Thursday, December 01, 2005

Re-discovering Africa's plight inside the UN

*On the occassion of the World Aids Day, I re-publish an op-ed piece I penned down in late 2003 ( an old website of mine). My heart goes out to my relatives, friends and everyone else in the human race who has either been infected or affected by this scourge. God have mercy on us. Jesse Masai.

I visited New York last weekend hoping to familiarize myself with operations at the New York Times, life in the inner-city (for all its reputation) then travel back to my haven in not-too-distant Pennsylvania. I got my time's worth in each of the places my journalistic inclinations sent me, but it was while at the United Nations' Headquarters that I, for a long while in my short life, reflected more deeply on the message of peace from Christ to a troubled world. At the entrance to the headquarters is a mangled canon, a gift from some Scandinavian country, capturing the hope of the nations to contain war and the havoc it wrecks on society. Opposite it stood the globe in tatters inside-out, perhaps another symbol of the possibilities instability holds for over 6 billion people today. Security checks in the public entrance tent reminded me of the vulnerability of even the most international of international peace talk-shops in our world as we know it. On the left of the ground floor, right after entering into the UN building, stands to me the greatest testimony of the African condition today. On large, white, innocent-looking message boards, stood scores of pictures capturing life in various spots of my home continent. I saw Kenyan children readying themselves to sing the national anthem in athlete Kip Keino's school in Eldoret. And I saw young men running it out at St. Patrick's Iten, with the caption clearly saying that the school and the region has been a beacon of athletic excellence in Kenya's national history. I saw several other pictures, pictures capturing the desperation and hopes of the entire African continent like none I had seen before. But it was the pictures on HIV / Aids and Africa that shook me to the core (understandably since I never imagined our plight could have been so well captured elsewhere, especially at the UN). I saw two call-girls in the Congo, clad in "sexy" outfit and visibly beckoning the next man on, with a rider from the caption writer that here was a mirror of the African way to its tragedy (constrained by poverty). Of the several others I saw, perhaps none moved my heart and mind more than two others from Zambia. "Thirty two-years old Mother of Mercy Hospice patient Godfrey Mutama is gently bathed by his wife, Cecile," caption writer Tom Stoddart says. For a picture stands a visibly morose Cecile, reaching out to tenderly wipe various parts of her husband's emaciated figure, diseased and lurching over the bathing sink. Mutama's eyes, enmeshed deep into his sockets, look out indifferently, a little distracted and in a seeming appeal to the high heavens. Not far away from him is another picture, but this time round of eighteen years-old Josephine Mudada. "Too weakened by Aids to sit up or raise her head, 18 years-old Josephine Mudada is given her morning bath by a hospice nurse." Thousands of miles away across the Atlantic, several African Church leaders were meeting in Ghana to contemplate about the crisis. I kept my eyes and ears open, but the much I could glean from their meet was their public willingness to undergo tests for HIV / Aids. All over Africa it was a week of somber reflection and formulation of action-plans on the way forward; the strongest - in my humble view - coming from the Mandela Foundation in the South. While Churchmen and women may debate old Madiba's spirituality, I think his approach to the pandemic should invite some thought from the pulpit. Debates on the role of condoms vis-à-vis morality will rage on for as long as we live and celebrate sex, but the Church should consider remaining meaningfully relevant to the African condition with the many possibilities it holds (without compromising Scripture). Back in New York, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was lambasting the world's high and mighty over their respond to the crisis in an extensive interview with the BBC. But it's perhaps his words on the African photo gallery in his headquarters that would capture the situation ever so well. Says he: "A Day in the Life of Africa gives us a complex and nuanced portrait. These beautiful and deeply moving images compel us to see that, despite the tragedy, conflicts, some parts of the continent, the bright spots must not be forgotten, nor the achievements overlooked." "The vast majority of Africans are trying to bring positive change to their countries, and in many places these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The United Nations, for its part, has long championed African rights, progress and self-sufficiency." "I hope that peoples of goodwill throughout the world will see the great dignity and resilience of my fellow Africans and join them in their struggle for the chance to create a better life that is every human being's birth-right." Now, one might accuse Annan for exhibiting humanistic thought-patterns; but show me a Church or Christian leader in Africa who has captured the essence of the situation ever so clearly. But this is not to say I consider the UN to be the panacea to all our problems; no, infact far from it. In any case, the UN is a conglomeration of competing national interests; the greater responsibility lies with individual nations and their citizens. Another one at this trying moment for most families in Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, from Nairobi to Lagos; this time from a controversial African Church leader. Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu notes besides Annan: "We unite to gain a better understanding of the great continent of Africa. We know that this understanding cannot be made complete within the span of a day in the life of Africa, or for that matter, within the span of a single life-time." "Still as you experience this book (with the pictures), we hope that you'll discover a culturally rich continent, abundant in physical beauty….struggling with complex health challenges, and vitally anxious for democracy and self-determination." "A continent with an indomitable spirit brightening its participation within the global community and co-operation." Both Annan and Tutu might or might not necessarily reflect or reveal the Lord's glory in Africa (depending on the various positions available on the issue under consideration); but certainly the Church should be able to learn something from them in some way. It helps to mourn with the bereaved, preach against sexual immorality and all that; but it also helps to do what more and more Christian individuals and agencies are doing across the continent: Recognizing HIV/ Aids for what it is and seeking to give a holistic response to it (especially in patient-care and family support). If such is not pursued, then the message of Christ's peace to the millions of troubled hearts in Africa shall continue to ring hollow; even if our governments, their international counterparts and the pharmaceuticals should agree on one deal after another on HIV / Aids. The UN Gift Center, the bookshop, the murals, the meeting chambers, etc were all an impressive sight but it was these suffering men and women who stole my heart in New York. I later visited an HIV / Aids Action Center in neighboring Boston, but New York had rang in so hard already for me to put away my pen about it.

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