At a friend’s birthday party in Irvington, N.J., I asked students from different African countries to complete the sentence, “When I think of America, I think of….” There was silence among the group, but a few laughed quietly as they hastened to answer.
“When I think of America, I think of a great nation almost ruling the world. I think of a country of freedom and a country of great wealth with a good system of government. I think of a country with endless opportunities for everyone,” replied Rose, a 22-year-old from Kenya.
A few others did not hesitate to criticize and condemn the United States based on the country’s history and its recent activity in Iraq. “When I think of America, I think of unfair treatment meted out to the minority and to other immigrants. I think of the plight of American Indians. I recall America during slavery. I simply see America as a nation doing all in her capacity to rule the world at large, supplying arms to fight while hiding behind good deeds,” said Kwame, a 24-year-old from Ghana, as he cast his eyes around the room for support from his peers.
I changed the question and asked the same group to complete the sentence, “When I think of Africa, I think of….” The mood in the room changed all of a sudden, and the silence that fell on each person was more profound and thoughtful than the first.
“When I think of Africa as a continent, I think of severe famine. I think of several incurable diseases, numerous deaths, endless poverty and gross human rights violations. I think of man’s injustices to his fellow man. I think of illiteracy. And when I think of Africa, I think of genocide. I become pessimistic and that is very scary,” said Kevin, a 23-year-old from Côte d’Ivoire.
His comments were abruptly cut short by his other friends. Many people disagreed with his views. Others supported his observations and emotions. Those who supported Kevin’s views explained that the facts need to be stated and that it would be wrong to disregard the prevailing problems and circumstances that are drowning the continent.
“It is true that these problems exist, but we don’t want them to become permanent obstacles in our desperate quest for a change. We all came to the U.S to learn, emulate and practice the good things we’ve learned here when we go back home. Many former leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia brought independence to their people, and we can be the generation that may change Africa,” said Kwame, the radical among the group.
Each of these respondents, including several others who were present at the party, lived in their respective countries long enough to have witnessed many forms of human rights violation. They are all attending colleges in the United States and hope to return home and join present efforts to bring positive changes to the lives of millions of Africans. After a lengthy deliberation, the group realized that the future of Africa looks bright and hopeful if the following can be enforced.
First, there can be no hope of reducing poverty without peace, democracy and the rule of law. These three qualities were conspicuously absent about a decade and a half ago. Their current resurgence, however, will help stabilize African democracy—which up to now has been interrupted by unnecessary coups d’état.
African leaders also have to create the conditions for rapid economic growth. They have to concentrate on education for African children, accessible and inexpensive health care, better infrastructure and massive development in rural areas. They need to build a strong private sector and a good climate for domestic and foreign investment. Health care and education should be affordable to everyone, which would reduce the high death rate on the continent.
Leaders have to make sure that Africa can participate fully in international trade. Opening up of trade opportunities and expansion of exports are powerful ways to create economic growth, new jobs and higher incomes. On a visit to Washington, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda urged the United States to buy more African products and put more disposable income into African hands. “Exporting to your [U.S.] market is the quickest way to empower African markets,” he told journalists.
Severe problems remain, however. The impact of AIDS on Africa is incomprehensible. At the moment, there are about 25 million people infected with HIV in Africa. The toll of HIV/AIDS on households is very severe. Many families are losing their income earners, leaving behind grieving and struggling orphans. The average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is now 47 years, when it could have been 62 without AIDS. The disease dramatically affects labor, slowing down economic activity and social progress. The vast majority of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa are between the ages of 15 and 49—in the prime of their working lives.
Also, particular religious and cultural understandings of women have impeded progress in achieving women’s rights. For example, the Roman Catholic church in Kenya has influenced government reproductive health policy and has been effective in removing sex education from the school curriculum. Its influence is disproportionate considering that Roman Catholics comprise only 20 percent of the Kenyan population. The church has also been vocal in banning the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Some priests at the parish level have even spread the fallacy that condoms actually help spread HIV/AIDS. In addition, in certain Muslim communities in Kenya, girls are expelled from school as soon as they reach the age of puberty.
These are some of the many impediments to Africa’s future. In a speech delivered to the Franco-African Summit, in Johannesburg, South Africa, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it best: “If you want to save Africa, you must save the African woman first.”
African students in the United States and elsewhere are encouraged and determined to build on the achievements so far and create the conditions for more decisive progress in fighting poverty. There can be no doubt that Africa needs sustained growth of about 7 percent a year and a huge job market in order to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goal for poverty reduction.
Ghana, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to attain independence after World War II, and a few other countries have taken the lead. The United States under former President Bill Clinton called Ghana the gateway to Africa. The IMF calls the present-day period a golden age for business. And the United States under President Bush calls South Africa the pride of the future. These words remind every African that the rest of the world is watching to lend a hand and support us. With the right efforts, Africa can have a good future.
Juliana Antwi is a journalism and media studies major at Rutgers-Newark from Ghana.