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A world far from home

Helping Africa means understanding it. In South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Nigeria, a traveler sees the threads of a tattered continent, poverty, corruption, ethnic division, AIDS, desperation, and still hope.

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


We pile into the van from the Le Meridian hotel in Lagos. On our second full day in Nigeria's former capital, our group of 11 editorial writers from the United States and Norway is on its way to visit Dr. Frederick Faseun, a leader in the Nigerian ethnic sovereignty movement, to learn about the country's wrenching tribal divisions.

But the real education came during the trip there.

Watching out the window as we inch along in any-time-of-day traffic of the Oshodi expressway, I have a pit in my stomach. As someone who has spent a lifetime in the First World, I'm not sure I would have understood such desperation and hopelessness had I not seen it with my own eyes. The scale is staggering. In Lagos, where license plates mockingly trumpet "Lagos, Centre of Excellence," 9- to 11-million people live in one massive sprawling slum.

Hot, steamy, scabrous streets are lined with vendors selling food out of open wood shacks with tin roofs. Dried fish, displayed in large baskets, are buzzing with flies. Everywhere the visage is the same: chaotic, crowded, dirty and tree-less. There is no green, no life other than teeming humanity, whose detritus is piled high along the roadsides and riverbanks, making everything rank.

It is a place as barely held together as the shacks from which the people sell their meager offerings.

Taking advantage of the traffic, disheveled barkers spill into the streets, hoping that someone in the cars they surround will buy. They appear agitated in the egg-frying heat and wilting humidity. When someone in our air-conditioned van attempts to take a picture of the scene, a group of men charges angrily. The men whack the van to tell us they don't want their misery captured on film.

We put the cameras away.

Shaken, I think of my American passport locked in the safe at the hotel. The thought is comforting, and I relax knowing Nigeria is the culmination of a three-week trek across sub-Saharan Africa. I am going home in less than a week. But as I turn back to the scene out the window a chill goes through me:

These people will wake to this life everyday.

Visiting a place tends to wipe away romantic illusions, but nothing I've experienced in my limited travels outside the United States prepared me for the harsh, complex reality of the countries I visited -- South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Nigeria. Like the nightly body count during the Vietnam War, the litany of Africa's of problems can sometimes be numbing: 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africans live on less than $1 per day; female literacy is less than 50 percent with school enrollment dropping; and the region has the highest birthrate and infant and mother mortality rate of any place in the world.

But when you get on the ground, the suffering gains a face.

The challenges for Africa are so immense it's hard to know where to begin. Since 1962, the World Bank has loaned more than $61-billion to develop the nations of sub-Saharan Africa, yet the region is getting poorer. As editorialists, we came here to understand why that is. Our days were stuffed with academic meetings with presidents, ministers and economists. But when we escaped the ministry offices and got out to a flood resettlement camp in Mozambique, a squatters camp in Soweto, South Africa, and the city of Kaduna, Nigeria, where Muslims and Christians are slaughtering each other, our experience turned hauntingly personal.

Perhaps the most indelible lesson was just how wretched daily life -- existence, really -- can be. Africa is a place of failure atop tragedy. Yet, despite our good intentions, the West's prescription of sending support checks and care packages and demanding Western-style changes in government and society, hasn't reversed this lurching decline. What will work? Spending a few weeks there generates more questions than answers. But one thing is clear. If we are going to help alleviate some of the misery, we will need to get to know the multilayered, knotty, distinct, countries of Africa a lot better.

Johannesburg, South Africa

Jesus has no hands.

The statue, high on a pedestal in the vacuous Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, stands as a reminder of the day in 1976 when government police shot bullets and tear gas canisters into the church during a peaceful anti-apartheid rally. Panic broke out among the estimated 6,000 people who were in the sanctuary. They charged the exits. Jesus' hands were broken off when people climbed the walls trying to escape.

Still, it would be another 14 years before apartheid-government President F.W. de Klerk released former rebel leader and future president Nelson Mandela from prison, paving the way for today's black-majority rule.

