Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Gift of Time

I like blogs, unfortunately that's not an affection many of my friends share. Since the idea of Bazungu Bucks is primarily intended as a way to share— to create a network of sharing among friends, this blog may be a waste of time. Ah, and wasting time is one of the sound reasons my friends give for not having any interest in blogs.

So far, I know that at least one of my Ugandan friends has visited this blog. And a visitor familiar to me from other venues happened upon it. He made the good point: “to make a real connection still needs a lot of time and commitment.” That understanding is is another good reason to this project maybe folly. My friends simply don't have the time or commitment.

Perhaps deep in my heart I wish for many to develop a deep commitment for restoring the health of Africans, and thereby the health of all people. But closer to the surface what I hope for is that I and my friends would not habitually avert our attention when it comes to African issues. I hope we will take a little time to look and to try to understand.

I'm reading “Africa in Chaos” by George Ayittey. On the cause of Africa's crisis, Ayittey cites two camps of opinion: Externalist, who place the blame on external factors, and Internalists who believe Africa's woes are due to internal factors.

Clearly it's not very important for people in the West, who only have a little time for paying attention to what's happening in Africa, to take one side or the other in this divide between externalist and internalist. Nevertheless, it's very useful to know that there are serious people like Ayittey who argue the internalist position. It's important if for no other reason for understanding many of the Africans who live among us in our communities.

Ah, there's another problem that hampers understanding that's not really on point, but now is probably as good a time to mention it as ever: “Africa is not a country!” I've heard Africans here many times over say to well meaning Americans. Africa is four times the land mass of the continental United States and more than three times the number of people inhabit Africa than inhabit all of the USA. There are over fifty countries in Africa. It's a diverse continent.

It's often surprising for ordinary Americans to discover that African immigrants to the USA have on average the highest educational attainment of any immigrant group. But among African immigrants here in the USA are political refugees and many more who have fled from political turmoil. Africans in America have diverse views about the politics of their home countries.

Americans, especially liberal Americans, are accustomed to hearing and perhaps tacitly accepting the externalist position as the cause for crisis. “That's another fine mess you've gotten us into.” is yet another reason why we turn our attention away from African issues. It seems yet another situation that's somehow our fault without any clear way we as individuals can correct it. So we don't understand that this or that African president meeting with our president might well be a dastardly tyrant and kleptomaniac. But such meetings do not escape the attention of many Africans among us .

When I was in the tenth grade, hum let's see, about 1970, I was going to school in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina. The schools were complying with an extraordinarily controversial court-ordered desegregation plan. Among the black teachers there, most were quite middle of the road or even conservative, I suspect, but a few were more militant. (That description is best understood in the context of the times, hard to do even for those who lived through them; for example in my year book is the photo caption: “Mrs. Brewer sets a precedent by being the first teacher at South to wear a pant suit.”) Most of us kids, me anyway, found this latter group more to our liking. Ms. Thomas tearfully told her class that the pictures of starving Biafran children populating the news magazines in the day were a hoax, saying, “Africa knows how to feed their people.”

The Nigerian Civil War was real and those photos no hoax. But Ayittey in a chapter “How the West Compounded Africa's Crisis” describes a 1995 campaign spearheaded by Randall Robinson, TransAfrica's director against Nigeria's infamous military dictator General Sani Abacha. Three cheers for TransAfrica. Nevertheless the campaign fell short largely as a result that many black American leaders simply failed to see what a bad guy Abacha was.

Inept and horribly corrupt regimes escape our attention; it's too hard to keep track. Still America's collective blind spot about Africa allows our homegrown scoundrels free reign. The intersection of filthy lucre and politics is something perhaps we here in America are being to scratch the surface of. FEMA, after hurricane Katrina, listed Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing at the number two spot for donations on their Web site. Juan Gonzelez provides a little background on Operation Blessing and Robertson's lucrative connections to African despots. The Haliburton Nigeria bribery scandal has faded from the news, in fact never seemed to garner much attention. But I wasn't surprised to see Jeb Bush seemingly involved in the matrix too.

What was I supposed to be talking about? Ah yes, time, our time to focus on Africa. Ayittey charmed me with a personal story in the Prologue to his book:

“Pure, unadulterated mischief was our credo in those early years. My younger sister, Sherry, who was in the same class, outperformed me academically. She often placed ninth in the class while I struggled at twenty-eighth position. Of course, I was never found wanting of a battery of self-serving rationalizations. “The teacher liked her,” “My dad gave her more pocket money,” “You can't learn much with only one textbook to share with thirty-one others,” “A class under a tree is ridiculous” were some typical excuses. But then there occurred an event that completely changed my life.

One evening, an uncle named Paul came to visit us at home. Uncle Paul was an affable but stern type. He shepherded an older brother, Caleb (who is now deceased), and me into a room to teach us spelling. The grumbling and foot-dragging were not muted. To overcome that reluctance, he promised the equivalent of 25 cents to the one who could spell “Mississippi” and “hippopotamus” the next day. Back them, in the 1950's that would buy two meaty candy bars or a whole meal of fried plantains and bean stew.

The following day Caleb failed the spelling test. He had lost his exercise book, he lamented. Upon being called, I stumbled a couple of times but successfully managed to spell the words. Much to my astonishment, Uncle Paul, true to his word, gave me 25 cents.”

Dr. Ayittey completed his Ph.D. Studies in Economics at the University of Manitoba (Canada) with an overall grade point average of 4.00. Ayittey goes on to make the more general point that: “[G]iven a carefully crafted system of incentives and a conductive intellectual environment, the black African mind can develop."

Most of us probably easily relate to his personal story. Uncle Paul was a family member. But the families of so many African children are so stressed that too many children don't have someone to pay them such attention. Could one of us make a such a difference in a child's life?

The ways of earning Bazungu Bucks are limited only by your imaginations. Don't underestimate what a little of your time can mean. And by all means tell us about what you do and discover.


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