President Samhat

African Re-Genesis

Along a dusty track in rural Tanzania, interspersed among immobile road-building equipment and listless workers with bandanas swathing their heads like patients with a toothache, there are signs that read HATARI—Swahili for “danger”—followed by an enigmatic warning to “Be Aware of Invisibility.”

Traveling through what has been called one of the poorest nations on earth, where the literacy rate hovers at approximately 50 percent and life expectancy, largely because of HIV/AIDS, has dropped to 45, I couldn’t help reflecting that what most threatens the future of Africa is indeed for the most part invisible: disease, illiteracy, corruption.

I had flown to Zanzibar, once notorious as an Arab crossroads for both spices and slaves, to moderate a seminar for East African entrepreneurs and NGO officials. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are renewing a trade community that lapsed when demagoguery and misguided policies disrupted the region. The legacy of Jomo Kenyatta’s misconceived village communes, Idi Amin’s thuggery, and Julius Nyerere’s socialism has darkened economic prospects for years. But, amid many reasons to despair of the continent’s future, those at the seminar table were a cause for optimism.

The Africa Leadership Initiative is sponsored by TechnoServe, whose headquarters in Ghana were visited last month by Bono and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill on their MTV-like tour. But TechnoServe’s non-profit mission is devoid of glitz: wealth creation through free market capitalism, a redirecting of energy and investments to the marketplace as opposed to grandiose infrastructure projects that have almost invariably led to graft and the sort of neglect that turns superhighways back into dusty tracks in a matter of months.

Still, TechnoServe has altered its approach somewhat as a result of its contact with this new generation of African leaders. Originally impelled to take up where such organizations as the Carter Center leave off, TechnoServe’s CEO, former Peace Corps volunteer Peter Reiling, has moved from helping participants locate investment capital and markets abroad to helping them help themselves via such networking opportunities as the one I was co-moderating. It was not so much what we had to give as what they could share among themselves that mattered most, and that was partly a matter of strategizing for the future.

If they can join forces across national boundaries, bringing businesses and NGOs together despite or in addition to bureaucratic dispositions, prompting foundations and donor nations to contribute in ways that serve their nascent economies more effectively, persuading the World Bank and I.M.F. to adopt policies based on local conditions rather than one-size-fits-all theorizing, and, above all, as they themselves acknowledge, by demanding and providing honest, public-spirited leadership, they might just avoid the economic and political debacles so tragically under way elsewhere in Africa.

They are an extraordinary group. Several are high-tech engineers, one of whom can vividly recount how his father was gravely wounded in the assassination of Zanzibar’s first president. Another is Julius Nyerere’s niece, fired by an equally intense idealism but equipped with an altogether different economic agenda. A young woman of 26 represents 1,700 villages in the Ugandan parliament, and her male counterpart, who was largely responsible for the world’s awareness of the Rwandan holocaust, is a passionate advocate of what we would call First Amendment rights, so often in short supply in that part of the world.

I flew home with a conviction that all is not hopeless in Africa, though I was far more disturbed by the mean streets of downtown Nairobi than by the dusty tracks of rural Tanzania. Despite the fact that Kenya is the economic powerhouse of the region, urbanization is not always preferable to what Karl Marx dismissed as “the idiocy of rural life.” But no one is quoting Marx these days. One of the seminar’s organizers, a successful entrepreneur operating in all three countries, observed approvingly that the current U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania, Bob Royall of South Carolina, is “friendly to business”—praise of a sort one would never have heard from Kenyatta, Amin or Nyerere. As he said that, however, we were passing the new American embassy, built as a well-lit fortress to replace the one that was bombed in 1998. The world might be smaller, but it’s as complicated as ever.

The week before, I had visited Olduvai Gorge, the homeland of the human race, and reflected on the bond that ties us all to Africa. A few days after that, in the labyrinthine streets of the old Arab Quarter in Zanzibar, I saw words scrawled on a wall, not in Arabic or Swahili but in English: “More bombs are coming – get ready.” That chilling message came to mind when I wrote down what one of the participants had to say on the last day of our seminar: “If we as leaders don’t get actively involved with and in government, we will get what we deserve.”

In our newly global awareness, those who have ears must hear.