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Africa in General

December 12, 2009

“I love Africa in general; South Africa and West Africa, they are both great countries.”

-Paris Hilton

Paris Hilton with my favorite African First Lady, Chantal Biya of Cameroon

I spent last month working in Africa, which, in between interviews and meetings, gave me a lot of raw blog material. The program I coordinate, AGALI (the Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy and Leadership Initiative),  works in Mexico, Central America, and a random trio of African countries–Liberia, Malawi, and Ethiopia.  No, there’s no secret connection between them, at least not that I’ve been able to divine. They are the UN Inter-agency Task Force on Adolescent Girls  “Africa focus countries” for 2010, and we’re funded by the UN Foundation, so that’s where we work.

Liberia and Malawi were my introduction to the great, big continent of Africa. They share the same ubiquitous red clay soil, an insane love of Barack Obama, and a per capita GDP below $900, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  The most telling difference is that Malawi has never been at war, while Liberia’s second civil war ended only with the arrival of armed UN peacekeepers in late 2003.

Driving into Monrovia from Liberia’s tiny international airport, that history revealed itself almost immediately. Power poles trailed frayed electrical wires, burned out houses had been repossessed  by squatters. We drove past Charles Taylor’s mansion on the outskirts of town, empty because he is on trial at the Hague for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Groups of men in their 20s were hanging around on every corner, leaning against a motorcycle, or a bullet-scarred wall.  They had the hardest stares I’ve ever seen, a nearly archetypal reflection of the ruthless desperation of the “Africa at War” stereotype.

We were in Liberia to interview people who had applied to participate in our advocacy training program. These were leaders who work on behalf of adolescent girls–running safe homes, managing girls’ clubs, or working in the Ministry of Gender.  After a few days of interviews, I started to notice a pattern. Our applicants were almost all either over forty or under twenty-five.  There was a lost generation there that had watched its opportunities disappear during the war, forced to either fight for one of the guerilla factions or hide out in the jungle instead of going to school. Now, the people in leadership positions are either older adults who were educated before the first civil war and had escaped to refugee camps during the worst of the fighting, or those who had been very young during the war and have now been able to go back to school since the end of the conflict.

The evidence of this missed childhood is everywhere, and it is horrifying. Eighty percent of rape victims are under the age of 15, and the national literacy rate stands at only twenty percent.  Even if the still-precarious peace in Liberia holds, it will take years of children going to school, girls living without the constant threat of abduction or assault, and young adults creating their own opportunities, to repair the damage inflicted by the war.

It’s not always easy to remember that even the most war-hardened men and women were once children, but they were.

A young girl selling cassava leaf in the market

Boys playing at fighting near the Sierra Leone border

One Comment leave one →
  1. Victora Gershik permalink
    December 14, 2009 3:38 pm

    Hey, I just read ur entry. How is the work going? It sounds really amazing, and like difficult work.

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