Writings :: Thoughts on Africa

It's been eight years since I set foot on the African continent, a short, two-week trip to Egypt for a conference (Youth Employment Summit). In about two weeks I will be heading back, this time to Uganda, to Kenya, and to Ethiopia, where evidence strongly suggests the human race began.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have lived with, studied with and worked with many people from many countries in Africa. I have heard first-hand stories of gender inequality, of female genital mutilation, of war, of poverty, of everyday struggles. I have seen movies; I have read books and articles. I have been present for speeches about Africa by significant people such as Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Stephen Lewis and Romeo Dallaire and have seen the pain in the stories they have shared. But still, after all that, I feel I know very little about the history and current situations throughout the 53 countries in Africa.

The "problems" throughout Africa are incomprehensible. Some examples: Rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, oil and corruption problems in Angola, "blood diamonds" in Zimbabwe, a potential "water war" between Egypt and Ethiopia, and a new wave of exploitation for the purposes of food. Democracy issues are rampant throughout the continent (i.e. Côte d'Ivoire is in dire trouble right now, Zimbabwe is a lead example of election-rigging and "stolen ballots" as seen in this amazing video, and, of course, there's also Egypt, just to list a few examples). Somalia hasn't had an effective central government in twenty years. Of course, there are no shortage of problems: extreme poverty, food distribution problems, and heath issues, such as HIV, malaria and countless other infections and diseases. And, unfortunately, politics are very much at play when it comes to health issues and treatments. As scientists say, "the focus on HIV prevents us from curing a billion people" ... and ... "more than a billion victims of some of the world's most pernicious ailments could be treated with drugs that have annual costs of less than 30p a person. However, the plight of these people is being neglected because resources are being monopolised in developing countries by three major conditions - HIV, malaria and TB - even though these diseases infect a much smaller fraction of their populations." More info here.

I'm curious as to how many people actually stop and ask themselves: Why is Africa like this?! Why are there so many issues, problems, conflicts and struggles in such high concentration in the place our species originated from? Arguably at the root of it all is European colonialism. From 1880-1890, there was "the scramble for Africa" which included the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to divide the continent up among the European powers. An excellent video explaining colonialism and its impacts on Africa can be viewed here. It is an excerpt from the documentary Uganda Rising.

After years of suppression and exploitation, African countries were "given" independence in the 1950s and 1960s, lacking sufficient education, stability, infrastructure, as well as proper political and economical systems. At the same time, "Western" countries were experiencing the post-World War II boom and began embracing materialism and consumerism. More or less around this time, oil was discovered in different areas of Africa (i.e. Nigeria and Angola). Other resources were also being sought by the West such as diamonds and gold as well as key industrial minerals such as platinum, chromium, and vanadium. It quickly became clear just how valuable land in Africa was and the continent was swept by greed-induced struggles for power, coups, civil wars, and the emergence of military dictatorships, some of which (Libya, for example) still exist today.

Of course, in the ocean of negatives in Africa, there are some positive waves. Despite major fraud convictions and major violence, Guinea recently had more or less a successful election, its first in half a century. The people of Liberia elected Africa's first (and currently only) female head of state a few years ago and women were elected to a majority of seats in Rwanda's parliament (although it should be mentioned that 70% of the country's population is female largely as a result of the genocide in 1994). On the health side, a couple of examples: some progress has been made on HIV and polio has almost been completely eradicated from the continent. Many governments, NGOs, institutions and people work tirelessly everyday to improve the lives of Africans but the struggle is uphill virtually all the way, and for many reasons, not the least of which is corruption.

In the case of Sudan, Darfur has received most of the attention in recent years. The atrocities and gross human rights violations in Darfur should definitely not go unnoticed, but they have eclipsed the struggles in the South, where as many as two million people died during 22 years of civil war. That is changing as things in Southern Sudan are hot right now. Very hot. Despite being formally charged with genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Court, the president of Sudan is still very much in power. Quite significantly, the country is currently voting on whether or not the South should become its own separate country. The president agrees the vote is the right of the people, and even though secession is pretty much guaranteed to be the outcome of the referendum, the president has said he will respect and accept the results. We can only wait and see how this will turn out.

