Friday, June 24, 2011

This is Africa!

I love Africa. I was born in Africa. I grew up in Africa. Most days the sights and sounds and emotions of my childhood are as vivid as last night’s storm. I can’t describe what it’s like to experience those unique sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Africa is not the célèbre cause of the month for me, or a photo opportunity. The first 20 years of my life were spent in Africa. The people are full of joy, welcoming, and hospitable. In South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the Sudan - I have always been accepted warmly. I’ve marveled at the Cape of Good Hope, climbed Table Mountain, smelled the pines of Tstsikamma, heard the roar of Victoria Falls, and stood at the convergence of the Luangwa Valley, as the mighty Zambezi rolls towards Cabora Bassa. The vibrancy and pain of Africa is imbued on my consciousness.

Some experiences and sights and sounds and emotions cannot be translated. I vividly recall my thoughts and feelings just a few months ago while sitting on the edge of the mountain overlooking lower Boma in the South Sudan. Watching the sun slowly setting to the west, thousands of feet below me, the Gia villages were lighting their evening fires. To the north relief vehicles looked like ants scurrying back and forth. Far off in the distance thunderclouds were emptying torrents of rain – as if nature itself was trying to cleanse the land of its bloodshed and sorrow. The rhythmic drumbeats of the Jonglei village gave an eerie but calm impression. In the afternoons you can still hear the occasional volley of gunfire, as if the SPLA need to remind everyone that they control the mountain. These sights and sounds peel back emotions that aren’t felt often. How can such a beautiful place be so full of sorrow? The human suffering makes it hard to breathe – as if there is a weight on one’s chest.

The reason for the overwhelming sadness is that most of Africa is a continent without much hope. According to the Hoover Institution, two-thirds of African countries have either stagnated or shrunk economically since independence in the 1960s. Most African nations today are poorer than they were in 1980 - by wide margins. It’s hard for well-intentioned people to acknowledge that poverty is not a cause, but a result of Africa's problems. According to the Netherlands-based Genocide Watch, since 1960, around the time of independence, about 9 million black Africans had been slaughtered through genocide and mass murder. The Congo leads the way with 2,095,000, closely followed by the Sudan with 2 million, Nigeria and Mozambique with a million each, Ethiopia: 855,000, Rwanda: 823,000, Uganda: 555,000 and hundreds of thousands more in other countries.

The economic observations are just as daunting. According to the World Bank it takes mere days to incorporate a company in Canada. In Mozambique, it takes 153 days. And Mozambique's company law has been unchanged since 1888. In the midst of the unending demands that the west do more, would it be unreasonable to suggest that, after 123 years, the government of Mozambique might also be obligated to do something about its regulations?

Meanwhile, next door in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's government is being given hundreds of thousands of tons of emergency supplies from the UN's World Food Programme. At the U.N. the head of the WFP emphasized that the famine was all due to drought and Aids, and nothing to do with Mugabe's stewardship of the economy. Ironically, it was during the G8 summit, devoted to Africa, that Zimbabwe's government ordered those commercial farmers whose land had not yet been confiscated to cease all operations.

What African countries need most, the West cannot give. What Africans need is personal liberty. That means a political system where there are guarantees of private property rights and the rule of law. If you were living in some impoverished African village, would you want any “wealth” if there were the constant likelihood that the government, or some irate chief, or some marauding tribe will come through to destroy everything?

The Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Wall Street Journal, lists Botswana, South Africa and Namibia as “mostly free.” World Bank GDP rankings put Botswana 89th ($2,980), South Africa 94th ($2,600) and Namibia 111th ($1,700). Is there any mystery why they're well ahead of their northern neighbors, such as Mozambique 195th ($210), Liberia 201st ($150) or Ethiopia 206th ($100)?

The lack of liberty means something else: A nation loses its best and brightest people first. According to the last census, there were 881,300 African-born U.S. residents, of whom I am one. Want to end poverty in Africa? The first step must be removing those petty dictators who rule throughout that continent. Dictatorial mini-giants such as Robert Mugabe. Yes there's hunger and poverty in Zimbabwe; but the blame is to be placed squarely on Mugabe, not on a lack of help from the west. The G8 summit?  Don't look for any discussion on getting rid of Africa's dictators and warlords. It will be about wealth redistribution, and government-to-government aid with many strings attached.

But state-to-state aid ignores the value and potential of the human person. When we put the person at the center of our economic thinking, we transform the way we look at wealth and poverty. Instead of asking what causes poverty, we ask what causes wealth? What conditions are prime for human flourishing from which prosperity can grow? In echoing what the PovertyCure Network has outlined, it is time to move:

  • From aid to enterprise.
  • From poverty alleviation to wealth creation.
  • From paternalism to partnerships.
  • From handouts to investments.
  • From seeing the poor as consumers or burdens to seeing them as creators.
  • From viewing people and economies as experiments to pursuing solidarity with the poor.
  • From viewing the poor as recipients of charity to acknowledging them as agents of change with dignity, capacity, and creativity.
  • From encouraging dependency to integrating the poor into networks of productivity and exchange.
  • From subsidies and protectionism to open trade and competition.
  • From seeing the global economy as a fixed pie to understanding that human enterprise can grow economies.

But most importantly, it is time to view all people as free beings created in God’s Image. When you let someone’s humanity connect with your own soul, everything changes! Here’s an excerpt from my journal on a trip to Zambia:

“Today we drove to the Chadiza district on what may or may not have been a road to do two medical clinics - one in Chadiza, and one in a village called Kabvuwa, right on the Mozambique border. James and I rode with Wellington, but we still managed to get lost getting there, so we showed up fairly late in the afternoon. Being lost on the Mozambique border is not good! You cannot imagine a poorer or more remote place on earth. The villagers had been waiting for hours, but when they saw our van kicking up dust on the road, they got up, and welcomed us with joyful singing. And then we got to work. We gave out pills, cleaned sores and burns, and we pulled lots of teeth. As the sun started to set we worked frantically to help as many people as possible – even pulling teeth in the dark with only one small flashlight. I was helping Laurie with wound care. A young girl, maybe 9 or 10 years old, wearing a bright blue shirt came to us with a severe infection in her eyes. We cleaned out her eyes with water and cotton swabs. The girl was clearly in severe pain. But when I looked her in the face, and we made eye contact she flashed me a beaming smile like I had never seen before. It was a look of relief and gratitude and true happiness. In the poorest, most remote spot I have ever been to a little girl showed me true happiness. The emotion of the moment flooded over me, and I couldn't hold back the tears. I had to sneak around the corner and sit in the van for a few minutes so the rest of the team wouldn't see me not smiling. They don’t know that the constant smile is a mask I wear for their benefit. I'll never know that little girl's name, I’ll never see her again, but she’s why I keep coming back to Africa.”

Instead of the familiar refrain, “This is Africa,” let’s pray, “God bless Africa!”