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FATHER LARRY MCDONNELL: Economically, people, when they’re dealing with 10, 12 children that they’ve inherited from dead relatives, cannot carry on. They cannot take in any more children.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, one Colorado town helps Swaziland fight AIDS.
PORTER: Plus, environmentalists voice opposition to a Ugandan electricity project.
GRAHAM SAUL: We’re working with a number of Ugandan organizations that have expressed a series of concerns.
PORTER: And one woman’s firsthand account of chaos in the Congo.
MICHELA WRONG: We were sort of staring out of the balconies looking into the parking lot, realizing that the presidential guard had got all their families staying in the hotel where we had decided we were going to be safe. And this was the same place that they thought they were going to be safe. So there were, sort of, men strolling up and down with sort of huge weapons—very, very nervous atmosphere, very tense.
MCHUGH: These stories—coming up next.
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MCHUGH: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Africa is the second largest of the Earth’s seven continents. Stretching from Tunisia to the Cape of Good Hope, Africa covers more than 11 million square miles, or roughly 22 percent of the world’s total land area. It is a continent rich in natural resources but much of Africa’s history is marred with poverty, disease, and war. In recent months we’ve shared a number of diverse stories from Africa. Today, we’ve compiled some of those stories into one show. We begin in Swaziland.
MCHUGH: In the next two decades, the AIDS pandemic is expected to surpass the Black Death of the 14th century as the worst health crisis the world has ever known. Nearly 25 million have already died in its first two decades. Around the world, government efforts to contain the disease are frequently mired in politics, corruption, or stifling bureaucracy. Now, the United Nations is helping local-level donors connect with counterparts in need in Africa. Eric Whitney reports on one unlikely partnership this effort has created.
ERIC WHITNEY: On the surface, Laurie and T’lilie may seem to have little in common. They are both women in their 30s; but one is black, one white. T’lilie Thlanglala is from a small city in southern Africa. Laurie, who didn’t want to use her last name, lives in a remote part of Colorado. Perhaps the most significant thing they share is something you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at either of them—that both young women are HIV positive.
LAURIE: And nobody can exactly understand what that is unless you are HIV positive, you know.
WHITNEY: This is Laurie.
LAURIE: I can go into any room and really talk to a group of people who are HIV positive and automatically start connecting. We have parallel feelings and I think you can’t get past that.
WHITNEY: Laurie gets a lot of support from, and volunteers time to, a small local nonprofit—the Western Colorado AIDS Project. The same is true for T’lilie, who volunteers in her home—the tiny, subtropical Kingdom of Swaziland.
T’LILIE: And I’m here as a member of SAA-so. SAA-so stands for Aids Support Organization. It’s an organization of people living with HIV. So I’m here in the office as a volunteer.
WHITNEY: And at this point when T’lilie and Laurie’s lives seem most similar, they actually diverge pretty radically. Because she lives in Africa, where anti-AIDS drugs are nearly impossible to get, T’lilie’s best treatment option is the same advice she offers new clients at SAA-so. She tells them to try and eat a balanced diet and to take care of themselves.
T’LILIE: Like we do not encourage them to eat red meat. We also do not encourage them to drink Coca-Cola, Fanta—they are just chemicals. They are not nutritious. So we encourage them to eat food which will build their body and boost their immune system.
WHITNEY: This may not sound like a lot of help. But in places where nutrition programs are paired with counseling, people have been living productively with HIV infections for ten years or more. A big part of it, everyone associated with the programs agrees, is choosing to live positively and reaching out to others with HIV, too, instead of focusing on the disease’s grim circumstances. T’lilie says it’s important for someone whose just learned that they’re infected to see that life doesn’t have to end immediately.
T’LILIE: You know, if you do not know about other people you sometimes think you, it’s your problem alone. To see other people in the same problem, it gave me support and courage to continue with life. And I realized that life goes on even if one is HIV positive, because I could see other people looking beautiful, fresh, and free.
WHITNEY: Laurie, on the other hand, attacks the HIV in her body with the best pharmaceuticals modern science has to offer.
[The sound of Laurie going through her pill bottles.]
LAURIE: This is nighttime. This is Sustiva. This is, I started taking, it was called 1592. But this medicine may be taken with or without food. So that’s a good thing. This one they tell you to drink at least two glasses…
[The sound of Laurie going through her pill bottles.]
WHITNEY: The nine pills a day Laurie takes are not a cure for AIDS, but they can suppress the amount of HIV in her body to very low levels. She still has to be careful about nagging health problems, though, which always seem to come up. Her drugs cost about $1,300 a month.
LAURIE: And it’s just not like I can just run out and get a job that’s going to afford that medication sitting on the counter.
