Introduction to the Africa Project

Before I started the “Africa Project,” I knew the majority of the world’s poor live south of the Sahara, that the same area has been hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, and that famine and horrible civil wars seem to be endemic there. I didn’t want or need to know any more than that – it just seemed too painful. Then, seemingly by accident, I picked up a novel that took me into the heart of Africa’s misery and showed me a way out. After that, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about the supposed “dark” continent, watched a lot of films set there, and listened to many CDs of African music. I put the highlights of what I found into two CDs – one containing pictures and information, the other music.

Africa’s problems are our problems, Africa just being the first victim of our global capitalist system to fall – the canary in our coal mine. In the end, I’m very sure, we all stand or fall together.

I know we all started out together. The story of human life began millions of years ago when the first hominids – primates walking on two legs – appeared in east Africa. Next came the first tool-users, living in the Olduvai Gorge area of modern Kenya 2.5 million years ago. Fully modern humans – hunter-gatherers who could communicate well enough to organize themselves into groups – evolved in the same place 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. Five hundred of these people crossed the Red Sea into Arabia 50,000 years ago, and 20,000 years later their descendants were living in all the continents but the Americas. DNA studies tell us that all humans alive today are descended from a single man and a single woman living in northeast Africa living 60,000 years ago.

Not only are we all Africans genetically, but we’re all, ultimately, Africans in terms of how global economic and political systems affect or will affect us. People living in Africa today not only warn us of dangers we face, but hold some of the answers on how to make this a better world. Even if they didn’t, doesn’t that much suffering deserve witnesses? Not just for the sake of accurate history, but, more important, in the spirit of compassionate human solidarity? Even if we do nothing more for our African brothers and sisters, I think we owe them that simple acknowledgement, that caring companionship.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel explains how white Europeans came to dominate the world, not because they were smarter than others, but because geography gave Near Easterners, then Europeans, a critical technological and societal head start. (For more, see my notes on the book in this introductory folder.)

European ‘expansion,’ as they called it when I was in college, led to the slave trade, followed by colonial conquest. The myth that black Africans were racially and culturally inferior to whites – indeed, on the level of undisciplined children or animals – was used to justify the appropriation of African resources and labor and the destruction of African economic and political systems. The imposition on Africa of European state and extractive economic systems has brought – and continues to bring – tremendous violence into millions of African lives, for the profit of a comparative few, mostly non-Africans.

In order to remove raw materials from their African colonies, the colonial powers needed roads and railroads, and they all used forced African labor – with no pay and under horrible conditions – to build them. 14,000 of the 125,000 African workers the French used to build the railroad from the coast to Brazzaville in what’s now the Republic of Congo died. Once they got into the interior, the Belgians whipped, maimed, and killed Africans in King Leopold’s Congo who failed to provide them with rubber or ivory for no compensation.

Between 1904 and 1933, 30,000 Africans died in the Southern Rhodesian gold mines, mostly of disease. The living and working conditions were equally poor in South African mines, which used child and prison labor and employed brutal discipline. Twentieth century forced labor was worst in the Portuguese colonies. In Angola Africans were forced to grow export cotton for little compensation, giving them no time to grow food. A similar system was in place in parts of the Congo as late as the 1980s, according to the account of a Peace Corps volunteer who worked there.

Throughout the Cold War, the West supported dictators like Mobutu in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), who helped European and American corporations strip their countries of natural wealth. America’s Export-Import Bank and its European counterparts also funded huge projects like Zaire’s $2 billion Inga Dam that made African dictators look good, provided huge profits to Western construction companies, and racked up insurmountable debts for African peoples to pay.

The recent debt cancellations given some of the poorest African countries are negated by the poorly publicized fact that the aid they need will be reduced by the same amount. Trade barriers and the generous subsidies Western countries provide their agribusinesses make it impossible for largely agricultural African nations to trade farm products competitively. Subsidies also encourage Western farmers to produce surpluses that are sold cheaply or donated to African countries, lowering the price African farmers can get at home. Formerly food self-sufficient countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America are now dependent on food imports as a result.

