Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations

Unfortunately, to many people outside of Africa, the concept of a black or African civilization doesn’t register. Despite being the cradle of humanity, with a history spanning tens of thousands of years, few could name or envision any of its numerous cultures, kingdoms, and empires. The reasons range from the legacy of European colonialism—which downplayed, overshadowed, or even destroyed native cultures—to the simple fact that many African civilizations lacked written records.

Well, the West African nation of Senegal, long considered one of the continent’s great success stories, is looking to rectify that. A couple years ago, it opened the 150,000-square foot Musée des Civilisations noires (MCN), French for the Museum of Black Civilizations, which exhibits the cultures and accomplishments of African civilizations both in and off the continent (including the massive communities in the U.S., Brazil, and the Caribbean).

Located in the capital of Dakar, the museum’s distinct circular structure is itself an homage to African culture, being modeled after the traditional houses of Senegal’s Casamance region.

The Museum of Black Civilisations will open on Thursday in Dakar [Courtesy: Museum of African Civilisations]

As Al Jazeera reported, the museum covers a multitude of black and African cultural movements, artistic styles, and historical artifacts:

Its 14,000 square metres of floor space and capacity for 18,000 exhibits puts it in league with the National Museum of African American History in Washington. Its range of exhibits is, however, more far-reaching. 

The high-ceilinged exhibition halls include Africa Now, showcasing contemporary African art and The Caravan and the Caravel, which tells the story of the trade in human beings – across the Atlantic and through the Sahara – that gave rise to new communities of Africans in the Americas.

These diaspora communities — such as in Brazil, the United States and the Caribbean — are recognised as African civilisations in their own right here.

“Memory in Motion” by Haitian artist Philippe Dodard describes the stages of enslavement from Africa to the slave ship to the Caribbean plantation with floating eyes, wandering souls and chained hands and feet in black India ink against a white background.

Women of the Nation showcases women of African descent, including Angela Davis.

The scale of the project follows that of the Dakar Art Biennale and the Renaissance Monument, in which successive Senegalese presidents have cemented their legacies with works of culture, Mbow says.

“All of the phases of the inauguration of the museum is done by Africans,” he says.

Smithsonian Magazine provides more details about the exhibits (as of 2018), and notes the museum’s potential for housing artifacts taken during European colonialism, most of which remain in museums or institutions across the West.

Inside the Museum of Black Civilizations, visitors will find ambitious displays spanning both centuries and continents. The exhibition “Cradle of Humankind,” for instance, looks back to human origins in Africa and features early stone tools. “African Civilizations: Continuous Creation of Humanity” delves into the history of masks and “the traditions of Sufism and Christianity in Africa,” according to Brown. Another exhibition hall, “The Caravan and Caravel,” explores how African communities in the Americas grew out of the slave trade. Among the contemporary artworks to appear in the new museum are pieces by the Cuban artist Elio Rodriguez, South Africa’s Andries Botha, and the Haitian artist Philippe Dodard.

The collections, however, are not complete. The MCN has room for some 18,000 artworks, but according to Aaron Ross of Reuters, many of the galleries are not filled.

Now more than ever, it seems possible that the empty space could one day be taken up by African artifacts currently held in European institutions. In late November, French President Emmanuel Macron received a landmark report—written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr—recommending that he move forward with his plan to fully repatriate African artworks taken without consent from their countries of origin during the colonial era. Senegal was one of the first countries to subsequently request the large-scale return of its looted objects.

“We are ready to find solutions with France,” Abdou Latif Coulibaly, Senegal’s culture minister, said, “but if 10,000 pieces are identified in the collections, we are asking for all 10,000.”

This project was the culmination of a decades-long effort begun in 1966 by Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, a noted poet and cultural theorist who envisioned his newly minted country as a center of black civilization worldwide.

In the following weeks, African luminaries such as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and writer Wole Soyinka would converge on the Senegalese capital, as would others from the wider African diaspora: Jazz great Duke Ellington, the Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire, Barbadian novelist George Lamming and American writers Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka.

Dakar would briefly play host to some of the leading black movements of the day. African liberation, the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz, and the negritude movement, of which Senghor was also a leading figure, were represented. Despite their differences, they shared an optimism that people of African descent, wherever they were, would define their own futures.

