It's a long story that began shortly after World War II. As Africa began to end its colonial ties, the Eisenhower Administration along with some of the former colonial powers sought to address the needs of the newly independent states. A rivalry of aid givers soon developed. The Cold War spurred the competition for generosity and soon Africa became the fashionable target of foreign assistance that would set the tone for the later decades.
Along with this economic and political attention came articles and books that repeatedly emphasized the "mystery" of the continent and the expected rewards that would come from its "vast untapped resources." This had been the story line ever since Henry Morton Stanley was sent in 1871 by the New York Herald to "rescue" the missionary David Livingstone, who was far from needing rescue at that time. Joseph Conrad, thirty years later, drew from the mystique of the continent in writing Heart of Darkness.
That Conradian image of unfathomable opaqueness, along with all the other commentary later on, carried the theme of an impoverished population exploited by waves of individuals, corporations and governments. The problem is that as long as Africans, themselves, are included among those exploiters, it's quite true.
It is amazing that even today the same characterizations of "mystery" and "untapped resources" are sounded to encourage American, European and Asian interest and investment in Africa. In most instances the reference is to the verdant tropical areas best known to Hollywood moviegoers. The drought-stricken Sahel on the borders of the Sahara often attracts far less interest even as its population drifts southward in search of water and new living space.
The so-called "mystery" of Africa is often referred to in explanation of why the Western world for so many years has found it difficult to comprehend the socio-economic structure that dictates life in this giant continent. It is interesting to note that in the early 1960s when the Chinese began to take an interest in the mineral wealth of Africa, they did not focus on the existing political organization of the countries in which they were interested. They did not try to change the post-colonial administrations. They did little or nothing to introduce their Maoist brand of communism. They centered their efforts strictly on the economic interests at hand.
To the Chinese of the sixties and seventies Africa was not "mysterious," and it isn't today. For Beijing each African nation is judged by the availability of economic projects to develop and exploit. The Chinese do not think in terms of "vast untapped resources." They think and plan in development terms relative to the PRC's own needs and how a given country's capabilities and capacity can be exploited for profit. Altruism isn't even paid lip service.
In the meantime African students and political leaders travel to China to learn whatever Beijing wishes to teach them. The Western countries and their aid programs complain that the Chinese do not wish to educate Africans, but rather to indoctrinate them. Many years ago confronted with this charge a veteran Kenyan politician said, "What's wrong with that? The African goes there, takes what he likes, and comes home having gained all around." That politician was Oginga Odinga, his country's first vice-president, and a chief of the Luo tribe.
There is a primal instinct in Africa borne of centuries of survival from invaders, internal and external. There is nothing mysterious about it, but to the European-cultured perception, the African social contract is considered as at a "lesser" level. This belief in greater European sophistication makes it difficult at best to comprehend the African thought process.
A practical example is perhaps the best way to show the chasm of understanding: There remains a traditional social security system extant throughout Africa. Africans tend to maintain a continuing relationship with their extended family and through them their home village. Sometimes this home village has been subsumed in a broader urban complex, but it still exists. The tin-sided shacks of tribal "townships" constructed outside of sub-Saharan African urban areas attest to this. It is to this "home" that every African is able to retreat when under personal, political or economic stress. The African does not think his social security system is less supportive than the Western government-aided system. In fact, for the most part, the African deems himself the better protected. And to the European this is a mystery.
It is not that the Chinese better understand how to work with Africans, but rather that they do not carry along with their commercial desires any commitment to socio-economic improvement. Concerts are not held in Shanghai to aid the starving people of Darfur. Guilt does not exist in the Chinese mindset over past colonial exploitation and the ravages of slavery. In turn Africa does not expect special advantages from their oriental cousin. (As the Chinese have characterized themselves.) In reality immigrants and traders from South Asia have lived and worked side-by-side with Africans for hundreds of years.
Africa's resources will be developed as long as it is commercially viable to do so. It certainly is not unknown that there remains potential for further extractive industries and even manufacturing in some cases. But it all remains to be judged as to profitability. There's nothing any more mysterious about Africa than there is about South America, Southeast Asia, or any other less developed region of the world. Africa's economic development potential remains competitive with virtually any other area of the world. How to bring that potential to fruition is not a mystery -- it's just very hard to do!