South Africa has come a long way from the days when skin color determined social status. Its Constitution, passed in 1996, specifically outlaws state-sponsored discrimination and declares: "Everyone is equal before the law." Mandela's miracle, the bloodless transfer of power from whites to blacks, seems to have resulted in a working, stable democratic structure.

Even so, as South Africa builds a new and stronger society, stress fractures are starting to appear. A rapid spike in crime, unemployment and HIV/AIDS infections are threatening to pull the country into a downward spiral. The South Africa I saw is a nation struggling to retain its foothold in the First World.

At one of the many squatters camps scattered throughout the 29 townships that make up Soweto, Bertha Sibhobhi, an unemployed 21-year-old single mother, is doing her wash at a muddy, garbage-strewn, outdoor faucet -- the only freshwater source. For Sibhobhi, home is a squalid tin shack with no electricity, although some residents steal power by tapping into street lights. Sibhobhi, who has lived here since 1995, complains that the governments of Mandela and Thabo Mbeki promised much but delivered little. "They talk a lot but nothing gets done," Sibhobhi says. "Not a single person has gotten a house from here."

James Ramouha, 40, a black resident of Soweto, believes life has gotten tougher since black-majority rule. "I think the new South Africa is worse than before," Ramouha says. "People are getting poorer."

This sense of disillusionment is repeated over and over in a country where the unemployment rate among blacks in the townships hovers at almost 70 percent. Ten years after the dismantling of apartheid and six years after black majority rule, South Africa is still a nation divided by class and race -- the First World is occupied by whites, the developing world by blacks. And the situation, according to the nation's leaders, is not likely to change any time soon.

Mandela, now 82, made that point as he met with our group. "South Africa has been under white rule for almost three-and-a-half centuries. ... You cannot expect problems that have been there for more than three centuries to be wiped out within six years."

Mandela, wearing his trademark African shirt buttoned to the collar, wants his visitors to understand the extent of his nation's challenges. "Because of poverty, two, three, four or five children shared the same room, with no electricity, using paraffin lamps, candles and eating porridge in the morning, porridge at lunch and porridge at dinner -- they could not concentrate -- and without any equipment, no tables, sleeping on the floor. It is people with that background who were suddenly given the task on the 27th of April 1994, to run a sophisticated country like South Africa, with advanced infrastructure, modern harbors, sophisticated banking and financial system.

"Having regard for that background and the fact that we have no experience in government, we have done very well."

But as South Africa's government tills the ground for future generations, the question is whether its society will hold together in the meantime.

Driving through Parktown North, one of Johannesburg's leafy suburbs where whites live, houses are large and well tended. But signs of the instability that comes with deep income inequality are everywhere. The houses hide behind high walls, razor wire and electrified security fences. Signs posted on gates read "armed response."

In South Africa today, one in three women have been raped or sexually assaulted at least once -- which amounts almost to a death sentence since attackers are frequently infected with HIV. Home invasions and carjackings have skyrocketed and the murder rate is nearly eight times that of the United States. African-American expatriate Junette Pinkney, who works as a television producer, says her home was recently burglarized. She's learned to take precautions: "I never park directly behind another car. I give myself space. Ninety percent of carjackings happen when you're standing still."

On average, 25 police officers are killed each month -- for their guns. But guns are already prevalent, largely as a consequence of the armed struggle against apartheid. The rebel movement gave young men the weapons that are now being used to terrorize the population. Says Minister of Home Affairs Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is also president of the Inkatha Freedom Party, these young men "know nothing other than to kill."

Another consequence of the anti-apartheid movement is that many residents of the black townships don't pay their garbage fees. The result is that garbage is scattered everywhere. Mandela explains that those in the struggle were instructed to refuse to pay any taxes to the apartheid government and that habit has persisted. "To some extent we are having aftermath of our own policies," Mandela says. "When (the African National Congress) said "make this government, this regime, ungovernable,' people accepted that. It's not easy to change them over now."

Because so many residents of Soweto also don't pay their electricity bills, the new houses built in the black townships by the government include electrical boxes that require special codes to operate. People are forced to buy pre-paid electricity cards, like phone cards, to operate the electricity.