And as that utopian spirit hung in the air, Senghor stepped up to present a bold, new vision for a post-colonial Africa. Art and culture ought to be at the heart of development. And central to this would be a museum in Senegal that would present the past and present experiences of black people everywhere.

Notwithstanding its immense investment in art and culture—which at one point accounted for a quarter of all government spending—Senegal just couldn’t get the project off the ground. China stepped in as the main backer. Only when China stepped in as the main financial backer did Senghor’s dream finally materialize (albeit seventeen years after his death). China’s appetite for Africa’s abundant natural resources is well known and controversial, although the museum says it will operate independently.

Regardless, this is an important step towards giving the world a richer and more holistic view of human civilization, and giving Africans and their descendants the world over an opportunity to learn more about their own subsumed culture. The museum has already helped strengthen calls for France to return looted cultural heritage back to its former colony, which other African countries have echoed.

Africa’s Little Known COVID-19 Success Stories

As many of the world’s wealthiest countries continue to battle COVID-19, many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa—considered a looming public health crisis given its poverty and lack of healthcare infrastructure—are actually doing a more than decent job at keeping the worst case scenarios at bay. As the Guardian reports:

Senegal is in a good position because its Covid-19 response planning began in earnest in January, as soon as the first international alert on the virus went out. The government closed the borders, initiated a comprehensive plan of contact tracing and, because it is a nation of multiple-occupation households, offered a bed for every single coronavirus patient in either a hospital or a community health facility.

As a result, this nation of 16 million people has had only 30 deaths. Each death has been acknowledged individually by the government, and condolences paid to the family. You can afford to see each death as a person when the numbers are at this level. At every single one of those stages, the UK did the opposite, and is now facing a death toll of more than 35,000.

Ghana, with a population of 30 million, has a similar death toll to Senegal, partly because of an extensive system of contact tracing, utilising a large number of community health workers and volunteers, and other innovative techniques such as “pool testing”, in which multiple blood samples are tested and then followed up as individual tests only if a positive result is found. The advantages in this approach are now being studied by the World Health Organization.

Of all places, Ghana is also the first country in the world to utilize drones to ensure its tests reach distant and poorly connected rural areas.

AS NPR elaborates, Senegal is a particularly exemplary pandemic success story—thanks in large part to the much-maligned WHO, as well as the CDC and UNICEF.

Senegal’s response to the coronavirus is notable not only for its humanity but for its thoroughness. For example, each newly diagnosed individual – no matter how mild or severe the case – is provided a hospital or health center bed where he or she stays isolated and observed– a key element to Senegal’s strategy to contain the virus.

“Senegal is doing quite well, and we were impressed at the beginning at the full engagement and commitment by the head of state,” says Michel Yao, program manager for emergency response for the World Health Organization Africa.

Officials from both Senegal’s ministry of health and WHO stress that the wheels of the response team were set in motion five years ago in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Yao explains: “What we advised countries to have in place following Ebola in West Africa was to have an operations center, to have in one place the required information for effective decision making. It’s quite an important tool to control the crisis, and this was a good plan from Senegal to have this structure.”

Senegal set up its Health Emergency Operation Center (also known by its French acronym, COUS), in December 2014, in response to the Ebola outbreak spreading in nearby countries. At the start of this year, the center had some 23 staff members – five of them doctors.

Over the past five years, that center, working with the ministry of health and the support of international partners such as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF, have run simulations of mock outbreaks and crafted emergency measures to activate in case of an epidemic.

Even Rwanda, better known for its horrific genocide over 25 years ago, has rolled out robots in its COVID-19 response.

Launched on Tuesday, May 19 at the Kanyinya COVID-19 Treatment Centre by the Ministry of Health with support from the United Nations Development Programme, the five high-tech robots can perform a number of tasks related to COVID-19 management, including mass temperature screening, delivering food and medication to patients, capturing data, detecting people who are not wearing masks, among others.

Made by Zora Bots, a Belgian company specialised in robotics solutions, they are designed with various advanced features to support doctors and nurses at designated treatment centres, and can also be leveraged into screening sites in the country.

Of course, it helps that these countries are relatively wealthy and peaceful; with the exception of Rwanda, they are also fairly robust democracies.

