African Ramblings: Putting a Human Face on Distant Lands of News Stories

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That “Africa”, nebulous netherworld and neverland that it is in my imagination, is comprised of little, uninformed portraits, characters and blurbs on the news (usually about something horrible), is little wonder. I have written before about how Africa is something massive, which – even if trying to absorb the idea and place systematically – would take time and only be possible in increments.

Africa is an idea more than a reality to me. Not just because I have not been anywhere on this vast and ridiculously diverse continent but also because “Africa” as a concept is kind of an idea. One giant landmass it may be but this very vastness and diversity makes it impossible to categorize or talk about as one giant entity. People may refer to themselves as “African” but can there be an “African” identity in the same way there is an American one? It strikes me as more like trying to convince Europeans to identify as “Europeans” before their nationalities. It is not that one never identifies as “African” or “European” but neither label tells an observer much of anything.

As usual I am consuming Africa-related matters in small bites, like geographical, cultural, historical amuse-bouche. Not always a tasty sampling.

Today’s thoughts inevitably turn to the most newsworthy of Africa’s countries.

Rwanda

The 20-year mark since the genocide in Rwanda has sparked a virtually endless flow of news and related content, ranging from reconciliation (and photography projects chronicling that complex and painful process) to the “miracle” of modern Rwanda, from the firm and perhaps dictatorial hand of President Paul Kagame, to the growing power of women (who are the majority of Rwanda’s population once the massacre ended), from restoration, reconciliation and commemoration in societies torn apart by this kind of catastrophic human damage as well as individual stories about personal conscience, reminiscent of World War II-era stories of people who took in and hid Jews at considerable personal risk to themselves (and how those stories often came to late quite a long while after the war).

“It’s now 20 years after genocide,” Kamuronsi says. “And in every commemoration, every movie, we see stories of survivors, we see stories of perpetrators. We see less stories of rescuers.”

Those stories are particularly important, he says, for the more than half of the country’s population born after the genocide, to see that not every Rwandan played their ethnically assigned role of killer or victim.

Yet most of Rwanda’s rescuers are not officially recognized. A government program to give rescuers an official “thank you” was put on hold after canvassing just 20 percent of the country and identifying fewer than 300 of them. In comparison, Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and research center — was seeking out the stories of German rescuers, the “righteous among nations,” by the 1950s — less than 10 years after the war.” (From NPR)

Before the genocide (and the film, Hotel Rwanda, which chronicled the 100 days of horror that ensued – and of which the first ten minutes were ruined when I saw it at a cinema in Iceland because the idiot projectionist let some horrible George Michael music play right over the top of the film and its soundtrack. Iceland: home of the world’s worst film projectionists – you heard it here first), all Rwanda was to me was mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Center, Dian Fossey and a brief story an election-monitor colleague, Randall, had told me about being in Rwanda and how the air there – and in every African city – always smelled like diesel fuel.

After the genocide, unfortunately, genocide is almost all Rwanda is in the collective public memory. But it should and could be so much more. How does a country referred to as “nonviable” become a “success story” (despite the dark side of that success)?

“During Kagame’s two-decade rule, Rwanda has made spectacular progress. A country famously deemed “nonviable” in the mid-1990s has become one of Africa’s best-run, most orderly, least corrupt, and safest states, with a booming economy (Rwanda’s GDP has grown by an average of eight percent in recent years). But Rwanda’s success has come with a darker side: opposition politicians have been jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances, journalists complain of harassment, and Kigali has been regularly criticized for meddling in neighboring Congo’s long-running civil war.” (From Foreign Affairs)

“Kagame is said to admire the limited democratic models of Singapore and South Korea, where economic competence is valued over political liberty. As the world observes and judges Rwanda, they will find a country tenuously balancing its need for stability and growth against the virtues of open democracy.” (From Harvard Politics)

Maybe this autocracy is good enough for the population for now – certainly craving stability, growth, opportunity and tranquility over “personal freedom”.

UGANDA

Uganda often comes up – whether because of its own problems with dictatorship (a story also told in the film The Last King of Scotland), conflict and disease (both positive and negative – Uganda had considerable success in controlling the spread of HIV but this appears to be moving backwards now; it is one of the countries in Africa to have had an Ebola outbreak as front-page news; or because of issues like Uganda’s notables (such as Joseph Kony) or issues (homosexuality is illegal and can carry a maximum life sentence in prison).

I sometimes joked that I would, if given the chance, exile people to Uganda. And that was (apart from a few of the aforementioned highlights) the sum total of my Uganda-related knowledge.

Recently, though, I saw a report on Al Jazeera about pain management and the world shortage of morphine – and what role Uganda plays in this. It is not really an issue I would have considered – I had no idea that there was any shortage of morphine or that this is in large part due to the ill-conceived and long-running “war on drugs” waged mostly by the United States. Likewise, I had no idea that there was some kind of stigma attached to its use.

“Red tape and misinformation are to blame for the world’s unequal distribution of medical morphine, and it is patients in the developing world who are losing out.

But Uganda has become the first country in Africa to allow nurses to prescribe morphine to patients.” From AJE)

It is hard to imagine that palliative care, particularly in Africa, where the disease burden is so high, in the form of pain management would be such a difficult matter. The Pain Project has documented this struggle.

“The International Reporting Program traveled to Ukraine, Uganda and India to find out, and to document the human toll of this hidden human rights crisis. It turns out a combination of bureaucratic hurdles and the chilling effect of the global war on drugs are largely to blame, leaving humanitarians scrambling to work outside the law — or change the law — to bring relief to suffering patients all over the world.

The Pain Project has produced documentaries on this issue for CBS Sunday Morning, Al Jazeera People & Power, and Global 16×9, reaching millions of people and gaining international media attention.” (From The International Reporting Program)

GUINEA

Finally, there’s Guinea – frankly not a country I thought about at all (other than an occasional mention of it, and a follow-up question in the form of, “Are you sure you don’t mean Guyana?” Not even the same continent! Even Wikipedia has to caution the reader not to confuse Guinea with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea or – seriously! – Papua New Guinea!) until it appeared in recent news reports about its Ebola outbreak and attacks on treatment centers and universal airport screening for Ebola upon departure from Guinea. In Guinea, the death toll has topped 100, and worries about its spread are on the rise.

As the disease has traveled, neighboring Liberia has reported 21 cases, Mali reported a few, and bordering Senegal closed access to and from Guinea, citing outbreak fears.

Incidentally it is through these kinds of stories that I learn other things about these countries – under the siege of an infectious disease outbreak or a civil war or a massacre/genocide, the human face of these countries comes to light.

And while the human face is exactly what I want to strive to see, I did come across this map that should help with rethinking Africa in some ways – I have seen it before but came across it again just as I was writing and decided to share it again.

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