At the black owned and operated Sowetan, Johannesburg's largest daily newspaper, an effort is underway to educate people to respect the rule of law and embrace the norms of civil society. Editor in Chief Dr. Aggrey Klaaste says he is using the paper "to build this nation."

Klaaste's efforts come in many forms, from featuring stories of what is working in the black majority government, to reprinting a school textbook in full in its pages, to trying to develop a sense of personal responsibility in its readers. For example, the Sowetan offers counseling to couples in an attempt to promote the institution of marriage, which is seen as a powerful force for social stability. According to Nomvula Khalo, a Sowetan reporter, nine in 10 South African marriages end in divorce and "there are more births outside marriage than inside."

Like Mandela, Klaaste, too, thinks the day disparities in black and white living standards will disappear is far off: "There is no way in the next 20 years that black people are going to be equal to whites. There are just too many of us and the inequalities are too great." Yet, he, too, is hopeful.

"Look at black South Africa," Klaaste says. "You would think most blacks would want revenge. But that's not true. So you gotta hope."

Maputo, Mozambique

The hotel Polana sits on a high bluff along the muddy shore of the Indian Ocean in Maputo, Mozambique's capital. Its four-story whitewashed grandeur is a relic of Mozambique's Portuguese colonial past when wealthy Europeans conducted business on its expansive patio. Independence was gained in 1975, but most native Mozambicans are still barred from the Polana's doors. One night's stay costs $180 -- a Mozambican's average annual income.

Outside the Polana's high walls lies the real Africa -- the Africa of National Geographic and UNICEF appeals, the Africa of poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality, illiteracy and AIDS. It's hard to imagine that before the epic floods came in February, Mozambique was actually considered one of sub-Saharan Africa's success stories.

Following a failed flirtation with Marxism and a devastating civil war that ended in 1992, Mozambique embraced democracy and capitalism. Within a few years inflation dropped from the high double digits to the low single digits and growth spurted to 10 percent. But even the country's minister of foreign affairs, Leonardo Simao, admits that his country's high growth rate is "not a miracle" considering its low starting point.

Most Mozambicans live in the rural countryside and eke out a living on subsistence farming. The flooding in February destroyed 10 percent of the country's cultivated farmland and displaced 500,000 people but also brought the attention of the world -- what Mozambique needs most. Since the floods, it has gotten a commitment of $1-billion in debt relief and $452-million for reconstruction -- a financial I.V. that has Simao predicting the country will enjoy an aid-driven growth rate of 5 to 8 percent this year.

The drive to the flood resettlement camps is rugged. Parts of the road have washed away. A bridge ends abruptly, replaced by a dirt embankment. Occasional hills dot an otherwise flat landscape that is still bloated with water. At a landfill teeming with garbage, dozens of people are walking about, picking through the refuse.

Along the road are windowless huts made of hollow cane with tin or thatched roofs. They sit on small dirt patches marked by a fence of sticks stuck vertically into the ground. Electricity and plumbing are out-of-reach luxuries. The country of 17-million inhabitants has only 44,000 televisions. Newspapers are virtually irrelevant since more than 60 percent of the population is illiterate.

One has to wonder how much has truly changed in the life of the average Mozambican from the 1400s when the Portuguese first touched ground. Their lives are still scratched from the hard earth. Their children still die in infancy at a rate of 13 percent, and male life expectancy is only 44 years.

Flood victim Virginia Antonio, a heavy-set woman with fierce eyes, says after she fled the rising waters with her 10 children and grandson, her home washed away. Now she relies entirely on charity to survive. Says Antonio, through an interpreter, "We wait for people to give us some bread, some rice, because we have nothing."

At the Mangwanini resettlement camp, where flood victims come for food and tents, Josephine Franco, a 49-year-old Carmelite nun from Italy, provides medical care to the 7,000 refugees. Franco says people who are not actually flood victims have been sneaking into the camp to get aid. For them, a refugee camp is a step up.