While many African countries are vulnerable to COVID-19, it’s worth highlighting how much better the continent is weathering this crisis than expected (in part thanks to hard lessons learned from past outbreaks).

The Developing Countries Winning Against COVID-19

It’s been heartening to see that many poorer countries or regions are faring a lot better than expected. For all the death and suffering that’s occured, it’s important to acknowledge the deaths and pain that haven’t—and to derive some important lessons, since these are places that don’t have our wealth and resources.

Costa Rica has had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. It was the first Latin American country to record a case—which is actually indicative of its open and efficient monitoring—and citizens have been able to lean on its universal healthcare system, on which it spends a higher proportion of its GDP than the average rich country (and subsequently has one of the world’s highest life expectancies). It implemented nationwide lockdowns and tests quickly, and has done a good enough job that it stared partially lifting restrictions as early as May 1st—albeit with strict restrictions (only a quarter of seats can be filled in sporting venues, while small businesses are limited in the number of customers they can serve).

The country’s President Carlos Alvarado has been transparent: “We have had relative and fragile success, but we cannot let our guard down.” Hence the borders will remain closed until at least this Friday, while restrictions will remain on driving to keep the virus from spreading: Driving at night is banned and drivers may only drive on certain days depending on their license plate number.

Ghana and Rwanda—which hardly come to mind as world-class innovators—each teamed up with an American company to become the first countries in the world to deliver medical aid and tests via drones to out-of-reach rural areas. Doctors and health facilities use an app to order blood, vaccines, and protective equipment that get delivered in just minutes. Rwanda, which has become a little known but prominent tech hub, started using drones as early as 2016 for 21 hospitals; now the drones are used to serve close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana.

Vietnam (with almost 100 million people) and the Indian state of Kerala (roughly the size of California), both learned from previous outbreaks and acted quickly and decisively to contain the outbreak. As the Economist magazine put it, despite their poverty, they have “a long legacy of investment in public health and particularly in primary care, with strong, centralised management, an institutional reach from city wards to remote villages and an abundance of skilled personnel.” Lack of wealth did not stop them from making the necessary investments.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that’s hardly a household name, has pioneered remote learning. Two days after its lockdown, the Ministry of Public Education announced an unprecedented plan to roll out virtual courses and resources for its 6.1 million school students. In a matter of days, it made available over 350 video lessons to go live on national TV channels; the lessons are available in the dominant languages of Uzbek and Russian as well as sign language. Free data access has been granted to educational platforms, making them accessible for all school students and their parents. An average of 100 video classes are being prepared daily.

While it is too soon to tell what’s in store for these nations in the long term, they have proven that you don’t need lots of wealth and power to develop an effective and humane response to crises. If anything, their poverty and historic challenges have made them more resourceful and decisive, thus providing useful lessons for the rest of the world.

The Pandemic Success Story No One Has Heard Of

Senegal is the pandemic success story no one has heard of—which actually tells you how successful it has been! The much-maligned WHO, as well as the CDC and UNICEF, played a key role in that.

In this country of 16 million known for its peaceful democracy and sense of community, Senegal’s response to the coronavirus is notable not only for its humanity but for its thoroughness. For example, each newly diagnosed individual – no matter how mild or severe the case – is provided a hospital or health center bed where he or she stays isolated and observed– a key element to Senegal’s strategy to contain the virus.

“Senegal is doing quite well, and we were impressed at the beginning at the full engagement and commitment by the head of state,” says Michel Yao, program manager for emergency response for the World Health Organization Africa.

Officials from both Senegal’s ministry of health and WHO stress that the wheels of the response team were set in motion five years ago in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Yao explains: “What we advised countries to have in place following Ebola in West Africa was to have an operations center, to have in one place the required information for effective decision making. It’s quite an important tool to control the crisis, and this was a good plan from Senegal to have this structure.”

Senegal set up its Health Emergency Operation Center (also known by its French acronym, COUS), in December 2014, in response to the Ebola outbreak spreading in nearby countries. At the start of this year, the center had some 23 staff members – five of them doctors.

Over the past five years, that center, working with the ministry of health and the support of international partners such as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF, have run simulations of mock outbreaks and crafted emergency measures to activate in case of an epidemic.

