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Africa Week highlights continent’s hopes and progress

While acknowledging that famine, disease and civil unrest present distinct challenges to Africa’s development, two high-profile speakers who came to Lehigh for Africa Week said there is one important word that is too rarely associated with the world’s second largest continent:

Hope.

“Africa, in my 25 years of experience there, is not the continent of despair,” said John Prendergast, a human rights activist and director for African Affairs at the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton. “There is a tremendous amount of hope.”

Salim Ahmed Salim, one of Tanzania’s foremost diplomats who served as secretary general of the Organization of African Unity (O.A.U.) from 1989 to 2001, overseeing its transformation into the African Union, said: “Our continent is on the right path.”

Given good governance, Salim said, “Africa and its people will rise to new heights.”

Both Prendergast and Salim were invited to speak as part of Lehigh’s first-ever Africa Week. Beginning March 24, the week of events provided students with many opportunities to learn about Africa through photos, music, food and lectures.

Prendergast spoke on “Why Africa Isn’t Useless” on March 26 in Sinclair Auditorium, while Salim discussed “The Evolution of Africa,” the following evening.

Although the problems in Africa are real, Prendergast said, they are often exaggerated in the news and in popular culture.

“If you look at Hollywood’s rendition of Africa, certainly you would think of Africa as a huge chasm of despair,” he said.

He illustrated the gulf between the portrayal of Africa and its reality with four films: Blood Diamond, Lord of War , The Last King of Scotland , and Hotel Rwanda .

Released in 2006 with star Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond depicted the atrocities associated with Sierra Leone’s diamond trade during its civil war in 1999. Warlords used profits from the diamonds to fund their battles.

Although the movie, like the others Prendergast listed, portrayed historical events, “there was no postscript at the end of that film that explains what’s happening today in that country,” he said.

Sierra Leone recently held fair elections with a peaceful turnover of power, Prendergast noted.

“The blood diamonds are now clean diamonds,” he said.

Promoting peace in Darfur

Both speakers are actively working to promote peace in the Western Sudan region of Darfur. The current crisis resulted when the Sudanese government allegedly hired the Janjaweed militia to quell rebel uprisings. The conflict has since escalated to what the United States government refers to as “genocide” against the people living in Western Sudan.

Salim, whose 45 years of diplomatic and public service includes serving as prime minister in 1984-1985, was appointed as the African Union Special Envoy to Darfur in 2004. During the question-and-answer session following his talk, Salim described the situation as being multi-faceted, with fault on all sides.

“The most important challenge is to create conditions for people to go back,” Salim said.

The New York Times estimates that 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million more are displaced. To create the peace necessary for people to return, Salim said, the peace-keeping force is in dire need of equipment, specifically 26 helicopters.

Prendergast co-chairs the Enough Project, an activist group that seeks to promote peace in Darfur, Northern Uganda and Eastern Congo.

Although the situation is serious, Prendergast believes that recent events could help alleviate the crisis.

“There has been slow, steady progress in the policies of the international community,” he said. “The world, including the United States, is changing (its policies) towards Darfur, which hopefully, likely, if all experience holds, will translate into a very rapid change on the ground inside Darfur in the coming year.”

To incite further change, Prendergast also encouraged students to join what he called the first mass movement against genocide.

A continent with a past

Both Salim and Prendergast contend that to comprehend Africa’s current struggles and triumphs, one must understand its history.

“In no way am I suggesting that Africa is a prisoner of its history,” Salim said. “Africa has endeavored to overcome the past to build a significant future.”

Salim described the civilizations in Africa before the 16th century as flourishing, developing their own culture, trade industry, agriculture processes and even education system, including universities.

Africa suffered from “arrested development,” as the Europeans began mining the continent for gold, spices and slaves, Salim said. In 1885, the European powers divided the continent among themselves, with little regard for pre-existing ethnic, social or economic divisions.

Europe ruled the resulting colonies until 1951, when Libya gained independence, he said. Today, Africa is home to 53 countries.

“Freedom has been the single most important success of Africa,” Salim said.

Prendergast said that most of the African democracies are still adjusting from colonization to self-government.

“Africa, in the grand scheme of things is still very young,” Prendergast said. “Countries in Africa have only been around for 50 years, while Western and European countries have been around for more than 100 years.

“Most of Africa not only is democratizing, it is at peace,” he said.

Jason Kramer ’10 and Nora Diehl ’10 attended both lectures, as well as a lecture held Monday about microfinance in Africa. The international relations majors were preparing a report on Tanzania for a course on poverty and development taught by Bruce Moon, professor of international relations. Next year, another team member, Lisa Boyd ’10, will study abroad in the African country.

After extensive research into Tanzania’s background, the students will suggest projects, such as building wells and roads, that foster economic development. The students said Africa Week helped them prepare their project.

“I learned from the microfinance lecture and from (Prendergast’s lecture) that it doesn’t take a lot to help,” Kramer said. “You don’t have to come up with a lot of resources to be effective.”

Africa Week was sponsored by the Dean of Student’s Office, the Black Student Union, the Global Union, the Association of International Students, Joint-Multicultural Program, the International Relations Department, the Student Senate, ArtsLehigh, the Chaplain’s Office, the Student Auxiliary Services, Career Services/Air Products and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Wednesday, April 02, 2008

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