WHITNEY: It would be hard to afford $15,000 a year in medication on what most jobs in western Colorado pay. But even if Laurie took an average job here, she’d lose the social security benefits that buy her drugs. This is where the nonprofit Western Colorado AIDS Project fills a gap, making life easier for people with AIDS, many of whom, like Laurie, have very limited means. The AIDS Project helps people with HIV here find medical, emotional, and sometimes even financial support.
[The sounds of a large, enthusiastic crowd at the Telluride AIDS Benefit Auction.]
WHITNEY: The AIDS Project’s biggest fund raiser, by far, is the Telluride AIDS Benefit. Telluride is a splashy ski resort town where this year’s 10th annual fashion show and charity auction helped raise more than $100,000. Two years ago, benefit directors began giving beyond Colorado’s boundaries for the first time. Former director Amy Kimberly explains why.
AMY KIMBERLY: Well, we were one of the few AIDS benefits that were managing to raise more funds every year, rather than funding going down. And to be able to inspire that continued climb in fundraising I felt we had to reach beyond our own boundaries and look at other areas that we could help in AIDS. And Africa was just a breaking story at that time, and I wanted to help Africa, but it was a faraway land.
WHITNEY: Luckily, the US Conference on AIDS was in Denver, Colorado, at the same time Kimberly was looking for projects.
KIMBERLY: The United Nations had brought over a group of mayors that had come to appeal to the people at the conference to help them, because their own government wasn’t helping them. So I embarrassingly went up and said, “Well, yeah, I, you know, the Telluride AIDS benefit wants to help you guys.” I mean, it’s not gonna be much money, and the problem is so huge, that the thought of even sending, you know, offering $5,000 or $8,000 seemed to be just a drop in the bucket that wouldn’t do much. But they responded with such enthusiasm, and we raised $8,000, we sent them the first year. And what it managed to do, I think was as much as your million dollar funder.
[The sound of water splashing out of a tap.]
WHITNEY: This tap, the only source of clean water for four families in Skom, Manzini’s most desperate slum, is part of what that $8,000 provided.
SYLVIA: Yes, now there is clean water. Now I have, we have gardens, so we do plow vegetables. That’s why we say because we have water we can now do gardening. We can do things better now because we have clean water.
WHITNEY: Besides allowing people to grow the fresh vegetables that stand in for medication here, this clean water tap also prevents a common disease that often proves fatal to those with HIV—diarrhea. Access to clean water means people with or without HIV aren’t sick as often as they used to be. That’s especially important to people trying desperately to live long enough to raise their children. In Swaziland, young parents are in the age group with the highest HIV infection rate. AIDS orphans are becoming more and more common in Swaziland. One study says that in 14 years, fully a quarter of the country’s population will be orphans. Statistics like that can be hard to fathom, but they can really hit home simply by taking a trip on one of the minibus taxis that are the main mode of transportation across much of Africa.
[The sound of getting on a crowded minibus, followed by the sound from inside a traveling minibus.]
WHITNEY: Typically, there are about 20 people in a fully loaded minibus, although it often feels like more. In southern Africa, the equivalent of five people in every minibus on the street has HIV. Here in Swaziland, average life expectancy used to be about 60 years—after AIDS it’s fallen to 42. Father Larry McDonnell is an Irish Catholic missionary who has worked in Swaziland for more than 30 years.
FATHER LARRY MCDONNELL: Economically, people, when they’re dealing with 10, 12 children that they’ve inherited from dead relatives, cannot carry on. They cannot take in any more children; that has been a major cause in the increase in the number of children we have on the streets.
[The sounds from a local school classroom.]
WHITNEY: There aren’t as many children on the streets of Manzini as in some other African cities, and the orphanage Father Larry runs is a big reason why. He takes in as many children as he can, giving them something to eat, a place to sleep, clean clothes, and help with education. He also teaches them to sing.
[The sound of children singing enthusiastically.]
WHITNEY: This is another place being supported by money raised in Telluride, through the UN partnership. Father McDonnell is glad to have it, but he hopes that the relationship can be a two-way street.
MCDONNELL: I think most people nowadays are becoming, are beginning to realize that every culture has got something to give to other cultures. The relationship between funders and the funded shouldn’t be a relationship of the project; it should be a relationship of a partnership, that we’re entering into an agreement, that the people in Telluride want to join a community out here, and share with them what they have as community. And that may not necessarily be money, but it may be something else. It may be some kind of a cultural exchange.
WHITNEY: So far, representatives from Telluride and Swaziland have visited each other’s communities once. Laurie and T’lilie have never met, and probably never will. But Laurie says that the AIDS crisis is obviously so much worse in Africa, that she doesn’t mind that some of the money that could be spent fighting HIV in her community is going to Africa instead.
LAURIE: Well, I think it’s great. I think they need to do that. The only way that you can really do anything locally is to really look at how it affects things on a global level. I mean, that sounds so cliché, it sounds like a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. But I—it does make a difference.
