There's Reel Africa - and then there's Real Africa. We headed first to Reel Africa - to take wildlife safaris like those in movies. Later, we ventured into "Real" Africa. The many problems we saw in non-tourist Africa don't make for light reading, but if you continue to the end, we promise a small reader's reward.
VENTURING INTO "REAL" AFRICA
Betty Mwanza (below) introduced us to non-tourist Africa. She had rescued us from immigration officials on the train from Tanzania to Zambia (see BUMBLING AROUND AFRICA for the story), then invited us to dinner in her home in a "compound" - a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia.
A few days later, Betty met us at the Lusaka bus terminal and we climbed on a minibus with bold lettering on its sides: "Best For Whites." When we expressed surprise, she laughed and explained it was an advertisement for a laundry detergent! Passing several shantytowns, we arrived in a neighborhood of small, walled compounds – each containing several two-room, cement block apartments. We sloshed through muddy lanes to a market area, where the two of us paid for dinner ingredients: tomatoes, onions, "veg" (a type of greens that look like watercress and taste like spinach) and a small frozen chicken.
Back at her home, we sat in the nine-foot-square main room with her younger brother and a friend. A single bulb dangled from a ceiling cord, lighting the gaze of a Bob Marley print taped to the wall. There was no kitchen, bathroom or indoor plumbing. The living area held several plastic bottles of water collected during the 12 hours the compound pump runs each day. Betty squatted on the ground to prepare dinner on small charcoal braziers in the courtyard outside. It took her more than two hours to cook the special feast - including borrowing a second brazier, buying extra charcoal and defrosting the chicken in water she had previously boiled and cooled.
Dinner centered on nshima - the Zambian version of a starchy staple made from grain (corn, millet or sorghum) eaten throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Nshima is ground cornmeal boiled in water until very thick – something like Italian polenta. We rolled balls of it in our hands and dipped it in "relishes" of chicken, veg and “soup” - the latter a delicious tomato and onion sauce. Making a relish to flavor a staple grain is how most of the world's poor people eat. The sight of a typical American or European meal centered around hunks of meat would be astounding to most Africans.
Our dinner with Betty gave us food for thought as we journeyed through Africa for three more months. By sharing her experiences and dreams, she left us with a personal perspective on some of Africa's biggest problems: health, the status of women, education, housing and food.
Betty was still mourning the recent death of her brother, only in his twenties. We didn't ask the cause of death, but it could easily have been one of the two main diseases plaguing Africa: HIV/AIDS and malaria. Incredibly, 3.5 million sub-Saharan Africans died of these two diseases last year. The health situation is tragic by other measures, as well.
In many areas of Africa, especially in rural villages, there are no hospitals or clinics, no trained doctors or nurses, and no medicines. When we travel, Joan is our "pharmacist" - she carries a small kit with pain killers, antibiotics, etc. for our own use. After our trekking guide in Mali found out about the kit, he asked Joan to help people in pain as we passed through the Dogon villages. Although it's generally not a good thing for travelers to give Western medications to those unaccustomed to them, in this health care vacuum she found herself becoming an unofficial public health "doctor" - dispensing aspirin, bandages, re-hydration powder and once - in the case of a farmer with an open sore on his leg - she gave a full course of an antibiotic (ciprofloxacin) with detailed instructions through our guide. The grateful man gave Joan a handmade pocket knife in a leather sheath. This man really put a human face on the terrible health statistics in Africa.
We didn't carry condoms - an urgently needed health item, because Africa has an enormous problem with HIV/AIDS. With 26 million already infected, 3.5 million more are infected every year and there are 2.6 million AIDS-related deaths. Because of pressure from the so-called "religious right" (religious wrong, we'd say), the five-year, $15 billion U.S. aid program focuses almost entirely on abstinence and fidelity - which often run against cultural and social norms. This muddle-headed mingling of church and state has led to many unnecessary deaths from HIV/AIDS.
