Where Life Goes on, No Matter What

The Monitor's Africa bureau chief, who is leaving after almost six years covering the continent, looks back on her experience.

One image stands out from six years of reporting in Africa, and it is a metaphor for the tenacity, vitality, and hope of 800 million people.

It is the scene in the Angola town of Cuito in 1995 and the town, like many others, was razed from decades of civil war.

As I walked down the main street, careful to sidestep land mines, I looked into an apartment building whose front wall had been blasted off so that it looked like a doll house.

People inside one apartment were sipping drinks in a living room open to the street and chatting, like a family anywhere. Someone had hung up curtains where the window used to be, as a homage to domesticity.

Hunger during a military siege had driven them to eat their canaries and puppies. Now a monkey was playing on a leash as a new pet.

In Angola, people say, life goes on, no matter what. And perhaps that could be the anthem of Africa itself.

All across my 47-country beat, I saw the most extraordinary examples of people forging order out of chaos, homes out of ruins, life out of violence.

As can often happen in Africa, a biblical-like drought or elephant stampede can wipe out the crops of poor farmers. A civil war can create refugee camps the size of cities.

Ethnic massacres can wipe out entire villages and leave a pile of skulls as tall as a bookshelf.

But still people managed to press on, make jokes, and try to make better lives for themselves and their children.

This will be the lasting impression that I will take with me after years of involvement in Africa.

I lived there 5 years, 11 months, and 2 days. I remember the number of days with precision because of the rich intensity of the experience that Africa and Africans gave me.

Leaving a continent

One can't leave a place after so much time without some sort of analytical reckoning, a score sheet of successes and defeats evaluating the coups versus the elections.

The balance tilts, I'm saddened to say, on the negative side.

I'd like to leave Africa saying that it had turned a corner into peace and prosperity and that most of the countries were on the right track. But that would be myopic and downright dishonest.

The poverty and lack of education are so endemic, the access to arms so easy, and the democratic institutions so fragile that it's unlikely the world's poorest continent will change overnight.

Africa's rich natural resources are also its downfall - mismanaged, drained by corrupt leaders, and the cause of many of its wars.

Elections, but no democracy

There is a lot going on in Africa that cannot be captured by Western accounting or political standards. Take, for instance, the wave of elections and democratization since 1991.

Many of the polls were shams, and the governments elected jettisoned democracy, or in some cases, reversed it.

The presidents of Kenya and Zimbabwe are among the many who are becoming more authoritarian rather than less. At least a dozen nations continue to be engulfed in civil or ethnic strife.

On the economic front, there are encouraging signs of fast growth of 6 percent or more in several countries, particularly in the south and west of Africa.

Mozambique as example

But in a nation like Mozambique, lauded for its double-digit gross domestic product growth two years ago, such statistics make little difference for citizens, whose average income is $100 per year. Even if it sustained that growth rate for 25 years, Mozambique would still be poorer than Mexico or Romania today.

Africa edged back onto the news map during my stay, with three events that galvanized the continent and illustrated its seesawing fortunes as well.

Witness in South Africa

I felt privileged to witness the crucial, some say miraculous, transition to majority rule during South Africa's 1994 elections.

The elections steered the country from impending race war to an accountable, working democracy that has brought stability to southern Africa.

That same year saw the story of Rwanda's genocide of perhaps a million people and an explosion of ethnic resentment that continues unabated in Central Africa today.

And I was in Zaire last May when one of the planet's most longstanding dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko, ran out of town as barefoot rebels approached, ending a 30-year reign that had become a symbol of all that was wrong with corrupt African leaders.

There were smaller dramas, too, such as in a field behind rebel lines in Sudan, where people cultivated cucumbers and beans despite the air bombardments. And the cycles of war, peace, war, peace, and now maybe war again in unfortunate Angola.

I watched people vote for the first time in countries across the continent, hoping that the folded pieces of paper they stuffed in wooden ballot boxes would mean deliverance from poverty and government torture.

One cannot ignore Nigeria's entrenched military dictatorship and the clan fighting in anarchic Somalia. Sierra Leone's respite from war and military rule was too brief. Mobutu's successor, Laurent-Desir Kabila, shows little signs of being a kinder or more democratic ruler.

Zambia was one of the first countries to adopt multiparty rule, and also one of the first to reverse it.

These are but a few discouraging examples.

Signs of hope

But neither can one leave Africa dismissing it to hopelessness and ugliness. Tiny Botswana and Mauritius, for example, are rarely in the news because they are so stable.

And there are the scenes that I will cherish forever. Just as I despaired of Rwanda's seemingly endless ethnic fighting between Hutus and Tutsis, I walked up a mountain and touched hands with a wild mountain gorilla.

I will never forget the sight of Ethiopia's remote monasteries, carved improbably out of thick rock. Sharing tea with the blue-robed Tuareg nomads in the magic stillness of the Sahel Desert night will remain forever an irreplaceable memory.

One cannot predict things in Africa - and therein lies its hope.

Nelson Mandela was probably among the very few who believed he would be freed, nearly 30 years after being jailed for fighting apartheid in South Africa.

Who would have imagined the ease with which he assumed the mantle of South Africa's first black president in 1994 after so many decades of brutal apartheid?

And who would have envisaged the lasting end to Mozambique's long civil war, which killed hundreds of thousands of people?

And who would have thought that Mobutu, the longest-ruling dictator after Fidel Castro, could be toppled in a mere seven-month insurrection?

Looking to the future

Mr. Mandela, Africa's leading voice of moral authority, addressed an Organization of African Unity summit in 1993, calling upon fellow leaders to stop blaming the past for Africa's ills. He exhorted them to recognize their own mistakes and determine the futures of their own countries.

One hopes that the seeds of the African renaissance that he called for have been planted.

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