WHITNEY: For Common Ground, I’m Eric Whitney in Telluride, Colorado.
PORTER: The view from Bujagali Falls, next on Common Ground.
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MCHUGH: Near the source of the Nile River in Uganda, Bujagali Falls creates some of the most spectacular rapids in the world. The spot has become a major tourist destination, but before long it may be underwater. Uganda has hired a US-based corporation to build a dam at the site, and the World Bank has already agreed to kick in $225 million dollars. The project hopes to bring electricity to thousands of Ugandans, but opponents say it would come at too high a cost. Judith Smelser has more.
[The sound of protesters chanting, “Stop the rip-off, stop the folly, stop the dam at Bujagali.”]
SMELSER: Protesters who gathered outside the World Bank had a lot on their minds. They were concerned about the environmental impact of the Bujagali Dam, and the effect on people who’d be uprooted from their homes. But mostly, it came down to two things: economics and information. Graham Saul is with the nonprofit Bank Information Center.
GRAHAM SAUL: We’re working with a number of Ugandan organizations that have expressed a series of concerns about the economic viability of the project: the fact that it put risks on Ugandan rate payers, consumers, without divulging the necessary information for them to make an informed decision about the actual consequences of the project.
SMELSER: Opponents of the project say Bujagali is just one example of the World Bank’s bad behavior in the developing world. But Bank officials, like Uganda Country Coordinator Ron Brigish, argue it’s the best way to bring much-needed electricity to Uganda.
RON BRIGISH: Uganda needs power. This is a landlocked country with only three percent of its population having access to power. This is a really very, very low percentage by any measure, and it is a binding constraint on investment and economic growth.
[The sound of protesters chanting, “People before profits, people before profits.”]
SMELSER: But detractors criticize the World Bank for not disclosing more information about the project. Specifically, they want access to the agreement between the AES Corporation—the company that plans to build the dam—and the Ugandan government. Those two parties say the document is a private business contract. But opponents, like Njoki Njoroge Njehu with the anti-World Bank organization 50 Years is Enough, say Ugandan taxpayers deserve to know how much money their government has committed to spend on the project.
NJOKI NJOROGE NJEHU: This is about adding more debt to Uganda, so it doesn’t matter that Uganda was the first country in 1999 to be a recipient of HIPC debt relief funds because here you have $250 million more being added to that debt.
SMELSER: That figure reflects a new proposal now being considered by an arm of the World Bank. The Bank has already invested $225 million dollars in the project, and now it may throw in an additional $250 million for political risk insurance. Supporters of the project hope the new guarantee will calm the fears of potential partners, who’ve grown skittish because of a recent plunge in the value of AES Corporation’s stock. Opponents hope the guarantee won’t come through and that the project will die as a result. But Graham Saul with the Bank Information Center is not holding his breath.
SAUL: The project has already taken on a life of its own, a certain momentum. And it’s very difficult once a project of this size gets this far in the process for the Bank and for the Ugandan government and others to take into consideration Ugandan organizations’ concerns and to really suspend and take a brand new look at this project.
SMELSER: Surprisingly, a decision on the insurance proposal has now been postponed indefinitely, but the World Bank says that has nothing to do with the alleged problems with the project. And either way, the Bank’s Uganda Coordinator Ron Brigish says activists have got it wrong when they argue that Ugandan taxpayers will end up paying for Bujagali.
BRIGISH: No, it’s gonna be the Ugandan consumers of electricity who’ll pay for it, who will consume Bujagali power, who will provide revenues for the sponsor, and the sponsor will then be able to remit that in the form of profit. The Ugandans are contributing perhaps resources domestically, but not financial resources. This is coming from the private sector.
SMELSER: Of course that all depends on whether Ugandan consumers actually buy Bujagali’s power output, and opponents of the project believe the World Bank’s predictions about demand for electricity there are far too optimistic. At the request of a number of the project’s detractors, the Bank ordered its internal investigative arm to take another look at Bujagali. According to the interpretation of project opponents, the findings suggest that the dam would violate several of the Bank’s own policies. The institution flatly denies that and has promised to hold new consultations with those affected. But it has no intention of pulling out.
[The sound of protesters chanting, “We’ll be back, we’ll be back.”]
SMELSER: So the protests continue, and detractors will continue to ask why more information was not made available sooner about a project that will forever alter the landscape of the Nile.
[The sound of protesters chanting, “We’ll be back, we’ll be back.”]
SMELSER: For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser in Washington.
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PORTER: The Democratic Republic of Congo was formerly known as Zaire and before that as the Belgian Congo. Zairewas ruled for 32 years by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu’s reign ended in 1997, and author Michela Wrong was an eyewitness to the revolution. Her book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, describes turmoil in a country larger than all of Western Europe.