Along with Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala, Senegal proves that wealth alone is not a predictor for a successful pandemic response. It also shows the importance of working with international partners to get as many different perspectives, resources, and knowledge as possible.

The Singapore of Africa

It’s amazing how the fate of nations could change in the span of decades. In 1994, the tiny central African nation of Rwanda seemed to suddenly succumb to a level of carnage not seen since the Second World War (notwithstanding other under-the-radar conflicts like the Congo War).

Over a period of just 100 days, up to 1 million people were slaughtered by paramilitaries and even friends and neighbors, mostly by machetes and small arms. Already poor and politically dysfunctional, Rwanda was ignored and let down by the international community even in its most calamitous state—how could it ever recover from such an orgy of bloodshed and neglect?

Well, close to thirty years later, recover it has. While undemocratic and undeveloped, it has made incredible strides for a nation that faced one of the most horrific genocides in human history. How could Rwanda, of all places, become so stable and economically sophisticated?

“There are a few fundamentals you have to understand. Firstly, our country is the same size as the U.S. state of Maryland, but our population is around 12 million people. Secondly, we have no natural resources — no oil or gold or anything else that countries benefit from,” explains Claudette Irere, director general at Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth and Information and Communication Technology. “This means the only way for us to move forward and to build our future is to empower people and make good use of technology. With this strategy, we are shifting our country from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based economy.”

Rwanda is beginning to leapfrog developed countries in fundamental areas such as smart city infrastructure, vocational training, and strategic foreign investment. As of January this year, 4G/LTE networks cover more than 95 percent of the country, and a mix of public and private players are working together on a national roll-out of fiber-optic broadband. As its citizens and businesses get connected, Kigali is becoming an African hub for multinational tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

[…]

Between 2001 and 2014, Rwanda achieved an annual growth rate of 9 percent and earned a global reputation as an attractive business destination. According to the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Index, Rwanda has risen above countries like Italy, Belgium, and Israel to become the 41st most business-friendly nation on earth. Rwanda was also the index’s biggest business reformer, with activities like starting up, registering property, paying taxes, and enforcing contracts all becoming increasingly easier in the country.

“Urbanization is becoming more of a challenge for things like traffic and public transportation. This creates a lot of opportunities for technology and innovation,” Irere says. “Working with global companies that lead in areas such as the internet of things (IoT) is helping us understand the problems we must solve before our city grows beyond our control.”

Kigali has even developed a culture of digital entrepreneurship that seems straight out of Silicon Valley.

One local company that’s making the most of Kigali’s digital infrastructure is ride-hailing app SafeMotos, founded by a Canadian entrepreneur who fell in love with the city. Road traffic collisions are a significant problem in Rwanda and its neighboring countries, with 40 percent more road deaths occurring per 100,000 people than in low- and middle-income nations in any other part of the world. To combat this problem, SafeMotos provides drivers with smartphones and pulls data from an app to measure their performance on trips. Customers are connected only with drivers who meet a certain safety threshold — an algorithmic score of at least 90 out of 100.

To be sure, Rwanda is far from idyllic. The moniker “Singapore of Africa” is apt in more ways than one: Not only is it an island of relative stability, development, and technological progress, but like the southeast Asian city state, it is also low-key authoritarian. Its president, Paul Kagame, who is credited with helping defeat the genocidal regime and carrying the country though to its recovery, has been in power since 1994—and is slated to remain in power until 2034, thanks to changes in the constitution that he has presided over. He won 99 percent of the vote in the most recent election, while critics from journalists to government officials have been imprisoned for their insolence; some may even have been assassinated.

The country is even pioneering the use of drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities and enforce its COVID-19 lockdown. By the standards of Africa and even the world, Rwanda has one of the lowest rates of corruption, which no doubt accounts for a lot of its business success.

“The most obvious example of this was the inquest into the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence, who was strangled in a South African five-star hotel on New Year’s Eve 2013. In January 2019 the case opened in a courtroom on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a city where every news agency and broadcaster, from AP to Xinhua, AFP to Reuters, the BBC to DPA, has an office. It was a story on a par with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in terms of international interest, massively diplomatically embarrassing to the Rwandan government — the South African Hawks hold it directly responsible — and the courtroom was a ten minute taxi ride from various well-staffed newsrooms. When I turned up, I was astonished by the pathetic press turnout. At first I assumed that the victim’s family and lawyers just hadn’t been very efficient at getting the word out, but if anything, press attendance got worse as the days passed and more and more hugely awkward details — all of them wonderfully quotable as they were being revealed in court — were brought to light. A massive opportunity missed.”

