Africa: Should We Be Involved?

As senior vice president, Dr. Joseph C. Kennedy directed Africare's international programs from the founding in 1971 until his retirement in early 1999; currently, Kennedy is secretary of the Africare Board of Directors. The following are excerpts from a speech delivered in February 1986, Black History Month, before black employees of the National Air and Space Administration (NASA).

Editor's note: This speech was delivered in the midst of the Africa-wide drought of the mid-1980s, affecting Ethiopia and some two dozen other nations, and in the wake of the Gramm-Rudman budget-cutting legislation in the United States. The times were somewhat different. The numbers quoted below have changed somewhat as well. Yet the premise holds true: “Whether we like it or not, our lives and out destinies are intertwined with the poor and hungry of Africa and the rest of the world.” (May 2000)

Today, there are over four billion people in the world. One billion, living mainly in the industrialized world, earn $5,000 and above per year. They are the well-off, the well-fed and the powerful.

Nearly three billion people, living in what is called the Third World, are the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed. They earn less than $500 per year.

In Africa, the world's most richly endowed continent — with gold, diamonds, uranium, chromium, cobalt, oil and some of the finest coffee and cocoa — the average income is $450 a year. In many of the countries of West Africa, people earn no more than $50 per year. There are people who will live and die, and never have any cash.

As I travel around the U.S., more and more I am asked, “Why should we be concerned about the poor and hungry in Africa, in light of some of our problems here?”

Many of us are in distress as the discussions rage over budget cuts and deficits, military spending, social programs and unemployment. “Gramm-Rudman will get us all! Why should we be concerned?”

Should we be concerned about the poor and the hungry of Africa?

Should we be concerned about the farmer in a distant village in Niger, about the cattle herder in Mali who works hard and then sees his efforts destroyed because there isn't enough rain?

Should we be concerned about the women who rise early in the morning, who walk four miles to a muddy, murky stream to get water, who put it in a bucket and carry it the four miles back to their village — simply because there is no nearby well?

Should we be concerned about the rice farmer in Zambia or the fisherman in Zimbabwe, who could feed their families if they could only get the money to buy seeds or better nets?

Should we be concerned about the African mother who must bear 10 children in order to see five live?

Should we be concerned about people we shall never see, never know? How do we answer?

Some will speak pragmatically of a global community and mutual dependence, of expanding U.S.-Third World trade and the creation of jobs, of strategic materials and locations. Some will speak of the man who was set upon the road to Jericho, was ignored by many but was aided by the Samaritan.

We may respond in many ways, but the answer must be, “Yes, we are concerned.”

Whether we like it or not, our lives and our destinies are intertwined with the poor and hungry of Africa and the rest of the world. We may talk about a Third World, a First World, a Fourth World — but we live in One World. We know that where people are poor, hungry and in despair, the seeds of discord and external intervention are sown. The recent past and present remind us that no place is so remote or distant that it can't ensnare us all.

There is another question I hear: “Even if we are concerned, can the people of Africa really be helped?” There is the debt crisis, the lack of hard currency and a decline in food production. Even in the best of times, nearly 70 percent of the people don't have enough food to eat.

And we know that these are not the best of times. Over the past year, Africa has suffered through its worst drought in 100 years. The lives of 150 million people, one-third of the total population of 30 countries, have been at risk.

In Ethiopia, we remember the dying and suffering from our television programs and news reporting. Eight million people faced death by starvation; seven million remained in their villages, going to food-distribution points every two weeks. At least a million totally abandoned their villages, walking to feeding shelters. One of the most tragic sights I have ever seen (and Africare has worked with refugees, has over 200 programs in 17 African countries) were the huddled masses of people, sitting out in the cold without blankets, waiting to live or to die in the feeding shelters of Ethiopia.

Thanks to the involvement of the international community — governments of the world, the United Nations, private organizations such as Africare, USA for Africa's “We Are the World” effort, churches and individuals — mass starvation was averted.

Then the rains came to Ethiopia: the best in 10 years. And like magic, the dry, barren land was transformed into beautiful green valleys. And the people went back to their villages.

The rains came, but the needs remain. Nearly six million Ethiopians will starve to death in 1986, if they do not receive emergency food aid. Long-term development needs remain.

Africa is a continent in trouble, but it is not a continent in despair. The resources are there. There is the land: Africa is two-and-a-half times the size of the United States. There is the water: We know of the lakes and the rivers, the mighty Niger, the Congo, the Nile, the Zambezie. Along their banks and flood plains are millions of acres of land, which could be productive if those waters were tamed and controlled. We know, too, of the deserts, the Sahara and the Kalahari: What we don't generally realize is that, underneath these sands, there is enough water to fill all the lakes of the world. And then, there are the people.

What is needed is technical assistance. Certainly, if we have the technology to walk on the moon, to literally reach out and touch the stars and challenge eternity — then we have the technology to improve agricultural techniques, reduce illness, hold back the desert and harness the energies of the wind and the sun in Africa. What is also needed is financial assistance.

As an American of African descent, I am reminded of the poem by Countee Cullen, called “Heritage”:

“What is Africa to me:
Sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

Africa is our roots. Africa is our heritage. Africa has given us gifts of song, patience, endurance, humanism, humility, caring and sharing. Africa has given us the color of our skin. And if we lose all else, the color of our skin is abiding: Much of our existence revolves, and will continue to revolve, around the color of our skin.

There are four billion people in the world. Three billion are Black, brown, yellow: poor, hungry, dispossessed. When we look around here in America at our Black youth (unemployed, unable to read, teenage mothers without husbands), at the state of our Black colleges, at our place in this society as a whole, we see that Blacks in America are also the poor, the hungry and the dispossessed.

Yet we, who are gathered here this afternoon, are special. As Black American professionals, we are more highly educated, have higher incomes, spend more and live better than nearly 99 percent of the people on the face of the earth. We must take heed:

Here am I, send me.
Who will speak for our sons and daughters, the elderly in America?
Who will speak for our brothers and sisters in Africa?
Who will speak for those who seek Freedom, Justice, Equality?
Who, if not you and me?