Silicon Insider: Tech and Racial Progress in Africa

It was an event so horrific that it even shocked our veteran guide.

We were casting for tiger fish from a boat on a side channel of the Okavango River in the Delta near the Namibian border. The fish weren't biting so we let our attention wander to a group of about 20 baboons of all ages foraging on the far bank.

Suddenly, the calm was shattered by an explosion of violence among the monkeys.

Apparently, a rogue male baboon -- waiting to either challenge the dominant male baboon or perhaps to join the tribe with a mate of his own -- savagely attacked one of the females.

He knocked her to the ground, pounding her into the dust -- and in the process sent the infant she was carrying tumbling down the bank into some bushes.

It was this infant who was the real target of the attack. It tried to hide in the bushes, but the male, having overpowered the mother, now scrambled down the bank in hot pursuit.

In an instant the male was upon it. As not only we, but half of the baboon tribe, looked on in horror, it grabbed the baby with both hands and ate it alive.

As the blood spurted, the shrieks of both the dying baby and the helpless mother echoed over the water -- a sound never to be forgotten.

Then, in an instant, the male baboon was gone, the other males in hot pursuit, the baby's screams dying in the distance.

Charles Sebaga, our master guide, predicted that within a few hours the fight would be forgotten, the ruthless male would find his new place in the tribe, and the mother, now returning to estrous, would take on the cannibalizer of her baby as her new mate.

It an awful way, this little natural vignette was an allegory of Africa itself. At the time, I turned to my son, Tad, and said, "That, son, is why we invented civilization."

The March to a Civilized Society

I was being facile. Too often here over the centuries, life has been treated as a zero-sum game, the spoils going to the most audacious and brutal. Some of the greatest cruelties have been perpetrated by some of the ostensibly most "civilized" partners.

It's easy to believe that the winner-takes-all rule of the jungle still governs Africa.

Certainly there is no shortage of tyrants. The "Big Man" is always willing to take over here.

The sequence has become wearily familiar: white colonial rule, independence, Marxism, coups, civil war, Beloved President for Life, blame the whites for current problems, land expropriation, economic disintegration.

Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is only the latest example -- enforcing absolute control now well into his 80s, destroying the economy of one of Southern Africa's most beautiful countries, creating a nation of starving paupers while he is feted by fellow despots around the world.

There are endless Mugabes throughout Africa -- and no shortage of unhappy poor people and teenagers with AK-47s in white Toyota trucks -- to support their rise to power.

It is so easy to give up hope for Africa. The problems seem so intractable. Yet, having been to Southern Africa three times now in the course of this decade, I find myself more optimistic than ever.

Prosperity, Technology Arrive

Much has changed here since my first visit in 2002.

For one thing, prosperity has come to the region, thanks in large part to high prices for minerals, oil and gems.

This in turn has led to building booms in places such as Windhoek and Lusaka, and in the copper cities of Northern Zambia.

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