Such repression is not only obviously unjust and problematic in its own right, but it threatens the country’s incredible progress over the last 26 years since the genocide. Rwandans have demonstrated remarkable resilience, innovation, and creativity, but all that will be hard to maintain under the shadow of such a paranoid and stifling regime. I can only hope this promising success story can expand to more than just economics and include a free and democratic country—where such potential and prosperity can truly be unleashed.

Source: Lauren Razavi

The Tiny African Country Taking on a Genocidal Government

Meet Abubacarr Tambadou, the Justice Minister of The Gambia—a tiny African country barely twice the size of Delaware and with fewer people than Miami-Dade County—who is taking on one of the worst genocides in the 21st century.

Under his direction, The Gambia is the only country to file a claim in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar for violating the Genocide Convention through its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, which has killed tens of thousands and driven out over a million more. Tambadou also convinced the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to back the effort, bringing a fourth of the world behind him.

Born in 1972 as one of the middle children of 18 siblings, he considered himself lucky for his middle-class upbringing. He had no intention of studying law—having excelled in sports all his life—but the first offer he got was a law program at a British university. After graduating in the 1990s, he returned home to be a public prosecutor.

At the time, Gambia was ruled by a vicious dictator who frequently killed and tortured real or perceived political opponents. In 2000, when security forces killed over a dozen student protestors, Tambadou was roused into pursuing human rights work.

To that end, he soon left Gambia to join the United Nations’ Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where he successfully prosecuted some of the genocide’s most notorious perpetrators, including former army chief Augustin Bizimungu, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

As he told the BBC, what he was doing “was not just prosecuting the Rwandan genocidaires”, but “was a way for us Africans to send a message to our leaders… I saw it as more of an African struggle for justice and accountability than a Rwandan one.”

Sure enough, in 2017, Gambia’s dictator fell after 22 years of power. Opposition leader Adama Barrow took power promising to restore human rights and address corruption, prompting Tambadou to return to help lead this effort.

“Twenty-two years of a brutal dictatorship has taught us how to use our voice. We know too well how it feels like to be unable to tell your story to the world, to be unable to share your pain in the hope that someone out there will hear and help.”

A devout Muslim with a prominent prayer bump on his forehead, Tambadou acknowledged that Islamic solidarity was a factor behind Gambia and the OIC’s actions but emphasized that “this is about our humanity ultimately”.

Indeed, it was after visiting a refugee camp full in Bangladesh of genocide survivors that he was spurred to act. Last spring, Gambia foreign minister pulled out at the last minute from the annual conference of the OIC in Bangladesh, sending Tambadou instead. While there, he joined an OIC delegation visiting overcrowded refugee camps, hearing stories of children burnt alive and women systematically raped; he claimed to even smell the stench of dead bodies from across the border.

“I saw genocide written all over these stories”, he said in an interview, no doubt making the connection between these accounts and what he had learned after ten years prosecuting Rwandan perpetrators for similar crimes.

To that end, his case against Myanmar—which took the world by storm—has for the first time forced its leaders to answer for their alleged crimes. Though the case will no doubt take years to resolve—given the high bar set to prove genocide—the ICJ has since ordered Myanmar to cease its actions against the Rohingya, not buying the argument that it’s simply the result of a broader military conflict.

Yes, I know: It’s a toothless order given the nature of international law. But it’s powerful nonetheless, as many Rohingya themselves agree:

Yet the mere fact that it took place at all counts as a huge moral victory for the Rohingya. For the first time, this group — which has endured decades of systematic discrimination at the hands of its own government — experienced a fair hearing from an impartial tribunal. The power of that realization prompted tearful reactions from Rohingya activists in The Hague.

“It was very emotional to see the military facing charges in a court for the first time,” U.K.-based Rohingya activist Tun Khin told me. “The military have been getting away with human rights violations against us for decades. We have worked so hard for this day.”

