From CNN Saturday and Sunday Morning Anchor T.J. Holmes:
“Make them care.”
That was the directive I got from President Jakaya Kikwete of the United Republic of Tanzania. I was in his country in 2008, my first trip to Africa. I had been invited by the Leon Sullivan Foundation. The Foundation, chaired by Ambassador Andrew Young, is a non-profit group that holds a biennial summit in Africa. The Foundation’s mission and the purpose of the summit are to bring together heads of state and other political and business leaders from all over the world to create partnerships for the betterment of Africa.
“Make them care,” President Kikewte told me at an outdoor dinner in Arusha. His words were echoed immediately by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo who was standing next to us at the time. “Make them care!” President Obasanjo said it more forcefully than President Kikwete. From Obansanjo, it didn’t sound like a suggestion. It was an order.
“Make them care.” I fear I’m failing at that task.
During that weeklong Sullivan Summit in Tanzania, people from around the world were eager to ask me (the American journalist) whether Americans cared about what was happening in Africa and how much coverage the American press dedicated to Africa. But, President Kikwete didn’t want to ask me about it, rather he chose to tell me what to do about it. “Make them care.”
How do you make people care? Of course, Americans are compassionate folks, and anyone’s heart hurts to see and hear about corruption, crisis, war, hunger, and disease that continue to plague Africa. But, questions remain about how to turn a tangential compassion into concerted calls for action.
Some people argue we are not compelled to act because there’s too great a detachment between the U.S. and Africa. They’ll say we are literally and figuratively worlds apart. And despite our inextricable histories, people in the U.S. just can’t relate to people in Africa.
Others suggest Americans suffer from a bit of disaster fatigue and have become desensitized to what’s happening in Africa. In other words, Americans don’t want to hear about another African child orphaned by AIDS. Don’t want to hear about another civil war. Don’t want to hear about another refugee. Don’t want to hear about another blood diamond. Don’t want to hear about another woman raped in the Congo.
And, let’s face it, if it weren’t for the 2010 World Cup, chances are you wouldn’t be hearing much uplifting news about the continent. As I write this, I did a simple check of the “top stories” in the Africa section of CNN.com. Among them: a yellow fever vaccine shortage, 3 U.N. peacekeepers killed in Darfur, Sudan rebel leaders surrender in court, child graves reveal lead poison tragedy, & lack of funding becoming a threat to Uganda’s AIDS war.
I’ve just returned from another trip to Africa. This time I was in Morocco, a much different place than Tanzania but plagued by many of the same problems, including poverty and an illiteracy rate that hovers around 50%. I was once again traveling with the Leon Sullivan Foundation which is considering Morocco as the site of its next summit.
Americans may know Morocco as a vacation destination with gorgeous beaches or they may know the city of Casablanca which was made famous in the 1942 movie with Humphrey Bogart. But, most Americans probably can’t find Morocco on a map. This Arab country is one of the oldest monarchies in the world and home to one of the largest mosques in the world. It has a rich history it wants to preserve, but it also has a young king who wants to modernize. Unlike some of its North African neighbors, Morocco doesn’t have oil, but it’s just launched one of the largest solar energy projects in the world … a $9 billion project that is expected to provide 40% of the country's energy in 10 years.
During my visit, the wife of a Moroccan government official invited us into their home for lunch. There was a bit of language barrier, but I clearly understood her when she talked about her family. In particular, she was eager to tell me about her two sons who both graduated from U.S. universities. (Michigan St. and U. of Michigan) Both returned home to Morocco after graduation to work. This woman reminded me of my mom and every other mom I know. She was proud of her children and wanted the best for her family. What American can't relate to that?
On a 2008 trip to the U.S., a member of the Moroccan government official broke down the list of major concerns for the future of Morocco like this: availability and quality of education, access to quality health care, fair administration of justice, and alleviation of poverty. What American can't relate to that?
But even if we can relate to the moms and the concerns of Africa, that shouldn’t ultimately be what spurs us to action, according to a 2005 Council on Foreign Relations report. The report said the U.S. must realize Africa’s strategic importance to our own future. In areas of terrorism, energy, and HIV/AIDS, Africa is a vital partner. The report argued that Africa is not a charity case, and it’s counterproductive to view it solely as such. Rather, a comprehensive policy on Africa is in our national interest and would consequentially yield humanitarian benefits.
On countless occasions in my journalism career, I have been in meetings or discussions about what stories will go into a newscast and when a story having to do with Africa comes up, someone will object by saying, “our viewers don’t care about Africa.” Well, if they don’t, that’s my fault.
“Make them care,” Mr. President? I’m working on it.