Joaquim Chissano knows his country is on the bottom rung of the world's economic ladder and to climb he needs the financial help of the West. The president of Mozambique is a canny leader whose push for privatization has earned him international approbation and open wallets. But the politician who greets us in his worn reception room wearing a Western-style suit sporting a red AIDS ribbon, also knows not to privatize too much, too fast. "By tradition the land was owned always by the people," he says, explaining why there is still no private ownership of land in the country. People have traditionally had hereditary rights to work the land "but that doesn't mean people had the right to sell the land," he says.

In Mozambique title to all land is kept by the state. The reason was explained to us by members of Chissano's government: Land is the most valuable and abundant resource Mozambique has; if Mozambicans were given outright the land they now work, they would sell it to outsiders for a quick profit and soon be landless and broke. Chissano's clearly not going to let that happen on his watch. Instead he appeases the West's call for private ownership by granting long-term land leases and privatizing state-owned enterprises.

It seems to have worked. In his hand, Chissano holds Mozambique's thick plan for flood reconstruction. This document, and Chissano's good international standing, won his country commitments for substantial funding for things such as resettlement, the construction of dikes to protect against future floods, the repair of roads and bridges and the provision of livestock, seeds and tools for agriculture. Mozambique may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but its leader has smarts, presence, charm and hustle. Chissano almost makes you forget the desperate straits of his countrymen.

The reminder comes at the dilapidated Maputo airport, where travelers are charged $10 to leave the country -- as though Mozambique knows there's value in getting out.

Gaborone, Botswana

Taking an airplane around Africa can have the feel of time travel. You leave from a country stuck in the Middle Ages and emerge into the 21st century. That's what it's like traveling from Mozambique to Botswana. The capital, Gaborone, exudes suburban U.S.A. Visitors come off the tarmac into a small airport that is clean, well kept and efficient. On the wall is a large, conspicuous notice announcing that corruption will not be tolerated. And it's not, here.

Botswana is known as the one country in sub-Saharan Africa that works. In the mid-1990s, much of the donor community packed up and left. Botswana had graduated from "needy" status and could stand on its own, a refreshing success story in a continent where countries seem to take two steps back for every one forward.

Botswana's terrain is mostly the "sandveld" of the Kalahari Desert, which allowed it to escape the ravages of colonialism by appearing to have little raw material wealth. It was only after the British walked away in 1966 that the diamond mines were discovered.

Unlike so many of its neighbors, Botswana's diamond wealth has been put to use for the general welfare of the country's 1.6-million people -- not stolen by government kleptocrats or used to fund rebel wars. The country has billions of dollars in reserve, a working infrastructure, steady economic growth and a stable democratic political system -- remarkable achievements compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

But Botswana is also in the fight of its life. The enemy is not poverty or oppression; it is AIDS.

AIDS is cutting a swath through Africa like a marauding hay-bailer. Botswana has the highest rate in the continent, with nearly 36 percent of adults infected. The crisis is so immense that 300,000 residents are walking around with the virus and don't know it. Still, it was only in April that the first anonymous testing and counseling center in Gaborone opened -- funded through foreign aid.

Wearing a traditional full-length gold and silver dress with matching head-wrap, Botswana Health Minister Joy Phumaphi holds a regal bearing. Phumaphi insists that HIV/AIDS is a high government priority, but the efforts she outlines in the face of such a devastating plague sound paltry. "Our initial reaction was public education about the disease and how it was spread," Phumaphi says, "but that was not enough for people to initiate behavioral change."

Behavior and culture are the primary reasons AIDS is spreading like wildfire through the heterosexual community. While HIV is stigmatized because the population believes it's an indication of unacceptably loose morals, in fact the culture here and in the other African nations I visited openly tolerates both rampant male promiscuity and the routine exchange of sex for money by women.

The term "grazing" is used to describe men with many sexual partners, and it is common practice for men in Botswana, even when married. Dr. Tom Kenyan, director for the Centers for Disease Control in Botswana, says young women, especially those who have been sent away from their rural villages to boarding school, are preyed upon by older men who offer money or consumer goods for sex.