And to think it began with a public prosecutor of a small country most have never heard of.

To that end, Mr Tambadou thinks this is the time for The Gambia to reclaim its position on the world stage. “We want to lead by example” in human rights. “The case at ICJ is Gambia showing the world you don’t have to have military power or economic power to denounce oppressions. Legal obligation and moral responsibility exist for all states, big or small.”

Sources: BBC, Reuters, CFR

Ethiopia Rising

Long a byword for abject poverty and famine — issues the country continues to struggle with to this day — Ethiopia may soon be better known as one of the greatest success stories in the developing world, a model for reform, democratic transition, and socioeconomic development.

First, as The Economist reported, the country of 100 million (the most populous in Africa after Nigeria) has unveiled the sort of robust social program one would expect of a wealthier nation:

Ethiopia’s Urban Productive Safety Net Project […] was launched in 2017 and is among the largest social programmes in sub-Saharan Africa (outside South Africa) designed specifically for urban areas. About 400,000 poor Ethiopians in 11 cities are already enrolled. The government hopes it will eventually help 4.7m people in almost 1,000 towns. Beneficiaries are selected by a neighbourhood committee based on how poor and vulnerable they are. In addition to the paid work, they also receive training. Those who want to start their own businesses are given grants.

Of course, there are plenty of Ethiopians slipping through the cracks, and the program can only go so far given the country’s poverty and political underdevelopment. But it is still a worthy effort that speaks to the nation’s maturation and increasing stability.

Ethiopia has also appointed its first female president — among the few female leaders in the continent — who in turn is spearheading national efforts to improve gender equality and internal security; a newly-established Ministry of Peace, also headed by a woman, will tackle the country’s endemic problems with violence and abuses by security forces.

Speaking of peace, the nation has restored diplomatic ties with its neighbor and former breakaway region Eritrea, following two decades of tension and acrimony after a bloody border war in 1998. Communities on both sides of the once militarized border have reported unprecedented freedom of trade and movement.

Its dynamic but rancorous capital, Addis Ababa, is launching a crowd-funding campaign to create more green spaces, bike paths, and walkways. It has tripled the size of its airport in a bid to become Africa’s leading gateway. With the help of China, the country will launch and maintain its first satellite, aimed at monitoring and collecting vital data on climate and weather related patterns in its infamously vulnerable ecology.

Just a week ago, Ethiopians even broke records in reforestation efforts, planting over 350 million trees in just one day.

This bevy of milestones and changes has occured under the administration of Abiy Ahmed, who rose to power from seemingly nowhere, in a country long bedeviled by ineffectual if not repressive rulers:

In the year since Abiy rose to power, the word “change” has come to define many things about Ethiopia. Under the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the decades-long tightening vise of repression finally led to widespread anti-government demonstrations in 2015. Mohammed was part of a diaspora movement of writers and activists who used their contacts to bypass the internet and social media shutdown in Ethiopia and document the growing unrest. In February 2018, in a bid to calm intensifying tensions and pave way for dialogue, then premier Hailemariam Desalegn suddenly resigned.

On April 2, Abiy, just 41 then, became prime minister and Africa’s youngest leader. In moves best described as salvific, he helped turned the trajectory of Africa’s second most-populous state. He made peace with long-time regional rivals like Eritrea and Egypt, released journalists, invited back opposition groups, acknowledged that prisoners suffered torture and abuse, and increased the place of women in power. He also promised to open up the economy for private investment, kickstarted a green initiative to transform the capital, and rolled out a visa-on-arrival push for African travelers.

Emboldened by these reforms, donor groups returned, with Ethiopia reportedly attracting a record $13 billion of inflows in the past year. Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa, who protested the previous government at the finish line at the Rio Olympics in 2016, also went back. During his East Africa tour last month, French president Emmanuel Macron commended Abiy’s transformative agenda, saying he “profoundly changed” Paris’s vision of Addis Ababa. Human Rights Watch staff who cover Ethiopia were also permitted to visit Ethiopia for the first time in eight years.

“It was refreshing how open people were to discuss politically sensitive issues, which is in sharp contrast to the past where there was much fear about speaking openly,” says HRW senior researcher Felix Horne.

