It Takes Heart to Embrace Africa

Columnist John Balzar was a Nairobi-based correspondent for The Times in 1994-95

If asked to identify the private citizen I admire most, I'd close my eyes and almost see her face. She is tired, sweaty, weather-beaten, probably scared and perhaps recovering from a bout of malaria. At an African refugee camp, she looks upon a line of desperately hungry, blank-eyed children and their mothers. She will feed them. But there are more hungry children and mothers than there is food. She will feed the sickest first and then the others. She will work into the night and then collapse into a dirty cot 10 time zones from home and worry whether there will be more food donations arriving tomorrow.

She is a relief worker.

If asked which public official I most admire at this moment, I'd say Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

With something of the same generosity of spirit that drives the relief worker to a refugee camp, he has bucked the isolationist trend in his own country, and in his own administration, to pursue a personal and quixotic campaign to get America engaged in Africa.

Africa. You need heart to embrace it. And these Americans stand out because we do not live in big-hearted times right now.

Powell's just-concluded four-nation trip to Africa is a high point for George W. Bush's new administration. It was the first time since the inauguration that I felt my government addressed the world with the idealism I associate with being American.

Powell wasn't dragged reluctantly to intercede in some fresh crisis. His aim wasn't to throw his weight around in defense of some precious economic interest.

He went, it seems, because it was right to go. Because Americans have a stake in the future of our larger world. Because a secretary of State and a relief worker both know that Americans hold a favored spot in the brotherhood of peoples.

Powell gave encouragement in the fight against cruel disease that devours the continent.

He prodded the corrupt strongmen of Kenya and Zimbabwe to yield to a new political future.

He offered a hand in ending one of Africa's incomprehensible civil wars.

He talked about trade opportunities for struggling nations.

"A conversation of hope," Powell said.


Decency is part of America's self-image. But lately it's a part we've neglected. That too-familiar taunt--what's in it for us?--overlooks that decency is its own reward. And the decent thing to do with Africa is not turn our backs.

Powell did not edge his country toward some quagmire with this trip. He did not give very much at all from the treasury. What he did was show up and show concern.

Maybe some of the young Africans he encountered looked at this man and saw enlarged possibilities for themselves.

I'm pretty sure that many thousands of Africans welcomed Powell as a new friend in the world. I can tell you that I watched him with pride. This is the kind of flag-waving that gives me goose bumps. I know, too, that legions of relief workers greeted Powell's engagement with hope. Their work gives us all a good name. Maybe we'll give back with more of the tools they need to combat misery. Not all of America's greatness has been earned on the fields of battle.

In a new book that builds on 40 years of distinguished reporting about Africa, Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski sets the stage for understanding the noblesse of Powell's statecraft in light of the relief worker's daily labors. The book is "The Shadow of the Sun," and Kapuscinski devotes a chapter to the religious, tribal, ethnic and political civil war that has consumed Sudan for decades. Sudan is where Powell has offered to help negotiate peace.

Kapuscinski writes: "Who are all these armies, divisions, legions, posses and corps--so numerous and so long embattled--arrayed against? Sometimes it is each other. But more frequently it is their own nation they are fighting, in other words the defenseless--which means, in particular women and children. But why are they against women and children?

"They attack and rob groups of women and children because women and children are the targets of international aid: It is they for whom the sacks of flour and rice are intended, the boxes of biscuits and powdered milk .... Whoever has weapons, has food. Whoever has food, has power. We are here among people who do not contemplate transcendence and the existence of the soul, the meaning of life and the nature of being. We are in a world in which man, crawling on the Earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day."

Our planet is shrinking, we are told. Kapuscinski reminds us that Africa remains as far off as ever. Colin Powell made a journey to close the gap because the blood of Africa runs in his veins. But remember, it runs in all ours, too. Because Africa is the birthplace of humanity.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World