Kenyan says the problem is exacerbated by the country's itinerant labor patterns and the relatively low social status of women: "Men return from the diamond mines with sexually transmitted diseases. ... (They then infect) women who have less say in sexual behavior. It's hard for women to insist on safe sexual activity."

On top of this comes a deep cultural resistance to Western prognosis. A large majority of Africans obtain their medical care from traditional healers and witch doctors who eschew modern medicine. In South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana, I'm told the same chilling tale: Witch doctors tell their patients that AIDS can be cured by having sex with a virgin. It is why in South Africa rape of very young children, even toddlers, is commonplace.

While progressive groups in the West press for deep discounts in anti-retrovirals like AZT for sub-Saharan Africa, medical professionals here say the drugs are only a small part of the solution. "Just driving up with a truck full of drugs won't do anything unless you have people getting themselves tested," Kenyan says.

Health Minister Phumaphi agrees. "As long as we're fighting with a hidden enemy we're not going to win," she says.

At the Gaborone HIV testing center, David Ngele, 51, speaks in soft halting English. His rheumy-yellow eyes betray a possible liver problem that he does not acknowledge or does not know about when he claims his health is good -- so far.

Ngele is HIV positive. He decided to speak out about it in order to change Botswana behavior and attitude about the disease. But nearly seven years later, Ngele is still one of only five people in the country willing to publicly admit to being HIV positive. He says people are quiet "because of the stigma."

After going public, Ngele could no longer make a living as a driver. "They didn't want me to touch the car," he says.

Kaduna, Nigeria

James Wuye, a Christian evangelist, wears a prosthetic hand under his white dress shirt. He lost his right hand in 1993 after being attacked by a group of Muslim youth angered by his missionary zeal. "They killed my older brother thinking it was me," Wuye said. "When they found out it was a mistake they came back (for) me."

Wuye tells us this calmly while sitting in a dark, moldy, office, surrounded by Muslim men wearing traditional dashikis. They have come together to bring dialogue to the conflagration erupting around them.

For months now, the dusty city of Kaduna, which sits about three hours north of Abuja, Nigeria's capital, has been the flash point in a bloody religious conflict that has neighbor slaughtering neighbor. Some reports have as many as 2,000 people killed in the clashes, mostly between the Muslim Hausa tribe and the Christian Igbo. While many observers say the heightened tensions are the result of religious and political leaders exploiting the country's teetering economy, the spark that ignited the violence was whether the state government should adopt Islamic law known as Shariah, as its legal system.

As we drive through Kaduna's eerily vacant residential streets, where mud-brick houses line the roads, it is apparent that something terrible has happened here. Houses are burnt out, crumbling, and marked with hastily drawn graffiti: "Shariah is the way," "Shariah must come."

Much of northern Nigerian law is already grounded in Islamic traditions, but orthodox Muslims want more. They want to enforce their religious strictures on the Muslim population by using the legal machinery of the state. They want to reinstitute corporal punishments such as stoning for adultery and the chopping off of hands for convicted thieves, and they want to prohibit alcohol and the mixing of unmarried men and women in public. The Muslims insist they want Shariah only to apply to the Muslims in the population. Still, understandably, Christians are resisting.

"We say to the Muslims, if you want to do your punishments do so within the confines of the mosque," Wuye says sharply.

Even for the peacemakers, the issue of Shariah is sensitive.

Nigeria doesn't have the race problems of South Africa -- there are virtually no white faces in the country. Still, the population has other ways to divide itself. Resentments among the nation's various tribes and religious groups run so deep that J.O. Akeredolu, Nigeria's director of external publicity, says Nigeria is really "250 countries in one.

"It's a miracle that we stay together," he says.

Whether they stay together is still a big question mark in a country where people first identify themselves as a member of a tribe, then according to their religion and lastly as Nigerians.