Fortunately, private sources such as the Gates Foundation (below) have begun to tackle HIV/AIDS, and many European countries regularly send young people to provide AIDS education. But it's a difficult task to change traditional African cultural practices and beliefs, which unwittingly encourage the disease to spread. In some tribes, when a husband dies his widow must become the wife of her husband's brother; if the husband died of AIDS, his widow is likely to infect his brother and his brother's wives - and their families.
HAVING SEX WITH A VIRGIN WILL NOT HEAL YOU OF HIV/AIDS! proclaims a large billboard in the Zambian capital - an effort to combat a pervasive popular belief. That myth would be funny - if it didn't result in the frequent raping of innocent young girls.
IF YOU WANT TO HELP: Write to Congressmen requesting that the U.S. distribute condoms as a significant part of its HIV/AIDS aid program. (Currently, over 98% is for preaching abstinence and fidelity - and less than 2% for contraceptives.)
BLACK WOMAN'S BURDEN
Betty is one of the fortunate few: an African woman in her twenties with her own small home and business. (On the train, she was returning from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with jeans she'd purchased for resale in Lusaka.) By the time most African women are old enough to be as enterprising as Betty, they nearly always have been married off (often as the second or third wife of a much older man) and have several small children to feed. In village after village, we saw women carrying huge bundles of sticks, hauling heavy buckets of water, and spending hours pounding grain in villages - usually while the men lounged in the shade. It's a terrible burden to be born female in Africa, especially in rural villages, where women are genitally mutilated, often sold into marriage at puberty and have little control over their lives. Certainly they don't have Betty's opportunities for schooling. (Below, a woman pounds millet in Mali; girls carry firewood in Ethiopia.)
TEACHING THE CHILDREN
Because she was not burdened with a family when she was still a child herself, Betty is now able to take courses toward an accounting degree - something out of reach for all but a few African women. The average African girl gets 7.5 years of education, while the average boy remains in school about a year longer, although boys have more opportunities to get informal vocational training.
We visited a couple of African schools, including a government school for older children in Tanzania. Below, the students delight in showing off their math skills to Joan, who once taught in an inner-city school in California.
The teacher's devotion to his students at another school in Zambia was inspiring. As a young man, Ernest had dreamed of becoming a priest, but settled for teaching the young children of his village. The community made available a tiny one-room hut for him to teach about four dozen children, ages 4-8. The kids - with their runny noses, dirty little bodies and tattered clothing - were luminously beautiful. With shining eyes and incredible enthusiasm, they sang for us the English alphabet song and, for an encore, "Old McDonald Had a Farm" - singing out with special gusto Ee i ee i o! Ernest teaches without pay or teaching materials. As we left, we gave him some kwatchas for pens and paper and wished him good luck. He and these children will need it.
The way out of poverty is through education. The World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000 set goals for 2015 for more early childhood education, universal primary school education, increased accessibility of both life skills and secondary education, elimination of the gender gap, and halving the 40% illiteracy rate among adults. According to the Forum's recent assessment of progress on three of these goals in 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, only six countries have a good chance of succeeding. Sadly, the rest are not on track.
MUD HUTS & SHANTY TOWNS
After seeing other townships and rural villages, we realized that Betty's home and neighborhood are actually middle class - for Africa. Neighborhoods on the fringes of African cities are poor, but villages in rural areas (where 80% of the population lives) are even poorer. Many of these people live in mud-and-wattle huts with clay floors, no electricity, no sewerage, and distant spring or river water that's often polluted. The small huts are occupied by 5-10 people and their livestock. The villages below are in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Strangely, we found a glimmer of hope in a so-called "temporary informal settlement" just outside of Windhoek, Namibia. It is only a shantytown of corrugated tin and scrap wood, with communal water and toilets for every eight homes. There is no electricity, although (ironically) huge power lines to the city pass overhead. Thousands of people have migrated here from villages similar to those pictured above. They came to Windhoek looking for jobs - despite the city's unemployment rate of 35%. Although many of them have not yet found full-time jobs, their children can go to school and those in need can get medical help at a clinic.
Why did we see a bit of hope here? We were dumbstruck at how spotlessly clean the neighborhood was - the dirt yards were carefully swept and flowers were growing in tin cans near doorways. Our guide told us that these people are very proud of their accommodations because they are so much better in this shantytown than in the rural villages they'd come from.
