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by Yvonne Seon, African American Studies

I first traveled to Africa when the "winds of change" were suddenly allowing former colonial states to raise their own flags.  It was clear in those days that the former colonial powers were rather hoping the new nation states would be unable to get along without them.  Sometimes, this notion was more of a strategy than merely a desired outcome.

However, the Civil Rights Movement that resulted in the empowerment and expressions of pride among African Americans and West Indians also seemed to motivate a greater sense of inter-relatedness among Africans on the continent and in Diaspora.  For example, by the 1970s, Walter Fauntleroy and Harry Belafonte were among the African Americans leaders demonstrating at the South African embassy for the release of Nelson Mandela.  Even before that, African American labor union activists at the Xerox Corporation were striking to persuade management not to honor a contract to send photo-sensitive paper to South Africa for use in making the hated "passes" being used to restrict the movement of the black population there during apartheid.

It was in this climate of global concern that African Americans founded Africare over 30 years ago. Its purpose was to support peace in the midst of war, and to eliminate poverty among people of color everywhere. There was a strong belief among African American leaders that civil rights and human rights were tied to economic development in the world's poorest countries, and in the poorest populations of the wealthy countries.  Many believed that they had a responsibility to be a part of the new Africa. A substantial portion of the organizationís unrestricted funding, in an annual budget that now exceeds 30 million dollars, is from the contributions of African American donors.  Africare is known throughout Africa and the world as one of the foremost providers of development assistance to Africa. Another unique aspect of the organization is that it has a tradition of African American leadership and sees itself as having a mission to educate all Americans about African development. As the Sahelian drought of the 1970s spread across Africa, I remember being among the first to make a contribution to Africare.  By 1977, I had been elected the first female member of the Africare Board of Directors.  Last June I was elected as vice chair of that board. In that capacity, I received an exciting invitation that allowed me to re-visit Africa, to see for myself what had been accomplished by Africare and others working to support development in Africa following "the winds of change" that represented independence. 

Africare in Transition was the theme of the September 2002 meeting in Senegal, with a representative group of nearly 75 Africare employees. I was invited to attend as the newly appointed vice chair of the Board of Directors, with 23 years prior experience as a member of the board. Country representatives, headquarters staff, senior administrators, financial officers, and Food for Peace project directors from Washington, DC, and throughout Africa assembled to brainstorm a vision for the organization and a direction for the new millennium.

The presidentís goal for this meeting was to assess progress on realizing the vision articulated at the dawn of the millennium and to establish priorities through an open and inclusive process as he began his presidency. We were encouraged to look for the positives and celebrate successes, even as we acknowledged the challenges that remained. I learned that Africare is making significant progress in personnel management. The organization is also giving high priority to using computer technology in support of fiscal record keeping, timely communication, data input, and development research. I met several African women and men who are moving into leadership capacities as country representatives following "on the job training" as "local hires" in their countries of origin. I also learned of the imminent start of a process of desk audits and other strategies to achieve an equitable job classification system within Africare. I heard an open and honest exchange about the ongoing problem of submitting fiscal information on time. I also heard some frustration born of the desire to resolve quickly some very knotty problems in healthcare, rural integrated development, water resource development, and other areas.

Nevertheless, there was a feeling of excitement that pervaded the meeting because of optimism about the future of Africare in creating a future for Africa. Despite a growing daily death rate of over five thousand people from HIV-AIDS, and a like amount from Malaria, successes in health management and food production give hope. For example, Africare is successfully promoting rural integrated development and reforestation projects in Senegal, Mali, and South Africa. Collaboration between Africare and American pharmaceutical companies has nearly wiped out river blindness in Senegal and other parts of West Africa.  Food for Peace projects are allowing communities in Africa to increase income while reinvesting profits in further development.

I was personally excited to see that eucalyptus, neem, and baobab trees, as well as small crops of corn and soy now cover roadside lands where, less than fifteen years ago, I had seen little more than red clay and dust. Following drought in the Sahel regions on the southern border of the Sahara desert, the government of Senegal began a national program of reforestation, planting hundreds of trees a year with the cooperation of Africare and African American tourists. Just seeing the difference touched my heart.

Underscoring the historic nature of this meeting was the presence in the group of several members whose association with Africare went back to the roots of the organization. They shared stories of hardship, adventure, and victory in the efforts of a few to make a difference for many. They reminded us of Africareís humble beginnings and the vision of the son of North Carolina sharecroppers to create an organization that:

  • Is led by African Americans.
  • Supports Africans in developing clean water, food, and healthcare delivery.
  • Raises a significant portion of its funds from ordinary Americans, especially those of African heritage.
  • Provides African Americans with unique opportunities for training in development strategies, using appropriate technologies.
  • Educates all Americans on our shared heritage in Africa and our shared responsibility for peace and progress in Africa.

There was a clear commitment at the meeting to move forward in a manner consistent with this original vision.

The trip benefited my professional development through opportunities for Afrocentric cultural exchange. In Dakar, I saw Ambassador Elamís collection by American artists, primarily African American, on display at the United States Embassy. At Saly, I shared in an evening of African traditional music and dance on the beach. In town, I purchased an Awari game, African style dresses, and a Kora playing doll. Already I have found use for the Awari game. Students used it and shared knowledge of how the game is played at the African American Studies table of the Global Cafť, held on campus in October 2002. The trip also gave me a fresh perspective for teaching AFA 101, Introduction to African American Studies. This was my first visit to Africa since 1989, when I attended the African Literature Associationís annual meeting at Dakar.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 2

Spring 2003