Poor, Rich Africa

This July, on my birthday, I strolled through Portobello Road market in London. Along the curving thoroughfare, people sell all manner of things, from shiny silver flasks to long leather coats and fresh lychee nuts.

At one stall selling old maps, I fingered a map of Africa from the 1920s, with pale colors tinting huge colonial African states. Many of them had different names than they do today -- an understandable phenomenon given the way these countries were hacked out of the populous continent with little regard for the needs of the occupants. Overlaid on each state or region the names of natural resources. Gold, copper, iron. Ivory and oil. Everything that modern society runs on could be found in Africa. It still can today.

So why is Africa so damned poor?

First, let me backtrack a bit. The current political debates over Africa have a sly tone of censure, as if the continent had brought all its misery upon itself. (And these fifty-plus countries are always just "Africa," as in "Survivor Africa" and "The President's Africa Trip.") I mean, for God's sakes, these Africans are a permanent fixture on the charity drives and late night infomercials, their children crusty-cheeked and covered in flies. Beggars can't be choosers and Africans, judging by their constant state of incivility in the news, don't even choose to get along.

It's against this backdrop that Africa's poverty takes on added significance. We believe that poor people, here and abroad, are sort of like the developmentally disabled. They just don't make smart decisions. A couple of years ago, the director of the United States Agency for International Development said Africans couldn't benefit from advanced drug therapy because they don't use clocks and "don't know what Western time is." As it turns out, in a study released this week, Africans do a better job of taking their AIDS medications on time than folks from the United States -- 90 percent of Africans as opposed to 70 percent of Americans. Fancy that.

Why is the way that AIDS survivors take their medication a big international issue, anyway? Well, it's because the U.S. has steadfastly fought lowering the price of AIDS drugs to anything that an average citizen of an African country could pay. We have markets to protect. AIDS medications, patented by U.S. companies, cost an average of $10,000 per year. The per capita income of Uganda, hit hard by the virus, is $1200 per year.

In the time since the AIDS virus was identified, over 18 million sub-Saharan Africans have died from the disease. Because of the exponential infection rate of the virus, most have died since the United States began producing anti-retroviral drugs to battle the disease. We may have maintained our profit margins, but we have blood on our hands.

Today, although we've agreed to either provide or allow low-cost AIDS drugs in Africa, we still seek to preserve our control over African's lives. The key initiative that came out of the President's trip to Africa earlier this year was funding for the fight against AIDS. Now that funding is in jeopardy.

George Bush supposedly allotted the AIDS initiative $15 billion over five years -- an annual allocation of $3 billion a year. However, he only submitted a budget request of $2 billion dollars to Congress. The President loves the photo ops on Goree Island -- a place where he called slavery "one of the greatest crimes in history." But he does not or will not realize that AIDS is enslaving the continent today.

Senator Richard Durban (D-IL) is now fighting to restore the funds. This fight is a perfect opportunity for Americans to join their voices with those of Africans and advocate for the best interest of the continent. Yes, there are Africans -- diplomats like U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and statesmen like former South African President Nelson Mandela -- who speak eloquently on behalf of their people. But their voices are rarely heard.

New York University professor Manthia Diawara's new book, "We Won't Budge," addresses the silencing of Africans on African issues. His personal account of a life spent in Mali, France and the United States unsparingly criticizes unsavory African traditions like clitoridectomies, the false non-racialism of the French, and the blatant racism of America. Diowara writes, "I am now unhappy wherever I go in the world. I cannot stand the stereotypes Europeans have of Americans or Africans, and vice versa. I cannot discuss Israel with Europeans, or Palestine with Americans. How did the world decide that we Africans have nothing meaningful to say about these important issues facing us: democracy and human rights. Lest our oppressors forget, we Africans have eyes to see, ears to hear, heads to analyze and mouths to judge."

Perhaps the rest of the world is afraid of Africa's judgment, afraid that after all these years of being silent, the citizens of the continent will stand and cry, "J'Accuse!" We Africans accuse you of murder, coercion, complicity in the death of our people, first by military force and now by withholding medication. Since free speech is quite often expensive, it isn't surprising that those with few funds remain silent. We Americans, however, in the richest country in the world, are not barred from speaking. We simply refuse.

African nations could, of course, pay for their needs if they had access to their own resources. But the production of gold, diamonds, and the columbite-tantalite used in cell phones largely benefits Westerners. These resources have also become battlegrounds in civil wars, as rebels force civilian labor to reap the rewards of diamond (Sierra Leone) and columbite-tantalite (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) mining. In other nations, like Nigeria, multi-national corporations barter with dictators, doing an end-run around the nation's people.

Ah, Africa! So rich, and yet so poor. If its resources were free -- and its people as well -- African nations could do anything. Anything.

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