Even Betty doesn't have chicken for dinner very often, and most Africans are far worse off than she. One might think that with only 800 million people on such an immense continent there would be enough food. There are a couple of reasons why this isn't so. First, much of Africa is infertile or uninhabitable desert and jungle. In other places there are lengthy droughts and plagues of insects. During the two-year drought in Tanzania while we were there, the Bushmen used sticks to dig three meters into this dry riverbed to obtain drinking water (below), while farmers an hour away abandoned their parched maize field. When nothing grows, the topsoil is blown away, leaving increasingly barren fields.
Three-quarters of Africa's farmland is severely depleted of the basic nutrients needed to grow crops, but farmers have little money to buy fertilizer, which costs two to six times the world average. They use less than 10% as much fertilizer as Asian farmers, and they get less than a third of the amount of grain from an acre.
In many regions, the dirt roads are few and in rainy seasons they're impassable. Our Land Cruiser broke a spring on a deeply rutted road in East Africa; in West Africa, Lou's bus almost swam through continuous mud puddles to Gorom Gorom. It's nearly impossible to transport fertilizer or grain in this kind of an environment. Yet, even when the weather cooperates and there are roads, most African farmers lack the necessary know-how and capital. Otherwise, they could have green, irrigated fields like those we saw in Zambia - owned by European farmers Mugabe chased out of Zimbabwe.
Merely sending food is not the answer. While emergency food aid is often necessary in cases of severe famine, food aid (rather than financial aid) tends to destroy local farm production and increase dependency - to the benefit of subsidized over-producing U.S. farmers.
WHY DOES AFRICA LAG SO FAR BEHIND?
We've mentioned some dimensions of Africa's poverty - poor health, education and housing and low farm productivity. For real insight into underlying causes, we recommend three acclaimed books:
*Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. An evolutionary biologist, Diamond argues in this outstanding, Pulitzer Prize-winning book that geography is the principal reason some societies have power & technology and others don't.
*Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David Landes. An economic historian, Landes argues that cultural values are the principal reason for the wealth or poverty of nations. (The truth is probably somewhere between the two positions., making the Landes and Diamond books a good balance for each other.)
*Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, also by Jared Diamond. This 2005 book is not as interesting as Diamond's best-selling GGS (above) because it is more dryly factual. Still, it is significant, because he has thoroughly researched a number of major civilizations to understand why they collapsed. In brief, he cites four main reasons: soil exhaustion, lack of water, overpopulation, and warfare - the latter often the result of the struggle over limited resources stemming from the first three causes.
Rwanda is a prime example of the dire consequences of overpopulation. In less than fifty years (1950-1994), as a result of better health care and a temporarily improved food supply, the population of Rwanda more than tripled. The available land and water simply could not support this number of people. Eventually, the teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tsutsi settled the population problem directly - with machetes. At least 800, 000, 000 people died in this ugly genocide.
With one exception, we managed to avoid unstable areas during our four months in Africa. Only in the remote southwest corner of Ethiopia did we run into ethnic unrest. This Kalashnikov-toting Galeb man is armed against neighboring Hamer tribesmen.
Every two years there is an outbreak of hostilities between the two tribes. The Ethiopian government then brings in a battalion of soldiers and forces the tribal chiefs to make a peace pact. There's peace for a while but then someone steals livestock or grain, people are killed in retaliation and everything's out of control again. Sporadic inter-tribal violence also occurs farther north between the Mursi and Karo tribes.
This is small scale compared with the genocides, brutality, tyranny and terrorism that's occurred in most of the countries since the colonial powers left. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union fueled fighting between the different tribes in most African countries. At this time, the worst conflict is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where, since 1998, more than three million lives have been lost, and in the Darfur part of Sudan where 300,000 lives have been lost as farmers and cattle herders compete for scarce resources.