The U.S., Britain, France, etc. owe much of their wealth to the slave labor and plundered natural resources of Africa. Instead of continuing to take, maybe we should start giving back…

Increased drought and warfare have also contributed to food shortages. By 2002, AIDS had become as much a cause of famine as drought, with many too ill to produce food. From 1970 to 1997, sub-Saharan Africa was the only world region to experience a decline in food production, calorie supply, and protein supply per capita. 18 of the 19 famines worldwide from 1975 to 1998 were in Africa, and 30% of the population of the region was malnourished. 60% of Africa’s crops are grown by women while men work on plantations, in the mines, or in the cities. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world that’s grown poorer over the past 25 years, with half of its 700 million people surviving on $0.65 or less per day.

African wars, supported by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, are now encouraged by global corporations trading weapons for diamonds, coltan (used in cell phones), timber, and other resources. Fighting in the resource-rich Democratic Republic of Congo has taken an estimated 5.4 million lives since 1998, making it the most deadly conflict since World War II (45,000 continue to die every month, most from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition – preventable and treatable conditions when people have access to health care and nutritious food). Liberia and Sierra Leone are two other resource-rich countries that have been devastated by conflict. Two million lives have been lost in southern Sudan, where a war between the government and southern rebels, largely over control of the south’s oil, lasted 21 years. Sudan’s Darfur region has also lost hundreds of thousands of lives, ultimately, again, because of oil. Western countries and China soft-pedal challenges to the government’s genocidal policies for fear of losing access to this key resource.

African children suffer the most…The child soldier problem in Africa got international attention in 1986 when Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement marched into Kampala, Uganda with dozens of young boys, some as young as five years old, carrying weapons. Since then, the incidence of child soldiers has been well documented in civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda. By 1988 there were 200,000 child soldiers worldwide.

Few schools in Africa are free, and the poor can’t afford to pay for education. Only half of all grade-school-age children are enrolled in school, and the percentage is declining, the only place in the world where this is happening. Girls are twice as likely as boys to drop out of school.

Since the colonial powers provided poorly for education, illiteracy rates of over 90% were common among newly independent African nations. In 1960, only 36% of Africa’s school-age children were enrolled in primary schools, and just 3% at the secondary school level, compared to 14% in Latin America and 21% in Asia. University education was even more restricted. Some countries began independence with fewer than a hundred university graduates. In Sierra Leone there were 72, and in Malawi only 29. There were 16 college graduates in the Congo – a country the size of the eastern United States – and little Burundi had none.

63 million Africans enrolled in school between 1960 and 1983. In the decade of the 1970s, enrollments increased 9% a year, twice as fast as in Asia and triple the rate in Latin America. But this progress ended in the mid-1980s with a prolonged economic crisis, caused by falling prices for Africa’s agricultural exports – cocoa, coffee, tea, and cotton. Spending on education plunged over the decade by between one-third and one-half. Now, often, children have to work. Some are even sold into slave labor situations.

Africa accounted for a mere 1.4% of world trade in 1994, down from 3% in the early 1960s, and it’s still the same or lower. Africa’s share of global agricultural exports has dropped from 17% in 1970 to 8% in 1990 and 3% in 2009, while its debt burden has continued to climb, reaching $223 billion in 1995 ($295 billion in 2002) – double the amount owed a decade before.

Is there any hope for Africa? Not from the global corporate economic/political system that continues to plunder it. The last gasp of developmental idealism is the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) campaign that aims to cut the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015, as well as drastically reducing infant and maternal mortality in the Third World. Despite episodic expressions of rich-country solidarity like Make Poverty History and Live 8, however, the World Bank and the UN admit that the MDGs won’t be achieved at current rates of progress until 2050. The system that created the mess isn’t going to fix it…

Africa’s only hope is the same as ours: replacing the current economic and political system with one that meets the needs of everyone worldwide for nutritious food, a place to live, health care, education, a voice in the decisions affecting our lives, and the assurance that conflicts can be resolved peacefully.

To make the necessary changes, we’ll all need to do whatever we can, whatever we’re inspired to do, on the global, national, regional, and local levels. When I say “we,” I don’t mean Congress, a part of the current system that won’t fix itself. I mean us, as in “We’re the ones we have been waiting for,” and “We, the people.” The tactic of appealing to elite leaders and expecting them to correct a system from which they benefit clearly hasn’t worked.

