Two shows delve into the heart of Africa's hopes and fears

After it's all over, what remains are the extraordinary faces of ordinary people - and the magnificent colors of their clothing and landscapes.

Africa (PBS, Sundays, beginning Sept 9, 8-9 p.m.) is an eight-part documentary that tells African stories through the eyes of Africans. This latest offering in the "Nature" series is not about poverty and disease, though poverty and disease rear their ugly heads. It's not really about wildlife, though gorgeous animals and rare plants abound. This unusual work concerns the ongoing struggle of people to survive in a rapidly changing world: Sometimes it's about economic survival, and sometimes it's about personal identity. Some of the people rely on tradition, some on creative new answers to their lives' complexities.

In Episode One, meet Alice Wangui, a successful business owner in Nairobi, Kenya, who decides to travel home to her village to bear her second child - so that he will always know the people from whom he comes, the Kikuyu, and not get lost in the world.

Another woman, who was born in Arusha, Tanzania, lives with her beloved husband and children in a remote area of that country. He travels much of the year as a hunter. She misses her family, city life, and her people. Her agonizing situation registers on her beautiful features as she visits her mother after a 10-year absence.

Episode Two finds a young boy joining his father and his uncle in the salt trade, herding camels across the deadly Sahara. This six-month trip is a rite of passage for Adam Illius, and the 9-year-old learns to sleep on his camel, to the amusement of the elders.

In subsequent episodes we meet the Baku people of the Congo rain forest, whose very existence is threatened by timber being harvested for the global market. When they form a committee to try to deal with the bureaucrats in town, their reasonable request is overpowered by corrupt officials.

Then there is the young Christian man in Ethiopia who is studying to become a priest, while his brother makes good as a shoeshine man in the city. The young scholar longs for the day he will carry the Ten Commandments, while another young man must prove he can endure a long cattle drive to win his 14-year-old bride in the Sahel. Meanwhile, Charles Tinkewimeru's profession is drying up - there are few fish left for the fisherman to catch. So he decides to spend his life savings on a boat to take tourists to see the exquisite landscape of Uganda.

Many boys must prove themselves in this series - but only one woman endures trial by fire. In Johannesburg, South Africa, Xoliswa Vanda tries to make it as the first woman gold-mine manager. It's a tough world for a woman, because men do not like to take orders from them. She represents a whole new challenge to the Africa of the future.

The series offers us glimpses of vastly different cultures. But because we become involved in the lives of individuals, they seem close to us.

We all know what it means to want to change our lives, pursue a dream, seek the hand of a loved one, or feel responsible for our families as the economic vagaries of our societies challenge us to make good. These things are universal. But when the universal becomes the specific, we learn to see other cultures with new eyes, to understand better what others are living through.

Heart of Darkness (ABC News' Nightline, Fri. Sept. 7, continuing Sept. 11-14 at 11:30 p.m.) looks at Africa though another, more urgent lens. Anchor Ted Koppel reports on the holocaust going on today in the Congo, with its roots in the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. Some 2.5 million people have been killed since 1998 in the Congo, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced in the power struggle to control the Congo's natural resources.

The 20-minute segments look at a variety of ills, and while the facts are clear, the causes are complicated. Mr. Koppel points out that few stories about the Congo have been told by American news organizations, even though the waste of human life is horrendous.

In Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, government troops and rebel militias have brutalized civilians, murdering men and raping and mutilating women. We hear from women who risk their lives in telling their stories. It is still the women who must care for the children - their own and the orphans of others.

It is the plight of the children that is most horrifying. Those who survive infancy are subject to starvation. The food sent by philanthropic organizations rarely reaches them, and when it does, it is inadequate.

Koppel reminds us that it was King Leopold of Belgium, at the end of the 19th century, who set the mechanism of exploitation in motion, creating the system of armies that make their living off pillage and plunder. His Army worked the native population to death because the officers received kickbacks on ivory, diamonds, and rubber. "It was a nasty system then, and it still is," Koppel says. "It's not over; it continues to this day."

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