Africa’s century - for better or for worse
As Niger, Ethiopia and Sudan once again reach the news in the UK, Peter Waddup, Chief Executive, reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing the countries we work with in Africa.
Working in the development sector is a constant reminder to just how parochial the UK news agenda can be. All too often, what we consider to be a major world event barely gets a mention. So when news from Africa does hit the headlines, it is usually pretty catastrophic.
Recently there have been an alarming number of African stories. Among the countries to which our supporters give, lives have been turned upside down following political coups in Sudan and Niger. In the past week, extreme violence has again erupted in Ethiopia's impoverished Amhara region. And in Mozambique, an insurgency that has already taken 4,000 lives rumbles on.
Although our workplaces and homes may be poles apart, we are one big Leprosy Mission family; staff, volunteers and supporters. We all feel a knot in our stomachs when phone lines and internet connections are down after such crises. At times like this we realise all we can do is hold the safety of our tenacious colleagues in prayer.
Africa is a continent that has remained close to my heart ever since watching Live Aid as a young man. Despite working as an accountant who had never set foot in Africa at the time, I desperately wanted to be a part of it. I am so blessed today to work alongside amazing teams in Africa who bring justice, health and opportunity to people in desperate need.
While much of our work in Asia centres around our Leprosy Mission hospitals, it is a different set up in Africa. Outreach teams travel along dusty unmade roads, sometimes for days. Wrapped in an oppressive blanket of heat they venture deep into the bush to find and cure people of leprosy.
Many of the people they encounter have never even accessed the most basic of healthcare. This becomes painfully apparent when talking to women in Africa. I now brace myself for the two-part answer to the simple question 'how many children do you have?'. First there is the number a mother has given birth to, followed by her number of survivors. Life is harsh and mere survival tough.
However, despite the turbulent landscape and Africa bearing the brunt of climate change, we hear this is Africa's century. It all seems such a paradox in a continent blighted by violence and extreme poverty. And then there are neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), of which leprosy is one, that shouldn't even exist in the 21st century. It is of no surprise that Africa accounts for 40% of the 1.7 billion people affected by NTDs.
Yet Africa is hailed as a rising star and the 21st Century is offering a golden opportunity to take centre stage. Vast areas of agricultural land, minerals and a young dynamic workforce work in in its favour. According to UN estimates, the population of Africa is set to double by the end of the century. Economists say the young demographic will fuel Africa's rise in a world of shrinking working-age populations. While this is exhilarating to hear, I must confess to not fully buying into the vision, however much I want to.
It is too easy to become overwhelmed and to not see beyond the monumental challenges Africa faces. So when hearing the recent barrage of news stories, I decided to look to my African colleagues for hope and inspiration. If they allowed the sheer scale of the challenge to deter them, they simply wouldn't be there. Instead, they show up each day risking their own lives to reach the lost and the least. They never see one life transformed as merely a drop in the ocean. Instead, it is an opportunity to alleviate the suffering of a fellow human, so loved and precious to God. It reminds me of Mother Teresa's famous quote 'if you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one'. Kindness is never wasted, no matter the scale.
I pray a new and vibrant generation of Africans are not deterred by the mountains they must climb. That, one by one, they overturn the many injustices and bring a long overdue peace and prosperity to a beautiful continent.
‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ Galatians 6:9
Photo © Ricardo Franco