The scenes of sub-Saharan Africa that Americans are getting during President Clinton's big trip are unlike most usually broadcast from the region of 700 million people.
But if the upbeat view of shiny capitals and successful rural programs doesn't reflect the totality of what's occurring there, it's no more unbalanced than the pictures of famine, war and death that typically predominate and give an equally distorted view.
The truth is that most Americans still know little about Africa. That ignorance has helped shape a foreign policy that has relegated much of the continent to second-class status when it comes to both trade and intervention.
If backed by follow-through, Clinton's six-nation, 12-day trip can change that by elevating the region -- and its people -- in the minds of the U.S. public and policy makers.
Africa has changed dramatically since Jimmy Carter was the last U.S. president to tour the region 20 years ago. Democracy has taken root in South Africa, and elections have become commonplace in countries like Senegal.
Economic reforms have facilitated a 4 percent growth rate on the continent, allowing economic expansion to outpace population growth for the first time. That's a firm indication of a region turning the corner.
Europe already has noted the opportunity for trade relationships, cornering 30 percent of the market there. That compares with only 7 percent for the United States, according to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who chairs Africa committees for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of Black Mayors. That disparity is what Clinton is trying to change, to the benefit of both lands.
After viewing Africa as little more than a Cold War pawn or the home of disasters and tribesmen stereotyped by Hollywood, America needs to take a new look at a continent rich in oil, gold, diamonds and other natural resources and peopled with citizens who hunger for development opportunities.
And it needs to take a new look at countries like Uganda, which has achieved stability and unprecedented levels of growth since President Yoweri Museveni took over from the likes of Idi Amin and began instituting fiscal disipline and free-market policies.
Africa needs to be elevated alongside China, the former Soviet republics and Southeast Asia when Washington is figuring out its moral obligations and its strategic interests. Seeing Africa in a new light would mean, among other things, not ignoring the continent simply because many Americans feel no natural affinity for the people there.
At the same time, Clinton must use the opportunity of this trip to make clear that human rights are just as important as dollars. In plotting his itinerary -- Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal -- he pointedly avoided nations like Nigeria and Congo, where autocratic rulers thwart democratic reform. That was a start.
But even among the nations on his schedule -- such as Ghana or even Uganda, where there are still no opposition parties -- respect for all of the tenets of democracy is hardly well-established. And Rwanda's long-term problems remain to be solved.
Trade alone will not do much for poor Africans living amid genocide or under despots who reap the profits for themselves. Nor will private investment alone guarantee a climate in which despots are tossed aside. That will take pressure and firm leadership from a United States that values human rights as much as it values trade relationships.
Cynics, of course, will accuse Clinton of going abroad now to divert attention from domestic troubles. But this trip -- stemming from one that Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea took to Africa last March -- was in the works long before anyone ever heard of Kathleen Willey. Clinton went because Africa is important to America and vice versa. The sooner Americans realize that, the better off all sides will be.