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Rather Than Give Up on Africa, Perhaps We Should Ask a Different Question

Posted: 04/01/12 00:00

Occasionally, as part of my role at the charity Comic Relief, I take people into Nairobi's Kibera slum to see the projects that we help to fund there.

As the newcomers walk through one of Africa's biggest and poorest shantytowns, a particular comment and sentiment often surfaces.

"This is medieval", they say, a phrase I can distinctly remember uttering myself the first time I carefully picked my way across the lattice work of open sewers which ooze their way through the area, made famous to many in The Constant Gardener.

It's a perfectly understandable reaction too. Kibera and its equivalents in other parts of Africa are indeed a huge shock to the system for those of us fortunate enough to have been born somewhere, anywhere, else.

The flying toilets of Kibera, plastic bags filled with watery faeces thrown into giant piles as a result of the almost complete lack of sanitation available do indeed conjure up our collective sense of what the dark ages must have been like. Throw in the high prevalence of typhoid, diarrhoea, malaria and the scourge of cholera with its ultimate fate of death by dehydration and the awful picture is complete.

In fact if anything the reality of a place like Kibera can feel biblical, never mind medieval, a glimpse at a dim and distant part of our past that we would rather forget. For us witnessing Kibera is like stepping back into ancient history, light years away from where we are now.

Except of course it's not.

The vast majority of us seem to have forgotten just how recently the most down at heel inhabitants of countries like the UK were living lives and dying deaths that were very similar to the residents of today's Kibera.

Maybe our amnesia is down to Moore's Law and the technology powered social change time machine we find ourselves on? Being carried at breakneck speed away from our own pasts often makes a week last Tuesday seem like eons ago. It could therefore easily render that a century and a half ago, Britain was in the grip of its fourth major cholera outbreak in succession, barely believable.

What stretches credibility almost to breaking point is that those outbreaks claimed the lives of at least 65,000 people out of a sizeably smaller population than we have today.

As incredible and alien as it may seem now though it's true, as is the fact that New York City residents suffered multiple cholera deaths as recently as 1911 and 400 people in Aberdeen were infected with Typhoid in 1964.

As for malaria, a disease which despite being preventable and treatable still claims the life of a child every 45 seconds, (with more than 90% of those utterly needless deaths occurring in Africa) great swathes of the USA was up until 1951 deemed to be malarial too.

All of which tells us two things;

The grinding poverty and deadly conditions that millions of people endure in sub Saharan Africa don't make it the continent that time forgot; slums like Kibera and the diseases which ravage them don't paint a biblical picture, or even a medieval one, in many ways they actually hark back to a world that our great grand parents would be more than familiar with.

Which then leads us to the indisputable fact that escaping a world where pain and suffering and death and disease are a daily certainty is indeed entirely possible - because we are the living proof it can be done. Vaccination, sanitation, medication, education - our own very recent history tells us that this powerful quartet works and works quickly once it takes hold. First house by house, then street by street, onto whole neighbourhoods, towns and cities until entire nations and continents are lifted out of the mire.

On a recent trip to Tanzania to see a project funded with money raised from this year's Red Nose Day and support from the UK government I saw this very process in action. I met Hassan, a boy who in the first 21 months of his painful life had contracted both typhoid and malaria. If the health project I was spending time with hadn't reached his village there is little doubt that Hassan would have been dead within the year.

But now he and his family have medical care, a mosquito net and a chance.

The World Bank currently puts life expectancy in Sub Saharan Africa at 54 - roughly the same as it was for someone born in Britain in 1900. Just over a century on and our average life span now tops 80 years, with no signs that it will stop there.

So rather than giving up on a continent that's often portrayed as a basket case and wondering if it will ever escape its current plight, perhaps we should ask a different question?

With eight sub Saharan economies having more than doubled in size since 2001 and more African children attending school than ever before, will Africa's public health conditions improve at the same rate that ours did?

Or will, with the right help and a ride on the Moore's Law machine, Africa complete in next to no time a 100 year journey that we've all but forgotten taking?

 

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