A forgotten continent that struggles with adversity but brims with vitality

Tuesday 10 December 2002 01:00
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Out of Africa always something new, said Pliny. But there is more to it than that. There is almost always something violent about the way that news from Africa explodes periodically into our consciousness. Most recently it has been a suicide bomb in Mombasa. But routinely it is a war, a massacre, an erupting volcano, a mass outbreak of some grisly disease. And then there are the droughts and famines – on a scale of such savage disruption that impels on-the-spot reporters to resort to terms such as "biblical" to indicate the degree of estrangement between what they see and the lives they know the rest of us live.

But what we rarely get to see is how meagre is the baseline of everyday existence that is the norm for most Africans. It is a continent where most people live from hand to mouth. They have few savings or resources to fall back on. Many eat only one meal a day, and go to bed hungry at night for at least part of every year in the lean months when the storage jars have run empty and the next thin harvest has yet to ripen in the dusty fields. This is not crisis; this is ordinary life, in a place where people tread daily close to the line between life and death.

Yet the forgotten continent for which The Independent today launches its Christmas Appeal is, as Fergal Keane reports in our Second Section today – in a moving account of his long, sad love affair with Africa – a place of extraordinary vitality.

That fact is recognised by the three charities we have chosen to support – Amref, the continent's largest indigenous medical aid agency, Tree Aid, a small UK-based environmental charity, and Oxfam, one of the oldest of development agencies, which has come, over the years, to understand that to help poor people to a new life also requires working here in the West for changes in the structural injustices – on trade, debt and in international financial institutions – that help to keep Africa poor. All three charities know that it is only by combining the vitality of the African people with the money, skill and political lobbying of concerned people in the West that change can come.

What we hope to show in stories on the three charities over the next few weeks is how that partnership between rich and poor can work effectively in a whole range of issues. That is true in combating physical problems such as drought, disease and desertification. But it also works with human problems such as population growth or conflict resolution after war.

Such genuine mutual respect is also the key to success in a whole range of development issues – from preventative health-care to empowering women or managing savings-and-loan schemes for people whom the banks deem too poor to be reliable. And little progress is possible on the big political issues – dealing with corruption among African governments or the West's tendency to rig markets and debt relief in its favour – without combining the efforts of those at the receiving end with those of the voters who have the power to effect change.

Only then can that meagre baseline of everyday African existence be raised – and the margin between life and death be widened. And perhaps then something will also grow in the hearts of those who seek to help – so that we come realise the truth of the words of the 17th-century English physician, Sir Thomas Browne, who once wrote: "We carry within us the wonders we seek without us ..." In us, he said, "there is all Africa and her prodigies."

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