Monday, October 01, 2007

Africa awakening

For much of the past half-century, the role that African-Americans play in Africa has been more lip service and rhetorical fealty than reality. That is about to change.

Without much notice in the United States, Africa - and the role that African-Americans can play in promoting its development - is undergoing a profound transformation.

In the past, the connection between African-Americans and the African continent was largely an accident of history. Not only did African-Americans come to the United States in chains centuries earlier, but the civil rights movement in America came to fruition at the same time as Africa's quest for independence.

The majority of today's 54 African nations gained political independence in the 1960s, just as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were being enacted in America. On both continents, Africans and African-Americans were battling legacies of injustice, violence and above all, poverty. It is no surprise that African-Americans found little time to promote development in Africa.

Today, the link of African-Americans to the continent of their origin is much different. The total African Diaspora encompasses all people of African decent, and thus includes the American black population.

Nearly 500,000 African students have chosen to pursue university degrees in the United States since 1975, while more than 95 American universities have established full-time programs and exchanges with African institutions.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans have become American citizens. This higher education "African Diaspora" has created a cross-pollination between the two continents that did not exist several decades ago.

At the same time, Africa has emerged as an important world market. The American private sector has invested in Africa's stock markets and natural resources.

By 2015, it is projected that a quarter of the U.S. oil supply will come from Africa, primarily West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government is deepening its military and security presence in both regions.

In America, outdated stereotypes of Africa as a violent continent, rife with genocide, famines, AIDS and military strongmen still linger. Yet apart from the epic tragedy in Darfur, famine and tyranny are on the wane throughout the continent, and the overwhelming majority of Africans are in better health and living longer.

Countries that were once notorious for tribal and racial violence, including Sierra Leone, South Africa, Mozambique, Liberia and Burundi, are peaceful and have made or are making the transition to democratic government. Even Rwanda, the continent's killing fields only a decade ago, now enjoys rapid economic growth.

At the same time that Africa has become a target for Western development, the African-American middle class has mushroomed in the United States. For the first time in American history, most African-Americans enjoy a measure of economic security and a significant minority has begun accumulating assets and building wealth.

In short, the resource-starved days of the civil rights era are disappearing fast. To be sure, African-Americans can do more to deepen their personal and economic ties to Africa. But today African-Americans have unprecedented opportunities to buy African products and services, visit the national treasures, cities, beaches and mountains of their lands of origin, cultivate foreign investment agencies, and tap Africa's boundless potential to produce green energy and abundant food supplies.

Throughout the continent, governments and companies are building ports with state-of-the-art container facilities, tracing road and rail beds for highways and faster trains, constructing airports, extending fiber-optic networks, closing the digital gap by providing millions of secondhand computers to first-time users, and investing heavily in education.

Senegal alone spends 40 percent of its national budget for education - the highest per capita rate of spending on education in the world. As a child, I grew up hearing about "American ingenuity" and had reverence for any product with the label "Made in America." One day, in the not-so-distant future, American children will hear about African ingenuity and "Made in Africa" labels.

As African-Americans look to deepen their ties to the African continent, they can learn from their own struggle to attain freedom and equality in the United States.

Just as African-Americans learned that the scars of slavery and racism can take decades to overcome, so too are Africans battling to extinguish from their mind-set the last traces of colonial dependence. Africa has not entirely thrown off the shackles of the past. But in the words of the old Sam Cooke civil rights song, "A Change is Gonna Come."

Africa awakening - International Herald Tribune