There have been countless attempts to define the world's second-biggest and second-most-populous continent, often and notoriously from outside.
The dark continent. The hopeless continent. A scar on the conscience of the world. The cradle of humankind. African renaissance. Africa rising. Amazing Africa. Scramble for Africa. Out of Africa.
There have been countless attempts to define the world's second-biggest and second-most-populous continent, often and notoriously from outside. Africa's 54 countries – even this number depends on your point of view – are home to about one billion people manifesting thousands of languages and myriad ethnicities. This most generalised and pigeonholed of all continents cries out for nuance, shading and complexity.
South Africa is reputedly the beacon of hope, yet on October 2 it embarked on a judicial inquiry into its deadliest police massacre since the end of apartheid. Somalia is arguably the world's most failed state, but on October 2 its troops entered the last stronghold of militant Islamists to offer the best chance of peace for 20 years. Kenya, hub of economic potential, internet entrepreneurs and Olympic champions, reeled from a grenade attack on a Sunday school, Mozambique's ruling party celebrated 50 years of socialism and Zimbabwe's prime minister and would-be democratic saviour apologised for leaving a trail of broken hearts in his search for a wife.
It is indeed a long way from Cape Town to Cairo. In between are hundreds of millions of people trying to earn a living, raise families and pursue happiness. More newsworthy are the dictators and democrats, dirty wars and peaceful elections, Arab Springs and sub-Saharan non-springs, mineral wealth and ossified poverty, rocket scientists and subsistence farmers, thriving cultural industries and dying manufacturers.
The outside world has noticed and those externally imposed narratives of Africa are shifting. Once conflict, despotism, disease, televised famine and hapless victimhood dominated them. Now the talk is of African lions, six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies, a booming middle class, a slew of natural resource discoveries, the next frontier for investors – not aid donors.
Perhaps the pendulum is in danger of swinging from one extreme to another, from pathological pessimism to a Pollyannaism no less dogmatic. Businesses, the media and politicians arguably conspire in an "optimism industry" that patronises through the soft bigotry of low expectations. It is now a common trope to quote the Economist's 2000 cover, "The hopeless continent", then compare it with the same magazine's "Africa rising" from 2011. The reality is chequered, awkward, defiant of two or three-word headlines.
Africa accounts for about 2% of world gross domestic product. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya may yet prove giant leaps for democracy, but big blows to some of Africa's strongest economies.
This year, Senegal's elections produced a smooth transition of power, but neighbouring Mali suffered a coup to Islamist militancy. Nigeria powers on with brilliant entrepreneurs co-existing with desperate infrastructure and violent extremists seeking to impose sharia law. So-called traditionalists and some governments define human rights as a Western invention, a colonisation of the mind. Rapists continue to inflict horror. Homophobia is often enshrined in religious conviction and colonial-era laws.
Even devout sceptics, however, would be hard-pressed to deny the (often Chinese) concrete reality of new buildings and bridges, roads and railways transforming the continent. Cellphones make it possible for users to communicate with and send money to relatives in faraway villages with ease. Combined with the internet, they also make it harder for tyrannies to bury their crimes.
The number of major conflicts is down from 12 in the mid-1990s to four today. Secondary-school enrolment rose by 48% from 2000 to 2008. Deaths from malaria and Aids are in decline. In eight of the past 10 years, sub-Saharan Africa's economies have outpaced East Asia's. Africa has its superwealthy elite, its middle-class shopping malls, its age of leisure and obsession with the English Premier League. But too often this growth is jobless, meaning that Africa's fast-growing young population has the makings of a demographic time bomb. Nor does economic success appear to be any guarantor of democracy or human rights.
One thing is certain. There is more rambunctious, sharp-elbowed debate than ever before thanks to cellphones, email, Facebook and Twitter. The Guardian's new Africa blog and network, launched on October 1, will join the debate around contentious issues such as the quality of leadership, the legacy of colonialism, identity politics that pitch women's and homosexuals' rights against a form of cultural fundamentalism. What is "Africa" anyway and should it look east, west, or within? – © Guardian News & Media 2012
David Smith is the Guardian's Africa correspondent