In the post-colonial period, large-scale political corruption by African officials has resulted in the mismanagement of both natural resources and foreign aid. Sub-Saharan Africa is loaded with resources such as oil, gas, diamonds and gold. According to Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, such resources are a target of political corruption and an instrument of holding power. Profits from exploiting these resources haven't trickled down, but new attempts are being made to direct more of the profits towards the common people. In Chad, the World Bank and an oil consortium led by Exxon-Mobil will place all profits from oil extraction in an off-shore account. The Chad government can then access the account with a commitment to expend the profits on health, education and infrastructure – after the off-shore account supervisor agrees. More innovation of this type is needed.
Corruption has also diverted World Bank and A.I.D. funds into personal Swiss bank accounts. Sachs says, “The rich world should offer impoverished regions like sub-Saharan Africa more economic support .... directed to specific needs – for example, malaria control, food production, safe drinking water, and sanitation – whose fulfillment can be measured and monitored to resist corruption."
SHOULD WE GIVE UP ON AFRICA?
Not everyone shares Sachs' cautious optimism. In his book, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux writes that aid has been generally counter-productive. He reached this conclusion on returning to Africa 35 years after he had served as a Peace Corps teacher in Uganda and Malawi. He was devastated by the extent to which Africa had deteriorated during his absence, and faults the misguided efforts of foreign governments, churches and other charitable organizations. He suggests that perhaps foreign attempts to help should be greatly curtailed so that Africans can sort out their problems and find their own solutions.
We strongly disagree. To pull out would be disastrous, and would miss the current window of opportunity. In spite of the conflicts in the Congo and Darfur (and Somalia, Ivory Coast and Siera Leone), there is more political stability in Africa now than at any time in the last half-century. And - finally - the industrialized nations are learning valuable lessons in how to give effective aid, and monitor its use to avoid corruption.
MAKING AID WORK
In their book, Making Aid Work, Abhijit Banerjee and Ruimin He single out the following types of development aid thought to be particularly effective:
subsidies given directly to families for children's education and health
education vouchers for school uniforms and textbooks
teaching selected illiterate adults to read and write
de-worming drugs and vitamin/nutritional supplements
vaccination and HIV/AIDS prevention programs
indoor sprays against malaria; anti-mosquito bed netting
clean water supplies
INCENTIVES FOR THE FARMERS
Africa's farmers need agriculturalists to teach them improved methods of farming, better roads to reach the market and credit so they can buy fertilizer. The simplest technology can make a huge difference. We visited Joseph who lives in Zambia in a village on the Zambezi River. He uses a government-provided foot pump to deliver water from the river to his vegetable garden. His village eats relatively well, for he and fellow farmers are able to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, lettuce and maize. Below, Lou works the pump under Joseph's watchful eye.
(After inserting this photo, we thought about how much money Lou is wearing. Counting his prescription sunglasses, clothing, shoes, wristwatch and binoculars, he is wearing about $700 on his body. According to the World Bank, over 40% of the people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $1 a day. Lou is wearing enough to support two people for an entire year.)
Speaking of money: there's a way for Americans to help African farmers to help themselves without sending money. Currently, the farmers have little incentive to grow cash crops for export. Europe, Japan and the U.S. need to reform their crippling agricultural protection policies (including recently reduced but still high subsidies and tariffs on grain, cotton and milk.) This would level the playing field on which African and Western farmers compete, and give African farmers the market they must have to become more productive.
IF YOU WANT TO HELP: Write to Congressmen and ask that high subsidies to U.S. farmers and tariffs on African agricultural products be eliminated.
BIG THINKERS AND DOERS
TIME magazine named Melinda & Bill Gates and rock star Bono its 2005 "Persons of the Year."
The three were chosen as the people most effective at finding ways to eradicate such calamities as HIV/AIDS, malaria and the grinding poverty that kills 8 million people a year. The Gates foundation has reportedly saved over 700,000 lives in developing countries around the world so far - daring the rest of us to follow their example. http://www.gatesfoundation.org
NEWS FLASH! Just before we posted this on-line, scientists at the University of California-Berkeley announced they have found a potentially dirt-cheap way to treat malaria. The three-year-old research project is funded by a $42.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The scientists hope to have the not-for-profit medication in production by 2007.
