Finding Hope in Africa

Poverty, and a lack of basic human rights are perhaps more acute here than anywhere in the world; but there is joy, generosity, and optimism, too. TRAVEL: AFRICA

REPORTING Africa's story of hope and hardships is, in some ways, harder than reporting on either South Africa or Eastern Europe: There are fewer dramatic individuals or events for reporters and TV crews to focus on here. Yet the number of people living in harsh poverty, without a genuine vote, freedom of speech, or other basic rights, is far greater in East, Central, and West Africa than among the combined populations of South Africa and Eastern Europe.

But there is hope, too. You see it in the eagerness of a child going to school in a war zone in Uganda or Sudan, and in the Ethiopian farmers who are slowly turning a once-barren valley into a fertile hillside using hand-dug terraces to reduce soil erosion.

To try to dig out these stories, helping readers and listeners (half my work is for the Monitor's radio programs) better understand Africa, we travel thousands of miles at a time.

The ``we'' includes my wife, Betty, a photographer. We work as a team, exchanging ideas on stories and photos, going over each other's work, and sharing the excitement - and frustration - of African reporting.

Our work together has given us a deeper sense of ``home.'' Because we also travel together, we never really leave home. Dinner together after a long day of interviews and photos on a trip is more than just nice. And the Africans we meet often make us feel very much ``at home,'' with kindness and hospitality.

Here are some vignettes from our reporting and photography:

Nigerian hospitality flows

An intangible part of African reporting is trying to capture the spirit of the people. As I write, I'm listening to Nigerian singer Christy Essien Igbokwe, who sings in her song, ``Can you imagine'': ``Can you imagine, what this world would be like if we live as one? Can you imagine, what this world would be like if we give peace a chance? It shouldn't matter if you're black or white. Is it so difficult to live as one family?''

We found her at home, bathing her fourth child (her last, she says). She welcomed us to her home, modest by Western standards, upscale by African standards. Christy spoke with disarming candor, punctuated with a warm laugh. Such hospitality and laughter often flow from Africans like a spring. A couple of hours later, we emerged from her home uplifted - and Christy fans.

We saw the hopefulness Christy expresses about her country in many other Nigerians.

Their country has twice seen civilian governments thrown out by military coups. The current military regime says it's going to step down in two years. No one is sure it will actually happen, but everyone is hoping it will.

Generalities on Africa are dangerous, but I'll venture that many Africans are similarly hopeful about their countries, their continent. Even when tired, Africans often show that spark of hope for tomorrow which we saw in a village in Senegal.

Dish-pan band in Senegal

A rule of thumb in African reporting: After stopping in the capital to meet government officials, diplomats, and others, get out into the countryside to see how most people live.

So, after a few days, Betty and I crammed into a taxi with other passengers, leaving Dakar behind, with its French flavor, crowded sidewalks, traffic jams, and hurry. A young Senegalese man had invited us to his village where he had managed to get a water pump and well installed, easing the burden of the women who used to spend hours each day hauling up water from deep wells, a bucket at a time, for their families and livestock.

Our would-be host had been delayed in another city. But his parents welcomed us to their compound: several mud-walled huts with thatched roofs. We slept on a bed of boards (no mattress or padding) and ate a chicken they had cooked in our honor.

Late one evening, four village women showed up in the compound, asking to be tape recorded. One of them turned a dish pan upside down and gently began tapping her fingers on it. Their long day of hard work over, they sang and danced for almost an hour to the dish-pan beat, with energy that surely must have surprised even themselves.

The next morning we awoke to the thump-thump-thump of women arduously grinding grain by hand - slamming a pestle-like stick into grain held in a hollowed-out stump. They lift up the stick and slam it down: up, down, up, down. The village is trying to find outside funding for a grinding machine. But will the men - often found to be playing checkers or sipping tea as the women grind grain - just think up other tasks for the women to do in their free time if the grinding machine is obtained?

Under fire in Sudan

War-zone reporting is not easy. But our 10-day trip in late 1989 into rebel-held territory in southern Sudan went smoothly - except for the bombing. We rode relief supply trucks to the town of Bor, where the rebellion began in 1983. About a year ago, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) took control of Bor. The government bombs the area from time to time. When a bomber appeared overhead, I hit the dirt. Betty was still taking photos of the plane. And she took one of me lying on the ground, tape recorder in hand, earphones on, interviewing a Sudanese rebel relief official.

The senselessness of the whole thing struck me when the plane, whose bombs missed us, circled a farming village about six miles away and bombed it, injuring 19 civilians, including an 11-year-old girl who had just returned from one of the grass-roots primary schools the SPLA has launched in recent months.

On the same trip, we met a Dinka fisherman in a small clearing on the Nile. Dinka is the main southern tribe in Sudan. He knew little of the details of the war. In both Sudan and Ethiopia, where rebel leaders claim to represent the people, you wonder just how much ordinary people support the wars, which have taken so many lives and ruined the economies.

Truth or fiction in Ethiopia

One of the hardest things about African reporting is sorting out truth from fiction. In Ethiopia, for example, there is no shortage of official statements by the government. But much of that has no relation to the feudalistic conditions prevailing in most of the country, or the brutal power struggles that have taken place in government.

Where you have access to government officials, personal relations are the key to approaching the truth. Phones may be tapped; officials may be sacked for being quoted and named. So you listen to a variety of sources - official and private, sometimes not even pulling out a notebook. And you never, never violate promised confidentiality.

Many top government leaders don't want unbiased reporting; they want their version of things printed. They consider reported criticism of their ideas as a personal attack, rarely separating ideas from personalities. And most African heads of state spend more time consolidating their power than on developing their country or encouraging such things as freedom of speech. Citizens speaking out against government policies often face censure - or detention. The rule of law is far weaker in Africa than the rule of one person: The person running the country.

Home again in Kenya

But reporting has to look beyond what leaders say to how people live in places such as Nairobi, Kenya's capital.

Tourists stop in Nairobi for good meals at the numerous high quality hotels before heading off on marvelous game-viewing safaris. But away from the downtown hotels and tall, modern office buildings, out beyond the expanding middle-class apartments is another world, where most of Nairobi's poor live.

Sometimes we visit a friend in his one-room, cement-floored home in a slum on the edge of the city. To reach his place, we walk down narrow dirt passageways between rows of similar, tiny shacks, then step over a raw sewage creek.

His room has no heat, no electricity, no running water, and only one small window. A sheet hung from a rope divides the bedroom and cooking area from the sitting area.

But inside this modest home we find friendship and good food, typically ugali (corn meal ground to a consistency of mashed potatoes), spinach, and perhaps a few small pieces of meat. My friend earns about $40 a month in a factory. His wife is unemployed, but would like to find work as a seamstress.

Kenya is our base, a nice one. When we return from trips to other African countries, we're tired. We recuperate in our apartment with our two cats. Often we sit on the balcony, overlooking the garden - planning our next trip.

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