MICHELA WRONG: What we’re talking about is a vast nation. And it’s right in the heart of Africa. And it’s got nine neighboring countries. So the feeling that diplomats always had was that anything that happened in Kinshasa or in Congo or in Zaire—you know, the names are used interchangeably these days—would have an enormous potential impact on, on a vast area. Because of the fact that it bordered on so many other countries.
PORTER: And it’s also very rich with natural resources, correct?
WRONG: Well, it’s completely theoretical because those riches have not had any effect on the population. But yes, it has amazingly pure deposits of copper. It’s got cobalt which used to be very much in demand making sort of the, the noses of fighter jets, I believe. It has uranium. The first uranium that was ever dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima came from Zaire. It’s got gold. It’s got industrial diamonds. It’s got oil. You know, this is a country which has sort of just about everything you could ever wish for.
PORTER: Is this what King Leopold was after when he got Belgium to create a colony in Africa?
WRONG: I don’t think it was the minerals so much, because at that stage, that wasn’t what mattered. What did matter to them was firstly, ivory, which was then in abundance. There were these huge herds of elephants. And then after that very quickly it became rubber. Rubber grew wild in Congo. And that was just when the sort of, the motor car was taking off and people were beginning to understand about tires. You need rubber. And there’s this sort of huge source. So that was really, I mean, it was natural resources but they were different ones at the time that drew Leopold into that region, that’s what made it so very attractive.
PORTER: Ultimately what was the colonial legacy in the Congo?
WRONG: Well, the colonial legacy was disastrous because Leopold was, he was a recent colonizer. It was Belgium’s only colony. And he had always looked around him, looked at all the other European countries and thought, “They’ve done really well out of colonialism. I’m going to do the same. I’m going to build my empire. I’m going to build my city, Brussels, on all these resources.” So he stripped the place dry and it was incredibly brutal. He used a mercenary army and had, there were these fixed quotas. Villagers had to produce a certain amount of rubber and if not there would be punitive expeditions. And this is when you have these famous horrible pictures of people with their hands cut off—Congolese—they hadn’t, they’d either sort of defied the mercenary army or they hadn’t met their quotas. The men would go in and they’d just chop off their hands and bring them back as proof that they had done their job properly.
PORTER: As you look around Congo, and perhaps Kinshasa in particular, do you still see the colonial legacy? I mean, can you still tell that this was a Belgian colony?
WRONG: Kinshasa was a very well laid out and very ordered city. Up until sort of fairly recently. You can, you can see that. But I think, you know, what always used to strike me was that there were these plinths lying around town which were empty. And they were the places where they had had statues of Leopold, or of the governor of Kinshasa, and of Stanley. And at a certain point when Mobutu came in he said, “We’ve had enough.” So there was a big sort of ceremonial toppling of these and they were all dumped in a field where they lie to this day. And I’ve been and I’ve seen them and it’s a very kind of poignant image, these sort of toppled statues lying by the river.
PORTER: That’s amazing. Sort of like the statues we saw toppled in Moscow and across the Soviet Union.
WRONG: Yes. It was, it was that kind of event. Yes.
PORTER: In 1960 a man named Joseph Mobutu took over the country. He changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko and he changed the name of the country to Zaire. He ruled for more than 30 years. How was he able to stay in power?
WRONG: He was a very canny, a very smart operator. Not a great intellectual but survival was something he was very good at. At the start he was enormously, genuinely popular. But then he made a series of very serious economic mistakes. He nationalized a lot of the industry. It never recovered from that. And gradually what you saw was the development of this incredibly corrupt regime. And he was getting less and less popular, more and more hated. But by that stage he had managed to convince the US, France, Belgium—his key friends abroad—that really without him the whole place would fall apart. Maybe it would go communist. They needed him because the US was supporting a rebel movement in Angola, so this was how they were getting arms into that area. He had become the man that everyone needed. It was very much a myth but he managed to sustain that myth and they fell for it, in classic Cold War style.
PORTER: What finally led to his downfall?
WRONG: Well, effectively he had set up, it was a very clever bluff. Because the thing about Mobutu is that he had this army that everyone was very frightened of and his presidential guard that everyone said was amazing. And in fact these men were not paid. They were demoralized. They had no real loyalty to Mobutu. The whole country had been so pauperized. At a certain stage he made the mistake of giving haven to the people who had committed the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, the extremist Hutu killers. He was giving them haven. They were staging raids across into Rwanda. Rwanda, which is a small, very determined, you know, a former military administration had come in and they were saying, “Well, we simply can’t, we can’t deal with this. If Mobutu isn’t going to handle these people, if he isn’t going to call them in, then we’ll deal with it ourselves.” And they were basically the driving force between, behind this rebel group that ended up marching all the way to Kinshasa from Rwanda, which is an incredible physical feat. They marched into the city and Mobutu got on a plane and got out.
PORTER: What year was that?