Irish rock star Bono was one of the organizers behind the Live 8 concerts in nine cities worldwide in 2005. The concerts were aimed at getting the leaders of the world's developed nations to come to the aid of impoverished Africa. They did so at the G8 summit, agreeing to double aid to Africa to $50 billion by 2010 and cancel the debts of the poorest nations. "Bono charmed and bullied and morally blackmailed the leaders of the world's richest countries into forgiving $40 billion in debt owed by the poorest," according to the December 26, 2005 TIME magazine. (Since this article came out, debt relief has reached $54 billion in 24 sub-Saharan countries and more is on the way.)
Bono says, "What's really key is, all of us are in agreement that this can be a generation that can end extreme poverty. And by that we mean stupid, daft poverty where 3,000 kids are dying every day of a mosquito bite in Africa. Malaria. We can fix stuff like that."
Some first steps have been taken. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria www.theglobalfund.org
(a clearing house for financing health programs) has paid out $4.9 billion over the past five years, 61% going to sub-Saharan Africa. Almost all of the money has come from governments, with the U.S. giving by far the most (we should!) at $1.43 billion.
Over the next ten years the Global Plan of the World Economic Forum www.weforum.org plans to spend $56 billion to substantially reduce HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. A part of this money has been pledged by our government.
IF YOU WANT TO HELP: Encourage Congressmen to honor America's aid agreements, as we often have not done in the past.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
SMALL PROJECTS - BIG INSPIRATION
Numerous low-key aid programs were operating in every country we visited, staffed by selfless Western volunteers - mostly Europeans working for private charities. Some were on one-year AIDS education projects; others were U.S. Peace Corp workers teaching in the schools of rural Benin. Some volunteers we remember by name. Gary from Michigan funds and runs his own primary-secondary school in a remote Ghanaian village where he now lives. Gerard from Haiti lives in a Senegal village where he has created a center for the arts. Carina from the Netherlands is a church-sponsored missionary living in Mali, where she provides prostitutes with medical care and welfare services. Mikel is a young African-American filmmaker from Colorado who was in Africa to make a film on HIV/AIDS. John from South Africa spends most of his time in Botswana, where he created and now guides the successful Sixaxa Village cultural tourism project near Maun. <firstname.lastname@example.org> Proceeds go towards the purchase of a van for carrying children to school and sick villagers to a clinic. Here are two of the people we met in the well-run village: our guide and the village witch doctor.
IF YOU WANT TO HELP: Donate to effective aid organizations, such as those listed below.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
You don't have to go to Africa to help in Africa. These organizations are among those respected for their effective work on the continent:
"Nothing But Net" www.UNFoundation.org/malaria An African child dies of malaria every 30 seconds. For $10, you can have an insecticide-impregnated mosquito net (that will cover up to four people) delivered and installed in Africa. Your donation pays for nothing but net, because Ted Turner has donated $1 billion to cover the operating costs of this United Nations project. "Nothing But Net" was originated by Sports Illustrated.
Africare www.africare.org Focused on Africa, on projects such as emergency aid and community development
CARE 1-800-521-2273 More than 300 projects now underway in Africa provide food, shelter, education and safety to those in need
Doctors Without Borders www.doctorswithoutborders.org 1-888-392-0392 Health professionals volunteer to provide services and essential medications
World Food Programme www.wfp.org Each year the UNWFP feeds an average of 90 million people in more than 80 countries. Its current work in Africa includes maintaining a major presence in Darfur, Sudan
ON A LIGHTER NOTE
Since you read all the way to the bottom of this woeful account of Africa's problems, you're hereby rewarded with some of Ghana's wonderfully quirky shop signs:
God’s Love Frozen Foods… Our Redeemer Bra Fitting Shop… His Mighty Hands Beauty Salon… Jesus’ Finger Furniture… Step by Step Fast Food… God First Chop Bar… Dork Fashions… My Lord Electrical… Blessed Spare Parts Store… God of Love Meat Shop… Eyes are Watching Fitting Shop… Holy Ghost Braids Saloon… God is One Battery Center
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
DATA AND STATISTICS: United Nations Annual World Development Report www.developmentgateway.org/DataStatistics
BACKGROUND READING: AFRICA BOOK LIST
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com