In the meantime, I am reading War Child by Emmanuel Jal, a book I picked up this past summer. It is a memoir and Jal walks the reader through his horrendous experiences growing up as a child in Southern Sudan during the civil war. He shares the worst of stories as his family and friends are murdered by Arabs from the North wanting the oil beneath their homes. He makes no secret of his sheer hatred toward Arabs and when the opportunity comes for him to become a child soldier in the war against the Arabs, he steps right up, despite being a very young boy. I am just half-way through the book but I wanted to share a few excerpts from it; Jal is just eight or nine years old at this time:

"My breath disappeared as his foot flew into my stomach. I pushed myself up and down even faster. I couldn't do what the other boys did. My arms would break. Again I tried to lower my arms. Again they buckled under me and I fell. 'What kind of soldier will you ever be?' His boot buried itself in my stomach. My breath disappeared and I gasped as sickness rose in the back of my throat. Pain filled me. 'Call yourself a solider? You're a joke ... just remember, I haven't even started with you yet.' From that day on, I was beaten almost every day."

"Always remember that the gun is your father and your mother now. You are on the side of justice, and any person who opposes the movement of the SPLA is your enemy. If your mother is against us, you kill her; if your father is against us, you kill him. This SPLA is your family now." ... "Your gun and your bullets are the most important things in war. If you are walking across a desert, throw your food away but keep your gun and bullets. If you are crossing a river, let the water pull you down, but keep your gun and bullets." ... "With an AK-47 in your hand you are equal to anybody."

"I slid back onto the gun and cocked it. Stretching out my fingers, I felt for the trigger. I could not reach it. I stretched my fingers as much as I could and felt the trigger at their tips. I held the gun up to my shoulder. 'Now you aim and fire.' The world slowed down. I squeeze the trigger. A hollow pop. I felt as if I were falling."

"Burying machetes into the trunks of trees, watching big SPLA plunge their knives into bags stuffed with rags and painted the light brown color of Arab skin, learning how to bite someone on the throat and dig my fingers into his eye sockets ... as the days turned into months, the child inside me hardened into a soldier."


This past summer, I had the opportunity to fire half a dozen shots from an AK-47. For me, it wasn't a celebration or something to cross off a list. It was serious and I was very conscious of what I was doing, aware of the gun's history and its role in the never-ending wars in Africa. The wars in Africa are arguably the worst, dirtiest, most horrid of wars. Twenty-two years in the case of the civil war in Sudan; two million people dead. Ten years for Congo-related wars; over five million dead. Half a million dead after 27 years of civil war in Angola. These numbers are unfathomable. And there is no way anyone could possibly imagine what it is like to be a child soldier in those wars. No number of books, or articles, or movies, or talks will ever do it justice.

I could write for a long time on my thoughts on Africa and the complete heartbreak I feel for the millions of men, women and children who live in fear, die from preventable diseases and malnutrition every day, and are subject to the most grotesque abuses of power. But I will stop here. My intention in writing this was to share some information and articles and to have people reflect a little bit on the situation in Africa. What can people realistically do? I have no idea. Of course, donations of time and money are always needed and there are a slew of NGOs asking. What am I planning to do? I have no idea about that, either. I suppose, for starters, I completed my masters in responsible management and sustainable economic development at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace. I know I want to work in international development but where or in what sector, exactly, that's what I'm hoping to figure out soon. In the meantime, I will continue to educate myself through reading and traveling. I will be visiting Africa again very soon. Much will be going through my mind but I won't have any expectations. I do, though, imagine seeing and experiencing a far different Africa than the one I have shared my thoughts on here. The nicest of people, proud, strong and full of hope. A world of smiles, rich cultures, landscapes and foods. Beauty. Oh Africa. It is a jewel on this rock we call home. I can only hope that the world will soon seriously begin treating it as such.


Africa: The Cradle of Humanity

Africa's Forever Wars
Zimbabwe: The Stolen Ballots video
The music of a war child: Emmanuel Jal speaks
Patrice Lumumba: the most important assassination of the 20th century
North Africa sees its own intifada

William J. Clinton Foundation
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Stephen Lewis Foundation
Romeo Dallaire