WRONG: That was in ’97. And I was there at the time and it was very dramatic. I mean, everyone was afraid that the city was going to end up going in flames. But what was so remarkable was that Mobutu’s feared presidential guard that we had always been told were, were the only ones who were really well trained and well armed and really would fight to the death, they just packed up, changed into track suits, took off their uniforms, and left. You know, they weren’t going to fight for him by that stage.
PORTER: Your book just has a fascinating eyewitness account of how that revolution played out, primarily at the Hotel Intercontinental, in Kinshasa. Can you just give us a brief flavor of that scene at the hotel over those days?
WRONG: Well, I was staying there which was a sort of very appropriate place for me because that’s, actually when I was a journalist I used to live there permanently. And so it was very familiar ground. And there was this sort of growing sense of siege because what was happening is that the rebels were coming into the city all the kind of Mobutu cronies, the people who’d gone rich during his regime, and had their nice villas on the hill with swimming pools, were coming down into the hotel with their luggage, with their armed guards, with their, with their cars. They were parking them in the parking lot. And they were just trying to get out, get their visas, flee to South Africa or wherever it was—Switzerland, Canada.
And then in the last days, as the rebels really were physically walking into Kinshasa, the presidential guard did the same thing. So we were sort of staring out of the balconies looking into the parking lot, realizing that the presidential guard had got all their families staying in the hotel where we had decided we were going to be safe. And this was the same place that they thought they were going to be safe. So there were, sort of, men strolling up and down with sort of huge weapons—very, very nervous atmosphere, very tense. And so this sort of, the threat that there was going to be a standoff around the hotel was averted. But I mean, as one of the guests I was very frightened at one stage that was what was going to happen.
PORTER: Well, I wondered as I read your account, I kept wondering whether or not you—how frightened you really were during that time.
WRONG: I think these things are quite surreal when they’re really happening. And if you’re a journalist there’s always a sort of sense of you, a part of you is always saying, “This is really fascinating.” And I think this is like being doctor. You know, you’re so intellectually amazed by what you’re seeing, you’re so intrigued, that it keeps fear at bay. And it’s only sort of looking back on it that you sort of think, “Hmm, that really wasn’t a very savory situation.” So, I, one does things like that and then afterwards you sort of think maybe, maybe it would have been better to leave beforehand. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
PORTER: In your book do you think you’ve identified any larger lessons that the West should learn as it continues to deal with postcolonial Africa?
WRONG: Well, I think there are larger lessons and they stretch far, far beyond Africa. I mean, Mobutu was the classic cautionary tale. You shouldn’t befriend people like him. You shouldn’t hang on in there if you’re America or the West, long after they’ve become completely discredited, hated by their population, manifestly corrupt. And I think, you know, these are the lessons that everyone since September the 11 should be thinking about these things. You know, this is the Saddam Hussein lesson. This is the Osama bin Laden lesson. And I think Africa is paying a very high price for the fact that the US, France, Belgium, IMF, the World Bank, everyone, decided to turn a blind eye to Mobutu’s faults and shortcomings, and the shortcomings of his entire system long after it was blatantly obvious to everybody else. And I think, you know, we can’t learn that lesson more thoroughly than now.
PORTER: Michela Wrong has reported from Africa for Reuters, the BBC, and The Financial Times. Her book is titled, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz.
PORTER: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: I’m Kristin McHugh.
KEITH PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, Jason Carter remembers rural South Africa.
JASON CARTER: The matriarch of this family that I stayed with—I would come home for, you know, from work, and there would be an extra child at the table. And I would say, “Now, who is this? Is this a cousin or whatever?” And she’d say, “No, that’s Lindeway. Her parents can’t feed her this month so she’s gonna live with us.”
PORTER: And meet Elmo’s South African cousin.
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MCHUGH: The news from South Africa that makes headlines in the US and around the world often focuses on the negative developments that have occurred there since the collapse of apartheid. Now there’s a new opportunity to get caught up with the real situation on the ground in South Africa following the publication of a new book by the grandson of former US President Jimmy Carter. Jason Carter has just completed a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in South Africa, and in his book, Power Lines, he says he wasn’t at all prepared for the country in which he found himself. He told Common Ground‘s Simon Marks that at first he didn’t even want to go to South Africa.
JASON CARTER: It’s true. I had done some things in Africa before with my grandparents and was excited to get what I thought was an African experience. And I originally, like a lot of people in the United States maybe, thought that South Africa was sort of not a real African place because it was so industrialized and it did have the great roads and all of those things that, that it does have, actually.
SIMON MARKS: And to some extent, that is true. But as you discovered through your journey in South Africa, it’s also a simplification of what South Africa is.