The first step is to recognize and get out of what Richard Moore calls “the matrix: our everyday media-consensus reality, a fabricated collective illusion.” Stop ‘buying it,’ literally and figuratively, and create real alternatives, remembering that – as another of my “idea heroes,” Starhawk, says, we must each have a direct voice in the decisions that affect our lives. This means local ownership of local resources, repossession of “the commons,” and inclusive participatory democracy at every level. (For more on how, read Moore’s Escaping the Matrix and David Korten’s The Great Turning: from Empire to Earth Community.)

Africa has some of the answers in this endeavor. As Steve Biko of South Africa said in 1971, “The great powers have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.” Traditional African culture, still alive in many places, can provide much in this regard.

My inspiration for this project, Stephen Barnett’s novel The Road to Makokota, dives into the heart of Africa’s problems and pain, and comes out on the other side with an answer that can only be found in each of our hearts after much struggle, and lived, as best we can, from day to day. That answer is love. Not romantic or familial love, like the desire to be reunited with his estranged African wife and their son that first sends the black American hero of the novel back to Africa, but a deeper, more all-encompassing love – for oneself, for others, for the natural world, and for what we know in our hearts is right. This is the kind of love that enables the searching man in Road to Makokota – after many trials have taught him fundamental spiritual lessons – to recognize the woman he seeks in the hideously scarred creature he passed by months before, and to reach out and embrace her with all his heart.

The same kind of love inspired Neil and Creina Alcock to start a cooperative agricultural project in a poor area of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Not an “I’m the expert, I’ll tell you what to do, and go back to my air-conditioned house” kind of project – the Alcocks lived simply like the Zulu people they wanted to help, and taught by example as equal partners. Neil has died, as you will read in “A White South African’s Story,” but Creina still lives on their farm, working with the men, women, and children of the area. She faced tremendous challenges for a long while – people allowed their goats to eat the plants she was trying to grow, and young people she’d taken into her home stole from and physically attacked her. Despite it all, Creina persisted. She understood the real nature of the struggle – that love, hard as it is, is the true revolutionary force – the only force that can really make things better for all of us, because it helps us drop the fear behind our feelings of separation from and violence toward each other.

Creina told Rian Malan, the South African writer who interviewed her in 1990: “I think you will know what I mean if I tell you love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat. I felt I was being asked to try to love enough not to be afraid of its consequences. I realized that love, even if it ends in defeat, gives you a kind of honor; but without love, you have no honor at all…You said one could be deformed by this country, and yet it seems to me one can only be deformed by the things one does to oneself. It’s not the outside things that deform you, it’s the choices you make. The only thing you can do is love, because it’s the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the total, obliterating darkness.”

Malan concludes, “Creina and Neil Alcock were pioneers in the country South Africa will one day become – a truly African country, where whites have no guarantees. They arrived in Africa years ahead of the rest of us, and I have told you what befell them there. It was a tale of appalling violence and betrayal…and yet it was not entirely bereft of hope. There was light beyond the darkness – a tiny pinprick of dawning possibilities, casting just enough of a glow to show the rest of us the way.”

Africa is powerfully evoked at the beginning of The Road to Makokota: “The air smelled like wood smoke and diesel fumes, like sweat and rot and piss, like fear and death. But it also smelled like ripe mangoes and jessamine, and there was a gentle human sound in the background – voices, music on a radio, someone beating rice in a mortar, children laughing, bare feet on the dry earth.” Later in the book, a Polish nurse says to the main character: “Strange, isn’t it? I never would have believed there could be so much beauty and love in a place filled with so much terror and death. I never would have thought I could feel it all at once…I’m not afraid anymore. Of anything.”









  1. Stephen Barnett

    Dear Maggie S.
    I am humbled yet proud that the world and the events and the lives I created in my novel have played a role in your work. It’s more than any writer could wish for…to have struck a spark that helped ignite such a blaze of hope and care. Keep on keeping on…
    Stephen Barnett

  2. Dear Stephen,

    Thanks so much for your message! The Road to Makokota is a wonderful book that I hope many others have read or will read. Thanks for sharing your beautiful soul and love of Africa in it. It really was the key for me.


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