It’s been six years since I was last in Africa. From the outset I don't want to generalize about a whole continent in the way that the North Americans refer to Europe or in the infamous words of George Bush of “Africa being a big country”. But from my own experiences and the situations I documented, anytime I returned from the continent, I was floored by dismay and hopelessness. When I returned in March 2013, I was wondering and hoping things would have changed.
Because of my clients and the nature of my documentary work, I was never going to be a tourist in Africa. I would not be going on safari or relaxing in a beach resort. My first trip to Africa was back in early 2001 when I documented child-headed households in Rwanda – children looking after children because all the adults in their lives were dead from the 1994 Genocide and AIDS. In the spring and summer of 1994, Ethnic Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis in an orchestrated massacre. Rwandans talk of a million deaths and they may well be right.
Whole villages and towns were wiped out and those lucky enough to survive dug up the shallow graves, buried those that they could identify, and laid out the remaining bodies in genocide memorial sites for all the world to see and photograph. Rwandans believed that if they simply buried all those killed then the world would never know what had happened but, in reality, the world knew at the time what was going on and thousands of limescale preserved powered (?) African bodies weren’t going to make an impact after the event.
My subsequent trips to Africa included Sierra Leone, documenting teenage war brides who were abducted by the rebel forces and left pregnant aged just 14 to 16 years old. Then onto Sudan to document children living in displaced persons camps, orphaned or separated from their families by the war. I spent time in South Africa,among rural communities where an entire generation of adults was being wiped out by AIDS, leaving destitute grandparents to care for up to nine orphaned grandchildren after watching their own children die from AIDS. Children without parents were bearing the responsibility foryounger siblings.
Each visit to Africa highlighted suffering and misery which became the norm for me. It was hard to measure ‘progress’ of aid and development as the problems seemed to be endemic. But this year I made another trip and, with Africa projected to represent seven of the world's ten fastest-growing economies between 2011 and 2015, I was hoping that things would be different - that things would be better.
My first stop was Zimbabwe, to document an NGO maternity hospital programme called Safe Arrivals. Each year in Zimbabwe around 3,000 mothers and 10,500 babies lose their lives during or soon after childbirth. The greatest loss of life happens in rural areas, where less than a quarter of district hospitals have the equipment and trained staff to provide comprehensive emergency obstetric care, such as caesarean section.
To address these issues and to cut mortality rates, the charity is accelerating a national Clinical Officer training programme which currently trains 10 Clinical Officers a year to training 80 Clinical Officers who will be trained over the next two years. By 2015, this means that all district hospitals in Zimbabwe have a health worker with the skills needed to provide comprehensive care.
This training, combined with equipping front line health workers will mean simply that more mothers and babies will survive and that, for many, giving birth will no longer mean facing death.
This kind of project is a great example of how aid can be effective when Africans themselves are given the opportunity and empowered to make a difference to their own lives. In 2015 these new trainees, all from rural areas, will return to those areas in which they grew up to save the lives of Zimbabwean mothers and babies.
Rather than a medical team being flown in for a short visit to ‘rescue’ people, these trainees will maintain their expertise within the community. All the young trainees I spoke to are passionate about this project, not only because they will be saving lives, but also because they themselves will beable to progress their own careers to the next level – all of this bringing Zimbabwe to the status it should be.
Politically, of course, Zimbabwe is still a mess, and Mugabe, at 89 years old is clinging to power like his life depends on it. It was his birthday party when I was there. $600,000 dollars was spent on a two day propaganda extravaganza that was aired by state television all day long – a nice gesture to ensure everyone in Zimbabwe was invited. And when your country lies in economic chaos and poverty is rife a good party is just what you need to take your mind off things.
Mugabe’s time, however, is running out, and people are waiting silently in the wings until he goes out in style in a coffin. He has no heir ready to take over the reigns and is already reluctantly allowing a mock power-sharing agreement with his rival. Hopefully, when he does leave, Zimbabwe can move on.
My next trip was to Tanzania and it’s capital city of Dar Es Salaam, which is economically and structurally one of the fastest growing cities in Africa and a catalyst for much of the recent, rapid economic growth throughout East Africa. But as the city authorities seek desperately to expand the port area, the hub and link to the economic boom, thousands of people living in slums and unplanned settlements are being evicted and their homes bulldozedwith little or no compensation.
I was there to make a short documentary film on the work of a UK charity who provide technical and financial assistance to local community-based organisations who re-house people in new settlements. What is important here is that it was the people in the slum areas themselves who got together to form a collective and set up a kind of credit union, allowing them to buy a plot of land from theGovernment in the first place, with rents and loans being generated and recycled into a system that then allows more people from the evicted areas to move to the new settlements.
It’s the important first steps towards a financially sustainable system, with ordinary people,not private landlords or charities, driving the change. It is their land and, through a fair rental / purchase system, they will be their new homes, their properties, and no-one will be able to evict them again. It is not just a simple handout of new homes to poor people who are then left to their own devices.
These two weeks in Africa, for me, dismantled the somewhat hopeless image of the continent that I had built up during previous visits. And it is not easy to do this as we are constantly misled and fed a certain impression of Africa by the media and other organisations. I am not criticizing development aid or other charities and religious groups working throughout Africa – they are all doing vital work, but we need to take a fresh look at this diverse continent and ensure that Africans are enabled to position themselves at the forefront, managing the change needed. We should also be questioning why parts of Africa are still endemic with poverty and identifying some of the underlying causes of the problems. But that’s another subject and rant altogether.
To end I embed a link to a spoof short music video about a group of young Africans who set up an aid campaign for Norway. It is a hilarious video and campaign but then please take note of the serious strapline that the organisers put on their website - Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway”-video, and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?
It’s been six years since I was last in Africa. From the outset I don't want to generalize about a whole continent in the way that the North Americans …Read more