CARTER: Absolutely. I mean, one of the first things that I found was that it is two, two South Africas, at least. And the one in which I lived for most of my time there was a very rural and black South Africa. Where folks carried their water from the river and they built their houses out of, you know, sticks and mud. And that’s exactly what I thought of in the United States as Africa. And it is out there. The reason that I called the book Power Lines is because power lines from First World South Africa ran right through the town where I stayed and, as I said, folks carried their water from the river there. And there was no electricity. And those two South Africas existed in that town physically because those poles sort of grew up out of the ground there, but there was no real connection between the two.
MARKS: You seem to have been really struck by the extent to which there is an inheritance in South Africa from the apartheid era that has still not fully been overcome.
CARTER: Absolutely. I think part of that inheritance as you say, or the residue of apartheid is the physical residue, the material inequalities and, and that type of economic issues that are left over. But the other part is the psychological part.
MARKS: By the time you finished your tour of duty in South Africa, how did you assess where the country is heading?
CARTER: I’m really hopeful for South Africa. I think that from the morning that I spent with Mandela when my grandfather came to visit, to the months that I spent in this little town working with teachers and working with just regular folks in their leading their everyday lives, the sense of purpose that everyone has is palpable. And inspiring. And you know, they’ve pulled off miracles before. And I don’t think it’s gonna take a miracle this time. But I really think that people are committed to working together, committed to waking up every morning and, and trying to make a better life for their kids and their family. And there are folks in, you know, the most remote parts of South Africa doing incredible things.
MARKS: You experienced some of the problems associated with the country firsthand. Crime touched you directly. What was that experience like?
CARTER: There was, there was some crime. And as you know, South Africa and South Africans especially talk about crime all the time. And it really dominates the landscape there politically. What I found—you know, I spoke Zulu, I lived with a family, I really immersed myself in the culture—and I never felt threatened. I did as you say, I did get touched by crime because someone broke into my house and they took a lot of my things. But because I was a part of that community and because, you know, they had accepted me, within 20 hours we found the person—all of it was back. And and we moved on. And so it really is an interesting, it was an interesting lesson for me to be a victim, I guess of crime in my capacity as a part of this community, because they did come together and help me out.
MARKS: Well, let me ask you about that sense of community. ‘Cause you talk a lot in the book about ubuntu, which is this concept that Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks about so often. From your perspective and experience, it’s more than a concept. It’s something very real.
CARTER: Absolutely. And in South Africa it really has almost become a cliché, to talk about ubuntu. I mean, you see bumper stickers on people’s cars that say, you know, “I believe in ubuntu, don’t steal my car.” Or whatever. I mean, there’s a variety of ways that ubuntu manifests itself in pop culture today. But the folks where I lived, in Locheil, South Africa, live it in their lives everyday. The matriarch of this family that I stayed with—I would come home for, you know from work, and there would be an extra child at the table. And I would say, “Now, who is this? Is this a cousin or whatever?” And she’d say, “No, that’s Lindeway. Her parents can’t feed her this month so she’s gonna live with us.” And it’s not as it is sometimes in the United States, a check written to charity. It is bringing them in and living with them as a part of your life every day.
MARKS: I was struck by the fact you learned to speak Zulu. How did you do that? How long did that take?
CARTER: It took a little bit. And [speaks in Zulu] I’m not that great at it. But, and a lot of it’s gotten rusty. But the Peace Corps teaches people a lot. And living in the community and having those folks teach me was the way that I learned. And really, nothing that I did in the Peace Corps was more important than learning to speak the language. And one of the reasons is that it sets people at ease. It lets people bring you in and it also lets the folks that I lived with know that they’re teaching me more than I’m teaching them.
MARKS: How did you find yourself accepted as an American?
CARTER: Speaking Zulu helped so much. And it really let people know that I was interested in what they were doing, that I was, you know, humble to some extent, enough to want to learn their language and let folks talk in their own mother tongue, as they say. And I think that that helped more than anything. I was accepted almost, almost immediately. I could walk into a room and, you know, say “hello” in Zulu and folks would be super excited. And you know, when they found out I was from the United States, it was a novelty. But, but, you know, I think that, I think that I was accepted, you know, beyond my expectations for sure. I have great friends there now.
MARKS: Let me ask you about HIV, in the rural communities like the one where you were living and working. How present is HIV?
CARTER: It’s very present. In the community where I lived we, one of the things that I did while I was there was start student AIDS committees, which gave people an opportunity to talk to their peers without teachers in the room. And it also split up the girls and the boys. And we educated a small number of those students to be leaders in these discussions and the girls would be able to go and talk for the first time, really, without a parent, without a teacher there, and without any intimidation. So they had some free flowing discussions. And it was the first time that they’d ever really discussed AIDS.
MARKS: And what’s the answer? I mean, you speak in the book a little bit about the political leadership of South Africa and its response to the HIV crisis. What do you think the answer is?
