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Africare – Possibly Reconnecting African Americans with Africa?

16 December 2009 at 01:52 | 386 views

Commentary

By Alan Alemian and Amadu Massally.

Africare was founded in response to a heavy drought in Niger when two Americans, Dr. and Mrs. William O. Kirker saw the dire need "to provide medical services and health care to the people of Africa, beginning in ... Niger." Hamani Diori who became the first President of Niger after they gained independence in 1960 welcomed the idea and fully supported Kirker. Within months of operations, Diori and Kirker saw that the fledgling Africare needed to regroup. C. Payne Lucas, then director of the Peace Corps Office of Returned Volunteers in Washington, had known the President of Niger for some years so Diori sent Oumarou Youssoufou, a diplomat from the Nigerien embassy in Washington, to recruit Lucas to help. Joining the Africare working group shortly after that was Joseph C. Kennedy, Ph.D., former Peace Corps Director in Sierra Leone (1967-68). What emerged was a reconstituted Africare as shown below:

* It would support not only health work, but all types of development and relief programs.

* It would assist not only Niger, but any African country.

* And significantly, it would serve as a bridge between Africans and Americans, especially Americans of African descent.

In May 1971, "the new Africare" was permanently reincorporated in Washington, D.C. Diori (as chairman), Kennedy, Kirker, Lucas and Youssoufou were the founding Board members. Lucas took the helm as Executive Director. The Embassy of Niger donated office space. Aid to the Maine-Soroa Hospital became Africare’s first project — soon followed by drought relief in six countries.

One of the early strategies of Africare in helping to improve the quality of life in Africa was to reconnect Africans and Americans of African Descent. Incidentally, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Political Affairs, Alhaji Alpha Kanu had attended another related event in the United States a few weeks earlier, the Congressional Black Caucus Dinner, where his talk centered on the exactly the same theme, giving very significant reasons for rebuilding the bridge, in this case, between Sierra Leoneans and Americans of Sierra Leonean descent. He talked about the history of our connection, the relevance of it today, and why it is important for our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora to come to Sierra Leone and invest.

Also, each year at the dinner, Africare recognizes the work of an individual or individuals who have made a significant impact on raising the standard of living in Africa. This year, Africare honoured six-time Grammy Award winner John Legend for his passionate use of music and position to highlight the plight of the world’s poor. Prior recipients of the award have included President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then-President Nelson Mandela who for more than a decade has served as Honourary Chairman of the Africare Board of Directors, then President George W. Bush, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Ambassador Andrew Young, Dorothy I. Height, Graca Machel, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates. This year’s selection of John Legend underscored the importance that a young voice brings to the efforts of improving the quality of life for the people of Africa.

Minister Kanu was also at the head table with Africare’s current President, Mr. Julius E. Coles, who will retire at the end of this year, and the Africare Board’s new appointee as President, Dr. Darius Mans (currently acting as the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)), at a function which saw more than 1500 other national and international government and corporate leaders, including 54 Ambassadors, gather to remember the life and work of former Africare Board Chairman, the late Bishop John T. Walker.

In addition to honouring Bishop Walker’s vision for Sierra Leone and all other African nations, the dinner provided a platform from which to highlight important development needs across Africa and how they are being addressed. With more than 1 million people dying every year of malaria (90 percent of which in Sub-Saharan Africa), the theme of this year’s dinner was “Combating Malaria.” Africare shared information on not only the human dimension of the disease, but also its economic impact — estimated to cost Africa more than $US 12 billion each year in lost economic growth. Moreover, Africare showcased the successful grassroots efforts being undertaken by communities and national governments to combat malaria with international partner support including that by Africare.

As many Sierra Leoneans will recall, Africare has been serving as a committed partner to Sierra Leone’s development efforts, dating back to 1984 when it supported the Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s strengthening of pharmaceutical management and distribution systems for primary health care programmes operating in Bombali, Bo and Pujehun Districts. Throughout the 1990s, with grant support principally from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), NaCSA, WFP and UNICEF, Africare joined hands with Government to maintain farmland under production and keep primary health care operating where security allowed in Kenema, Kono, Bo, Pujehun, Bombali and Tonkolili Districts. At various points in time, Africare supplied as many as 9,000 farmers per year with planting materials, hand tools and training. And, with USAID support through CORAD, Africare for the past six years has been providing livelihood expansion and asset development support to farming communities in Kailahun District.

With this partnership approach from Africare and the American people being much appreciated, the people of Sierra Leone look forward to a continuing development relationship and the friendly challenge they want to see Africare take up is not only to continue the development assistance work it is presently doing, but also to promote broader U.S. private sector investment and support in Sierra Leone’s development, by refining one of the historical pillars upon which Africare was formed. Per the following excerpt taken from Africare’s 35th anniversary annual report — “. . .[a]nd significantly, it would serve as a bridge between Africans and Americans, especially Americans of African descent . . .” and with recognition that Africare succeeded in fostering that general connection between African Americans and Africans, what Sierra Leoneans now encourage is that Africare take this one level further, by joining hands in an initiative on which the people and government of Sierra Leone are about to embark, that is to reconnect scores of Americans whose family lines, multiple generations back in the United States, refer back to Sierra Leone, so that those Sierra Leonean Americans will take part in rebuilding their ancestral homeland through mutually beneficial business undertakings with partners here. Sierra Leoneans believe that 2011, when the country celebrates its 50th Independence Anniversary, offers a most appropriate and opportune time for Africare to help make this happen. Sierra Leoneans look forward to this special bond!

On the authors:

Alan Alemian worked in Makeni from 1967-68 as Associate U.S. Peace Corps Director for the Northern Province, and in 1969 as Incountry Training Coordinator for the Peace Corps. Following his work in Sierra Leone, he was among the volunteers in Washington DC who helped Africare in 1971 to build support for its early work in the Sahel. From 1977 to his retirement in 2006, he served as one of the Africare senior staff working out of headquarters in support of Africare’s field initiatives. During that period, he was invited to Freetown in 1984 to participate in the design of Africare’s first development initiative with the Government of Sierra Leone undertaken in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation. He is currently in Sierra Leone on a temporary Africare assignment facilitating the transition between the recently outgoing and newly arriving Africare Country Representatives.

Amadu Massally(photo) is Sierra Leonean and considers himself an advocate working in the best interest of the people of Sierra Leone.

As a further footnote: the U.S. Agency for International Development administers the U.S. foreign assistance program which provides economic and humanitarian assistance in more than 80 countries worldwide.

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