Book review: The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade

Book review: The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade

There are a plethora of books that celebrate Africa’s surge in breaking free of a colonial past and taking its place in the modern world. Academics and economists residing outside of the continent have written many of these books, but they tend to leave something to be desired in both their analyses and conclusions. The Bright Continent, Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa is different though, says Stephen Williams in this book review.

But here we have Dayo Olopade, a writer, a first generation Nigerian-American, (born in the US to Nigerian parents) who returned to the mother continent, to East Africa and Nairobi to be exact, to write an exhilarating book; 

Her style is refreshingly breezy, and displays an inherent confidence that belies her youth. Nor does she rely on an endless parade of facts, figures or economic statistics to make her case. Rather, through a number of anecdotes, she makes her case in a compelling way.

Early in the book, Olopade explains her methodology in writing this book. It was to create five platforms, or maps, with which the author shares with the reader aspects of the Africa story. These maps are, in her own words, concerned with family, technology, commerce, nature and youth.

“The family map,” Olopade writes, “is an essential building block.” Adding as a way of explanation, she writes: “Everywhere I travelled, social relationships defined and improved life. This extended ‘family’ phenomenon is particularly useful in the absence of government safety net.

“As we’ll see, horizontal networks in and across Africa can save lives, build businesses, and light the darkness. The African family also includes its vast diaspora – an important asset for finance, innovation and influence.”

The author’s second chapter deals with the concept of Kanju, defined as “the specific creativity born of African difficulties”. Perhaps the best example of the Kanju phenomena are the 419 scammers, those that use the internet to defraud the wealthy and gullible with fictitious promises of huge wealth that usually involve the payment of advance fees. Kanju is a Yoruba word that can be literally translated as “to rush” or “make haste”, yet probably more accurately means to “hustle” or “strive”.

Olopade marvels that she, unlike her friends, does not receive these 419 emails, and wonders whether this is due to her superior spam blockers, or her name alone that is keeping the scammers away from her inbox – that she is viewed as “one of their own”.

However, Kanju is not just about illegal scams, it also about resourcefulness in general. Olopade refers here to the “traffic marketers” as a prime example, that use the “go slows” so typical of the road networks of Africa’s cities. These marketers sell all manner of items to a captive audience of motorists stuck in the jams.

Here, Olopade quotes Mo Ibrahim, the founder of pioneering telecoms group Celtel, who told her: “I always say Africans are the greatest entrepreneurs. Many people wake up in the morning not knowing what they are going to do – but they have to make some money. So they do whatever is needed.

“If it’s raining, you go sell an umbrella. If it’s hot, you sell ice or some Coke. People try to find ways to make a living, and there is great energy.” And the author points out: “Once you start looking for it, this energy is everywhere.”


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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa. Williams currently works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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