CARTER: I think one of the things that we found, having asked these questions of the children—who are the people that need to be targeted, obviously—in the process of doing some of the AIDS education work that I did, we asked people what they thought about, you know, young high school-aged students, what they thought made their community a high risk community. And they all said that trying to get money was the main motivation behind a lot of the sex that was going on. And that’s something that, you know, when they talk about poverty and the extent to which, you know, that type of behavior results in AIDS transmissions, they really do mean that folks go out and send their daughters out to make some money. And that happens in my community. And that was the number one thing that the girls said. The answer on some level is, give people a reason to not get AIDS. You know, give people a reason to believe that their lives are really valuable, that they’re gonna have an exciting and fulfilling life if they don’t get AIDS. And they’ll be more motivated to really to avoid it.
MARKS: Let me go back to the Peace Corps issue. There’s a lot of debate in this country, especially post-September 11, about the extent to which Americans should expose themselves to foreign cultures and foreign experiences and overseas. What would you say to Americans about that?
CARTER: I think that September 11 and the events after that and leading up to it have opened the eyes of America to a great extent. In a variety of ways. One of the lessons in my opinion is that we do need to be more engaged in the world. And we do need to understand more about other cultures. And the way that people live their lives. And I think Americans will be more interested in it. They’ve certainly shown more of a commitment to service. I know, for example that since September 11 Peace Corps applications have risen 37 percent. And I think that there is a response. There’s certainly this, this outpouring, as you saw, of you know, desire to help their country and to act in their community. And I think there’s also a desire to learn more about the way people live outside of America.
MARKS: And you’re still in touch with the folks in Locheil?
CARTER: Yeah, I just went back there last week, as I said. And the woman that, that was, as I said, the matriarch of this family Goga that you read about in the book, she had built a preschool; she had finished, completed the construction; she doubled the number of children. There’s now almost 50 kids that learn in her preschool and that get fed twice a day there. She’s hired a new teacher. I mean, the kind of triumphs that I saw from the regular people that live out in these places where people don’t think there are triumphs. Where people think are places of despair, it was really shocking to me and phenomenally inspiring.
MCHUGH: Jason Carter, speaking to Common Ground‘s Simon Marks. His book, Power Lines: Two Years in South Africa’s Borders, is published by the National Geographic Society. It includes a foreword by his grandfather, former President Carter.
MCHUGH: You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
MCHUGH: Coming up, meet Elmo’s South African cousin.
Listen to This Segment: MP3
[The sound of the Sesame Street theme song.]
MCHUGH: The theme from Sesame Street. It’s familiar to many Americans who’ve either grown up, or had children, in the past 30 years. But Sesame Street isn’t just an American television staple; it’s a global phenomenon. There are now versions of the program in 20 different countries.
PORTER: Sesame Street is known for diversity and tackling tough life issues. This fall, Takalani Street, South Africa’s version of the popular children’s program will feature an HIV-positive Muppet. Common Ground‘s Cliff Brockman takes us behind the scenes of Takalani Street.
[A song from Takalani Street.]
BROCKMAN: Music is different. There’s an African village that doesn’t look anything like New York City. And there’s a flying train. But wait—the village is inhabited by furry puppet-like creatures that look vaguely familiar. And there’s the trademark green and yellow street sign. But it has a different name—Takalani Sesame.
Robert KNEZEVIC: It means “be happy” in Venda.
BROCKMAN: Robert Knezevic is with Sesame Workshop in New York. He helps develop international versions of Sesame Street. The newest, Takalani Sesame, is airing in South Africa.
KNEZEVIC: In early ’90s our President and CEO now went down to South Africa to see if there was anything that Sesame Street can do for the children of South Africa. And there was a long development period with consultations with various organizations and groups. And it was about in the mid-90s that USAID had come on board and come up with some funding for us to develop a local version of Sesame Street. And that was, in essence, how the origin began. It was a long and consultative process on how to really bring this kind of educational media to a developing country.
BROCKMAN: Sesame Workshop leaders say language was an exciting challenge for them. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, along with several other indigenous dialects.
DR. CHARLOTTE COLE: Language is really regarded as something that offers a wonderful richness to this project.
BROCKMAN: Dr. Charlotte Cole is in charge of education and research for the Sesame Workshop.
COLE: We met with local educators, again just as we had developed the educational curriculum. We also had a seminar on language. What resulted from the seminar was a belief that language itself could be used as a window into cultural appreciation and helping children understand the great diversity in their country. But on a practical standpoint—how then to translate that wonderful asset? English ends up sort of being the glue of the program. But children are introduced to other languages, other South African languages several ways. Many of the characters, the characters are bilingual and so when there is, for example, a counting segment, the characters might count both in English and another language. Some of the live action pieces are done where there’s more than one language that’s presented simultaneously. So, someone might start in one language and then present another language where, you know, in a voice over kind of situation.
