midnight when he wearily retired to bed.

My abiding memory of the “black babies” as they were unfortunately called in less enlightened times were the coloured cards at Our Holy Redeemer’s in Clydebank on which their starving faces stared out beseeching you to cough up your pocket money, which I dutifully did, but not without a certain resentment. Were these poor infants even aware that this meant one less packet of Panini football stickers and the holy grail of the Scotland badge receding ever further?

Scotland’s relationship with Africa deepened with the dedication and pig-headedness of David Livingstone and his exploration of the heart of the continent and discovery of what he christened Victoria Falls. (It began when we helped ship thousands of its subjects to Barbados, including a slave called Scotland.) It was strengthened by both the missionary work of the Church of Scotland and those Scots who toiled in the engine room of the Empire during the great scramble for Africa in the late 19th century.

Yet for many Scots the continent has just two abiding images: soldiers in khaki signifying the endless battles for domination, of coups and counter-coups all played out to a terrifying drum beat of hacked-off limbs and the tortured screams from rape camps. Then there is the starving skeletal toddler with a head like a melon cuddling a massive tin of condensed milk. The images broadcast into our homes in 1984 by Michael Burke during the Ethiopian famine will never leave us. They forced us to buy endless copies of Do They Know It’s Christmas? (co-written by our own Midge Ure) to spend both day and night in front of the television during Live Aid, and to heed Bob Geldof’s demand to give him “your fookin’ money”. (I’ve just realised for many, there are actually three images of Africa, the first two which I’ve already detailed and a third as an animal paradise as witnessed by David Attenborough and his BBC documentary series.)

Yet it seems like the time is right for us to reassess our image of Africa. On 19 March we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of David Livingstone, the Scot who spent decades dedicating his life and, sadly, that of his wife to the exploration of Africa. While he may only have made a single convert in his career, and even that one didn’t last long, he was determined to open up the continent to “Christianity, commerce and civilisation” and, in the process, helped to highlight and then bring about the end of the slave trade. We can only imagine what he would have made of the European colonisation of the continent, especially the barbarity of the Belgians which inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Then there is the prospect of the G8 returning to the UK in the summer, eight years after the groundbreaking conference at Gleneagles hotel when Africa was at the top of the agenda. While we remember it for George W Bush’s unilateral decision to run down a Scottish police officer with his mountain bike, for many in the aid agencies it helped ignite the engine of Africa’s current renewal by forcing the world’s richest most powerful nations to agree to double aid and cancel £27 billion of debt owed by African nations. Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, marked the summit “seven out of ten” and said last week: “We’ve made more progress in alleviating poverty than at any other time in history.”

Last week, One, the anti-poverty charity co-founded by Bono published a report that said that since 2005 there has been an 18 per cent reduction in child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, a 9 per cent drop in the number of people living on less than £1 per day, an extra 5.4 million people now have access to life-saving vaccines, 21 million more children are in school and new HIV infections have dropped by one million. The report does, however, document the failures: 40 per cent of all the people in the world who lack access to drinking water live in ­sub-Saharan Africa and malnutrition rates remain high. But the image of Africa is changing as befits the fastest-growing continent which currently has seven of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of young people attending secondary school has risen by 48 per cent, malaria deaths have dropped by 30 per cent, HIV infections by 74 per cent and life expectancy has increased by 10 per cent. Income per person has risen by 30 per cent. Trevor Baylis’s wind-up radios are now being superseded by a revolution in communication with the continent now having three mobile phones for every four people, and by 2017, 30 per cent of households will have a television, an increase of 500 per cent in just ten years. The rise of Africa has also been good for British businesses as their investment in Africa is now 50 times that of Germany and seven times that of the United States.

When the Berlin Wall finally fell and America and Russia stopped pushing African dictators like pawns across a chessboard, there were just three African countries out of 53 with functioning democracy, today there are 25. War, the rampaging horseman of the apocalypse, is also a little less busy in Africa. Where previously there were 20 coups per decade, now it has fallen to just ten.

Yet, for me, the most startling image was one described by a correspondent for the Economist in last week’s special report on Africa. Our image of David Livingstone hacking through jungle had greatly improved by the time Paul Theroux travelled from Cairo to Cape Town in 2001 but it was still a journey that involved being shot at, frequent discomforts and long delays and detours. However, as the paper’s anonymous scribbler explained: “The journey covered some 15,800 miles on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to police. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available. It was rarely dangerous or difficult.”

Another more attractive picture of the average African is being painted by another Scot who, like Livingstone, is known around the world and is helping changing attitudes about the continent. I type, of course, about Alexander McCall Smith, for the global success of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and its indomitable Precious Ramotswe could do more than an entire shelf of detailed reports from NGOs, or 16 shiny pages in the latest issue of the Economist to illustrate how the continent has changed.

Clearly hunger, illness, violence and death still stalk across Africa and organisations such as Oxfam Scotland and Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund are adamant that now is not the time to pat oneself on the back and declare “job done”. For every positive statistic quoted above there will be a dark twin illustrating intransigence and foot-dragging by the G8, which is why 125 aid agencies are collaborating on the Enough Food For Everyone campaign which will, once again, shine a light on hunger when those once much richer nations (now wishing someone would come along and cancel their own debt) meet in Northern Ireland this summer. As Judith Robertson, head of Oxfam Scotland, said there are still major and complex issues and “eight years on from Gleneagles, it’s time they were tackled head on”.

But I think its also time to pack away the pictures of khaki militias and fly-covered infants as the defining image of Africa. Two centuries after his birth, Africa is now heeding the words of David Livingstone: “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”