The Bright Continent

The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade

I'm a teensy bit behind on actual book reviews!  My desk is not happy with me because it's weighed down by too many books.  I've been trying to stay off the computer lately.  I hope I haven't forgotten everything I wanted to say about this book!

Dayo Olopade was raised largely in the US, but also spent lots of time visiting family in her parents' home country of Nigeria, and this gives her a good on-the-ground perspective for her subject.  Her thesis, pretty much, is that most African governments are so corrupt and incompetent that their main function is to impede, rather than facilitate, civil society.  Therefore, traditional models of aid have largely either been useless or damaging; and who says Africa needs tons of Western aid that may not fit actual needs, anyway?  Africa's largest resource is its own people, and far from being helpless victims of fate, they are excelling at making something from very little.  Spontaneous wealth production and change is happening at the grass-roots level, and we ought to pay attention.

This is a fantastic thesis, and I was prepared to love the book.  And overall I  liked it very much.  Olopade organizes her massively sprawling subject by dividing life into "maps" that each get a chapter: family, nature, young people, technology, and so on.  Given that she's covering most of a continent (she is focused on sub-Saharan Africa), it's impossible to do more than touch on various interesting stories here and there, so sometimes it feels kind of random and scattershot. 

The stories are fascinating, though!  I spent a lot of time picking out little bits to read to my husband.  I already knew, for example, that cell phones have enabled poor populations without infrastructure to leap ahead; individuals can save a lot of time and maximize profit by, for example, calling around to figure out which market would be the best choice on a given day.  I did not know that cell phones have become a way to save money, buy and sell, and even bank.  People are developing apps that work even on something like what I still have--a dumb phone on which I pre-pay minutes as I need them--and which are very popular in Africa.

An interesting thing about Olopade, though, is that she sounds like she's discovering the goods of a free market even as she is writing.  She often reports on basic principles in breathless terms as though they are new.  It's sort of fascinating to watch:
In the marketplace, social differences is perhaps Africa's only universal language.  It creates and reinforces social ties and provides an alternative to state-citizen relationships... (p 127) have the advantage of reflecting the real values of individuals and groups in a way aid does not.  Markets generate a built-in opportunity for ordinary people to express choice.  Consumers and partners are equal partners in transactions; as we've seen, donors and recipients are not.  (p 128-9)

Well, yes. 

Interesting book!  Worth reading!  And has lots of good information on why Africa is not hopelessly doomed to eternal poverty.


  1. I am on an Africa jag right now. This book sounds amazing! I think actually my dh would really appreciate it too. Thanks for the review.

  2. Yes, it was a bit scattershot, I agree! But I didn't mind -- all her stories were so fascinating, and it was great to hear less doomy stories about what's going on in Africa.


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