As human-rights activist John Prendergast spoke Wednesday about Africa, he offered a hefty dose of optimism: The continent is undergoing a transformation not unlike that of the United States 50 years after its independence.
"The point here is that Africa is not totally a continent of despair," Prendergast told a University of Utah audience of roughly 200 people. "There is much for hope."
Prendergast's speech, part of the World Leaders Lecture Forum at the Tanner Humanities Center, reflected the shifting image of the continent and the political, economic and security issues at play. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when a talk about Africa by an expert would focus only on humanitarian aid to hopelessly poor, war-torn nations, he said.
No more. These days, the continent is widely seen as the next frontier for economic growth, as it undergoes political growing pains not unlike those experienced by the U.S., countries in Europe and elsewhere, Prendergast noted.
Working for peace in Africa for more than 25 years, Prendergast has worked in the Clinton White House, for the State Department, UNICEF and other organizations and has written books including the New York Times best-seller "Not on Our Watch."
The continent of Africa, he said, is a collection of more than 50 nations, home to a billion people who speak thousands of languages, and has largely been portrayed in Western media as dominated by war, misrule and famine.
But those wars have, with a few notable exceptions, largely ended, he said. Even Somalia, the very picture of a failed African state, has begun to turn around. Many of Africa's democracies have grown stronger, Prendergast said, even in adversity and despite setbacks.
Politically, university students have sometimes played a crucial role in changes in Africa, such as helping to end the trade of "blood diamonds," he said. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was convicted of war crimes for fostering war in neighboring Sierra Leone to get his hands on diamonds mined there by slaves.
"There's the extraordinary potential of the people's movement," he said, referring to such grass-roots efforts, largely started by university students in the West, against atrocities. "Thereby, removing the fuel for war in West Africa."
Many of the deadliest wars in Africa, Prendergast noted, have been resolved, but that is not the image coming out of Hollywood. He pointed to four recent films about Africa "Blood Diamond" with Leonardo DiCaprio, "Lord of War" with Nicolas Cage, "Last King of Scotland" with Forest Whitaker and "Hotel Rwanda" with Don Cheadle.
All the films, he said, should have ended with a postscript that those countries, such as Liberia and Rwanda, are at peace.
"Yes, there is still deep and dividing issues [in these countries]," Prendergast said. "But most have moved far beyond the dark ages. … Rwanda is now a country of peace … with the highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world."
Again and again, Prendergast pressed Utah's university students to get involved, especially in issues related to the Congo, from where bountiful raw materials are taken to produce such electronic devices as cellphones. A campaign similar to the one against blood diamonds has grown up around the Congo, called the Conflict-Free Campaign Initiative.
"Take simple actions," he told the audience, largely students. "In this new world of 21st century activism. … tweet, blog, Facebook about things you care about. … Get in the game."
After the speech, Irene Kelly, 21, a finance major, said she was inspired. "It's really important to raise awareness of human rights and that students have a voice," Kelly said. "There's a world out there and we can't just live in a bubble."