As noted in The Economist piece, Ethiopia’s status as Africa’s second largest country (after Nigeria), and as being among the few to have retained its independence from Europe, gives it considerable influence throughout the continent and the developing world, and may perhaps inspire other nations to implement similar reforms despite their challenges.

Of course, Abiy’s markedly progressive leadership, and all the positive changes it seems to be engendering, remains tenuous. The country faces incredible challenges in virtually every sector, including a strong but highly unequal economy, ethnic tensions, endemic corruption, and the ravages of climate change. It will take more than one man or one administration, no matter how ambitious, to tackle so many pressing issues.

But given what we are seeing so far, it is safe to assume that whatever hiccups or roadblocks get in the way, the people of Ethiopia have displayed an incredible degree of resilience, resourcefulness, and hope that will see them through the 21st century. The world will be watching and learning.

Ghana’s Public Health Milestone

Here’s the sort of progress that rarely makes the news: Ghana, a country of about 30 million best known for being the first African colony to achieve independence, has now earned another distinction–eliminating one of the nastiest infectious diseases in the world. As The Telegraph reports:

Trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world, is spread by flies and human touch, and is linked to poverty and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. It starts as a bacterial infection and, if left untreated, causes the eyelashes to scratch the surface of the eye, causing great pain and, potentially, irreversible blindness.

In 2000, about 2.8 million people in Ghana were estimated to be at risk of the disease but the World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially recognised that the country has eliminated it.

The WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed the country’s achievement: “Although there’s more work to do elsewhere, the validation of elimination in Ghana allows another previously heavily-endemic country to celebrate significant success.”

Ghana eliminated the disease through a partnership between its ministry of health, the WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and charities. Around 3.3 million doses of an antibiotic effective against trachoma were donated by Pfizer, one of the world’s larges pharmaceutical companies; another 6,000 had surgery to treat more advanced stages of the disease. (Amazing what civil society can accomplish when it comes together.)

Thanks to these efforts,Ghana now joins six other countries where trachoma is endemic — Oman, Morocco, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal — that have eliminated the disease.

Nevertheless, trachoma still remains a significant global problem: over 200 million people across 41 countries (mostly in Africa) are at risk of infection. Ghana and several other nations have shown the way. Here is hoping more health agencies, pharma companies, and charities take note.

Fifty Cents to Avoid a Lifetime of Debilitation

Some weeks ago, I read a piece in The Economist that has stayed with me. It was about the efforts of Sierra Leone, among the world’s poorest countries, to combat “neglected tropical diseases” (NTD), a family of 17 diverse communicable diseases that afflict over 1.5 billion in tropical and subtropical areas worldwide.

It featured one victim named Hannah Taylor, who woke up one day with a fever, followed by her legs swelling up to four times their normal size. The physical damage was irreversible, and the subsequent appearance and putrid smell led to her being ostracized by her community. She was a victim of lymphatic filariasis (a.k.a. elephantiasis), a mosquito-borne infection that could have been treated safely with a pill costing no more than fifty cents before it progressed.

But instead, the microscopic worms infested her body, debilitating her. For years she thought she had been a victim of evil witchcraft and was deeply depressed.

Eventually, Taylor put on a brave face and campaigned to raise awareness about the disease, its causes, and why victims shouldn’t be stigmatized. She passed away some weeks prior to the publishing of the article; she was quoted as expressing  happiness that her children would not suffer the way she would, thanks to Sierra Leone’s remarkable progress in fighting the disease.

Progress or not, it is incredible to think that billions of lives are negatively impacted by something as mundane to most of us as a mosquito bite. It is even more incredible that a mere fifty cents – spare change we’d throw in a tip jar without a thought – is all that stands between someone and a debilitating disease. It is utterly senseless that in a world with so much wealth and resources sloshing around that we have not been able to address this vast disparity in health outcomes and quality of life.

 

When Schizophrenia Isn’t a Mental Illness

Culture may play a huge role in how schizophrenia manifests, according to one study published in a leading British psychiatric journal. It interviewed 60 adults diagnosed with schizophrenia – 20 each from the U.S., Ghana, and India – and found one stark difference between the nationalities: while American subjects were likelier to report violent, sadistic, and hateful voices, most of the subjects from Africa and Asian claimed to hear generally positive voices – which not a single American reported. Continue reading