And then there’s some other clever ways that the television producers have introduced multiple languages where you have situations where characters do what’s called “code switching,” where they start in one language and go to another language. But if you’re watching the segment through the context of the segment you can understand what’s actually happening.
A SOUND BITE FROM THE SHOW: Here is a queue of people waiting to get on the train. [Then the same phrase is repeated but in another language, not English.]
BROCKMAN: This is a Muppet character running back and forth along a line of people, or queue, as he calls it, at the train station.
A SOUND BITE FROM THE SHOW: [The Muppet character continues to speak in alternating languages.] “And this is the beginning of the queue Ha-ha! Oh, no! And now, I shall show you the end of the queue [speaks in a non-English language]
BROCKMAN: Dr. Charlotte Cole says Takalani Sesame is specifically designed to support South Africa’s national education curricula. Learning to count falls under the heading of numeracy, or basic math skills.
COLE: We worked directly with the Department of Education to develop an educational framework for the program that would really meet the national curriculum needs and the needs of the children in the country. What resulted was curriculum that gets at three basic areas, which are directly related to the national curriculum. Those are literacy, numeracy, and life, what they call life skills. The literacy element are basic fundamentals of reading and writing. Numeracy gets at very preliminary, fundamental mathematics skills such as being able to count, identifying shapes. And then the life skills, which is seen as a very critical component of the national curriculum, gets its social emotional elements, problem solving, and aspects of just being able to cope in a modern world. In some ways it’s similar to the curriculum here in the United States, but it also has a very direct focus that’s based on this national curriculum. And related to that life skills piece is an appreciation for South Africa’s diversity, and that comes across very strongly in the program.
A SOUND BITE FROM THE SHOW: [The characters are speaking a non-English language, then speak English. Then Neno starts the conversation.]
“When can Zikwe take Neno for a ride? Neno wants to go for a ride.”
“I’ll take you for a ride as soon as I work out a way to fix this engine. Okay! Ha-ha! Let me try tightening these loose bolts here. Okay, Neno!”
BROCKMAN: Teaching basic skills is primarily the job of a cast of puppets—or Muppets to be more precise. Robert Knezevic says Takalani Sesame has its own unique set of characters.
KNEZEVIC: The one character that could be familiar to our American audience is a character by the name of Neno in South Africa, and he is known as Elmo’s South African cousin. And of course he’s the cute little red fuzzy monster. There is Zikwe, a fuzzy blue ageless monster who is in fact a taxi driver and he has an old VW bus on the set, which of course never can get started.
A SOUND BITE FROM THE SHOW: [The sound of a car unsuccessfully trying to start. Then Neno starts the conversation.]
“Why aren’t we moving?”
“We need to find another way to try and fix this engine.”
BROCKMAN: Other characters include a Big Bird-like mongoose, and Zuzu, a young girl enamored with learning.
[The cast of Takalani Sesame sings a song.]
BROCKMAN: Takalani Street isn’t limited to television; it’s the first Sesame program to have a radio version.
COLE: South Africa has a long tradition of good educational radio programming.
BROCKMAN: This again is Dr. Charlotte Cole.
COLE: The reach of radio is much greater than television and there was a consistent feeling among the people that we talked to that television would not be enough. That if we really wanted to reach the most disadvantaged populations, which was of course our goal, radio would be the best way to do that.
KNEZEVIC: They are the same characters. We certainly use a lot of songs. And of course it’s the same curriculum that we use. It is in essence a version of Takalani without pictures. Songs obviously play a large part and language obviously plays a large part. In the beginning there were three local radio stations that aired this. And we, of course, consulted with the local radio stations on how best to reach and format a radio program that would appeal to that radio station’s audience. We have developed what seems to be working. And now in the new season we are now adding an additional language and an additional station to reach even further into the country. But yes, it is in essence Sesame Street on radio, with all of the humor, with all of the education, and with all of the singing, and you know, and the excitement that you would find in television.
BROCKMAN: Both Knezevic and Cole add the radio program is more than just airing the audio portion of the TV show. The radio programs, they say, are specifically designed for the ear—like this instrumental song.
[The sound of a song with lots of sound effects, like banging, clanging, and a slide whistle.]
BROCKMAN: Also, unique to the South African version is a training component and supplemental materials. The project distributes some 10,000 posters, books, and teacher’s guides. The idea is to help teachers train parents to work with their kids at home. The long-term goal of Takalani Sesame is to become self-sustaining. The program is already produced in South Africa. Much of the project is currently funded by the United States Agency for International Development, along with a South African insurance company. Eventually Knezevic and Cole say they hope all the money to finance the program will be raised in South Africa. The immediate future appears bright. The South African Broadcasting Company recently agreed to air Takalani Sesame for at least another three years. For Common Ground, I’m Cliff Brockman.
[The sound of the Takalani Sesame theme song.]
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security