As a country, Nigeria is a British creation. As in much of Africa, territories were carved up based not on the cohesion of the local population but the interests of the colonial powers. While the country is home to literally hundreds of tribes, three tribes, or ethnic identities, as they prefer to be called, dominate -- the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo. Each group holds deep-seated, invidious stereotypes about the others. Our driver, Prince (as in, one day tribal "King") Martins, talked freely of the "laziness" of the Hausa people. "The Hausa don't want to work," he complains.

Rather than work toward a united Nigeria, the country's dictatorial leaders have used this ethnic derision to their advantage. Since independence from the British, Nigeria has spent much of the last 40 years under military dictators who saw advantage in keeping embers of ethnic hatred smoldering.

When democracy came to Nigeria a little more than a year ago, political alliances were forged along tribal and religious lines, giving radical leaders a chance to emerge. The result has been a kind of ethnic tinderbox.

"The military divided the people to ruin us. They got what they wanted -- disunity and disharmony all over the place," says Frederick Faseun, president of the Oodua People's Congress, a separatist movement for the Yoruba people.

The 65-year-old Faseun insists his group is non-violent and that all he wants is a federal system where Nigeria stays together but each ethnic group is autonomous. News reports, though, tell a different story and blame the OPC for "ethnic mayhem." The February issue of Africa Today says the OPC is so lawless, Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo issued a "shoot on sight" order for anyone who claims to be a member.

But the reason these ethnic fissures are threatening to pull the country apart has less to do with ethnocentrism than with the nation's desperate economic straits. "When Nigerians don't have the opportunity to make money they can be diverted to kill each other," says M.D. Yusufu, the country's former inspector general.

Nigeria is an economic contradiction. It is the continent's most populous country, with an estimated 110-million people. And it is the seventh-largest oil producing nation in the world, an oil- and mineral-rich powerhouse that sends troops and financial aid to maintain peace among its neighbors in western Africa. Yet with an annual per capita income of about $300, Nigeria is also Africa's most spectacular failure.

A combination of factors have sunk the residents of this country into a poverty so grinding that a visitor stepping out of its dirty, crowded, hot and sticky international airport in Lagos is accosted by dozens of would-be baggage carriers and beggars thrusting out their hands for alms.

To be sure, colonization, tribal and religious violence, undereducation and overpopulation are part of the problem. But much of Nigeria's lost promise is owed to a well-documented history of military dictators and government thieves who have stolen its oil wealth. The result is a country that is mired with international debt, deeply corrupt and barely functional.

As our own group traveled through Nigeria, we relied on what we called "fixers" -- well-connected locals who ushered us through the airports and streets. It's a necessary precaution in a place where any foreigner is easy pickings for petty civil servants and local police looking for bribes.

Nigeria may be a country looking for international stature, but on the ground it's a basket case. Outside the American embassy in Lagos, Nigerians wait in long lines to apply for visas to leave the country -- a persistent brain drain epitomized by the fact that 22,000 Nigerian doctors live in the United States. Meanwhile, those who remain are young, poor and illiterate. Half the population is under 15, most without access to sanitation or safe drinking water.

Of the countries we visited, Nigeria was the most fractious and hopeless. President Obasanjo may be sincere when he says firmly, "this country will hold together." But from what we saw, I'm more inclined to believe the predictions of political science professor and former state official, A.U. Jalingo, who says: "The country is not yet in anarchy, but it will be."

Leaving Africa

We leave Africa from the Lagos airport in Nigeria. When we arrive at the Leonardo da Vinci airport outside Rome, Italian security personnel are standing by. Before we're allowed to disembark, the security agents station themselves just off the jetway to check the passport of each passenger. They know a flight from Nigeria often brings people desperate to leave their misery behind, people who want to start a new life where there is economic opportunity, basic municipal services and a working government.

The airport security forces in Italy are on the lookout for people with forged travel documents. Passengers with a Nigerian passport are eyed suspiciously, scrutinized and questioned. With my American passport, I'm simply waived through. Three weeks after having begun my African travel, the episode leaves me with a final reminder of my First World advantages. If I've come to understand anything better on this trip, it's the form, shape and weight of privilege. Our golden way of life is a plane ride away for me. But for Africans, it remains persistently beyond the horizon.

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