Africa: Looking Past the Headlines

By Ben DeMuth ‘09


“When are you going back to America? Put me in your luggage!!”

This was a common joke I heard from people while serving in Cameroon as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Sometimes it was a joke, and sometimes it was veiled truth.

Ben DeMuth

Ben DeMuth ’09 in Mali with members of the Association Des Organisations Professonellas Paysannes (AOPP). The objective of AOPP is to improve the living conditions of producers and food self-sufficiency through peasant agriculture, family and multifunctional.

People in Cameroon believe America is a paradise and everyone is rich. Although relative to Africans, Americans are extremely rich, I would tell Cameroonians, “You live in a paradise, why leave Cameroon?” I would then tell them that there is, in fact, poverty in America and it is not easy to live on a minimum wage job. They did not believe me. No matter what news article I quoted or anecdote I offered, some people were so convinced in their opinions of America they could not be dissuaded.

From September 2012 to October, 2014, I was an Agribusiness Volunteer in rural Cameroon.  I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to give back to the world while also gaining more experience abroad.

What I didn’t know was that I would fall in love with this line of work, and in February 2015 I rejoined the Peace Corps as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Mali, West Africa.

Today, I am in Mali, working as a Technical Marketing and Agribusiness Advisor to food processors and a farmer cooperative.  But when I told friends and family I was going back to Africa after my two years in Cameroon, it was not received with the same enthusiasm as when I first announced I was joining the Peace Corp.

In hindsight, I cannot help but wonder if their reactions the first time were entirely sincere. Were they just thinking, Ben is going to go on an adventure to save the world, but after finishing he will come home to get serious with his life?

Like the Cameroonian man who wanted to come to America because it was so rich, people in the U.S. were just as set in their opinions of Africa. Some people, when I said Mali would get excited that I was going to Maui, Hawaii. When I corrected them, they suggested that West Africa was the absolute worst place I could go. To them, Mali is full of disease and war.  I got the impression that they thought that I was ruining my life.  I disagreed then and I disagree now.

And as I challenged people in Cameroon on their perceptions on America, I now challenge you.

What is Africa anyway? It’s a continent of over 50 nations. In fact, it is the second largest continent, and has hundreds of different languages and some of the richest landscape in the world.

It is true that there are also terrible diseases such as Ebola, child soldiers, and starving children during the “hunger season.” What we don’t see, however, is the ferociously growing middle class, the computer technicians who can repair cell phones in minutes, kids writing code, and people constantly laughing. What we don’t realize is that Africa is evolving quickly.View Post

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Business owner Hadizatou Maïga Diallo.

Where will Mali and Africa be in 20 years? Or in 50 years? I don’t know. What I do know is that when people in the West start looking past the headlines they will see all of Africa’s potential —  they will start doing business in Africa, and westerners will choose to study abroad in Ghana instead of Australia, and more music and culture will synergize.

One of the businesses I work with is the Diallo Enterprise, a family enterprise that exports dried food products to Europe and South Africa. Hadizatou Maïga Diallo is the owner and director, and she really is an image for the potential in Africa. She is tri-lingual, works from 8am to 10pm, and magnanimously runs her business to provide employment for 25 women. In 2011, the World Bank gave her a grant to purchase a food-drying machine from South Africa, and since then her business has doubled annually. Among the things I do with the company is help her develop soft skills: organization, planning, and time management. I am also an advocate for the business when other businesses or non-governmental organizations approach her. She wants to expand, and we’re applying for a business loan so she can eventually quadruple her production and employ 100 to 150 Malians.

I’m constantly moved by the generosity of Malians and the richness of their culture and the potential of the country.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Instead, take the time to learn more about this continent and the countries that comprise it. What are the politics? What is the geography? What are the different languages, religions, and regions? Learn how governments integrate contemporary laws with traditional laws. Learn how police officers have little authority in land disputes, while ancient royal family lines have all the power.

Think beyond what you see in the headlines.

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