July 10, 2009
Op-Ed Guest Columnist

Rebranding Africa

 

 

DATELINE: Imminent. About now, actually.

Soon, Air Force One will touch down in Accra, Ghana; Africans will be welcoming the first African-American president. Press coverage on the continent is placing equal weight on both sides of the hyphen.

And we thought it was big when President Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963. (It was big, though I was small. Where I come from, J.F.K. is remembered as a local boy made very, very good.)

But President Obama’s African-ness is only part (a thrilling part) of the story today. Cable news may think it’s all about him — but my guess is that he doesn’t. If he was in it for a sentimental journey he’d have gone to Kenya, chased down some of those dreams from his father.

He’s made a different choice, and he’s been quite straight about the reason. Despite Kenya’s unspeakable beauty and its recent victories against the anopheles mosquito, the country’s still-stinging corruption and political unrest confirms too many of the headlines we in the West read about Africa. Ghana confounds them.

Not defiantly or angrily, but in that cool, offhand Ghanaian way. This is a country whose music of choice is jazz; a country that long ago invented a genre called highlife that spread across Africa — and, more recently, hiplife, which is what happens when hip-hop meets reggaetón meets rhythm and blues meets Ghanaian melody, if you’re keeping track (and you really should be). On a visit there, I met the minister for tourism and pitched the idea of marketing the country as the “birthplace of cool.” (Just think, the music of Miles, the conversation of Kofi.) He demurred ... too cool, I guess.

Quietly, modestly — but also heroically — Ghana’s going about the business of rebranding a continent. New face of America, meet the new face of Africa.

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