1. How firmly has democracy taken root in Africa?
The United Nations reports that Africa currently has the greatest number of countries with democratic governments since the 1960s, though it’s far from accurate to call the continent a bastion of free and fair elections.
“Democracy has a foothold; it’s more than just a toehold,” says William Zartman, professor emeritus at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and former director of the school’s African Studies program. “In 50 years of independence, the idea of democracy as the legitimizer of African regimes has pretty well penetrated, though this doesn’t mean that the idea of democracy is well practiced.”
Indeed, over the last couple of years, elections in Ivory Coast, Guinea, Zimbabwe, and Mauritania, among others, have been disputed, disrupted, or mired in fraud charges. Still, Zartman says, the idea of democratic participation in elections has stuck, and men and women vote with some enthusiasm across the continent. “Regimes now feel they have to claim they are democratic in order to be legitimate,” Zartman says. “The idea of democracy is there, and once the principles are there, then you can nail people to them. Then the question becomes not, are there democratic practices, but is democracy being implemented and enforced. That’s progress.”
2. What should we make of China’s surging interest in Africa?
Although the roots of a Sino-African relationship can be traced back to the 15th century, it’s only recently that China—with its booming economy, brimming coffers, and hunger for oil and other resources—has seen its relationship with the continent bloom into a multi-billion-dollar proposition. Last year China replaced the United States as Africa’s second-largest trading partner after Europe. Chinese investment in Africa tops $9 billion.
Carla Freeman, interim American co-director of the SAIS Hopkins-Nanjing Center, led a group of students to Ethiopia and Ghana last August to discuss the issue with experts and policy-makers in those countries’ capitals. She found that many Africans admire China’s ability to quickly lift so many of its own people out of poverty.
China’s deep pockets are appreciated, too. In Ethiopia, the Chinese have invested heavily in roads, cell towers, and other infrastructure improvements that have helped the poor country’s economy experience double-digit growth. “China has drawn attention to Africa’s economic potential, and that’s a really good thing for Africa,” Freeman says.
However, one concern is whether African admiration for China’s economic approach will lead to a similar appreciation of its hard-line political system. With the United States and Europe mired in a protracted economic downturn, Freeman says, “many of the Western political and economic models are being called into question.”
And then there’s China’s less-than-stellar environmental record. “China’s reform has come at a tremendous cost to the environment, and from that perspective it’s a terrible model,” Freeman says. But one African the student group met said that Africans were still looking for their own way forward—not interested in copying the economic “tiger” so much as learning how to become “new lions.”
3. What are some of the misconceptions American college students have about Africa?
Patrick Bassey, a senior from Lagos, Nigeria, studying economics and psychology at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, has received some curious questions from fellow students once they learn he’s African. “The most ridiculous thing anyone asked me,” Bassey recalls, “was when I said I was from Nigeria and someone said, ‘Oh, do you know my friend in Zimbabwe?’”
Bassey has learned to consider such ill-informed queries as teaching moments. And he is president of the Johns Hopkins African Students Association, which also aims to educate people about Africa. The group, with some 40 members representing more than half a dozen African nations, holds monthly public meetings to discuss African customs and culture with occasional dances and field trips to local African restaurants or stores.
“There are some people who still have the misconception that all of Africa is like a safari,” Bassey says. “We do have houses, not huts. I talk about my life. How I went to a Jesuit high school and did some of the same things as a teenager that they do over here.” Bassey likes to talk about Africa’s cultural festivals, cinema, music, and close-knit families. “I’m not trying to tell people there isn’t poverty,” he says. “But in Africa, the story is more complex.”
4. What was the ancient Egyptian “festival of drunkenness”?
In short, a bibulous religious event dating to 1500 B.C. or earlier where participants pounded beer and tried to score face time with a goddess.
Since 2001, Betsy Bryan, a professor in the Krieger School’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, has led excavations at Temple Mut, an ancient Egyptian site that is part of the sprawling Karnak Temple complex near the modern-day city of Luxor. Uncovered was an area where this annual festival is thought to have taken place, as well as new clues to its age and activities.
The festival recalls several myths, including one in which an angry, lion-shaped goddess is killing her way across Egypt. To save mankind, the gods send down a flood of red-tinted beer, which the bloodthirsty deity consumes until passing out.
“Kiosks were set up with large vats of this alcohol,” Bryan says of the boozy, myth-inspired ritual. “There was very little eating, just more or less inebriation and passing out from lots of alcohol.” Then, in the wee hours of the morning, drummers would besiege the out-cold celebrants, making a huge racket to wake them. In the resulting hazy moments of hung-over consciousness, statues of the lion goddess would be brought forth. “There would be this moment of connection, this epiphany when the celebrants could speak directly to her and ask for something,” Bryan says.
Perhaps they’d request an aspirin or an Alka-Seltzer?
“I know,” says Bryan. “Can you imagine being woken up by drums at 3 o’clock in the morning with that kind of headache?”
5. Are Western celebrities such as Bono really doing much good when they support African causes?
“When you are using terms like ‘genocide,’ my experience is you need all the help you can get to try and get the point across,” says Michael Evans, SAIS ’90. “I say, more power to them.”
Last October, Evans was named the national director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, a charity focused on the humanitarian needs of displaced people. He spent the previous 20 years living in Africa as the organization’s director for Eastern Africa. He’s experienced mortar attack, gunpoint imprisonment in a mud hut, and other hardships and violence.
Nevertheless, Irish rocker Bono, who is outspoken on a range of African topics including the need for debt relief, has earned Evans’ respect. “He’s been consistent,” he says. “Africa has not just been a drop-in, fly-by-night cause for him.” Hollywood’s George Clooney, too, earns accolades, both for his visits to Darfur refugee camps and trips to Washington asking legislators for additional support for the war-torn Sudanese. “I think there is a value for someone like a George Clooney raising the issue of Darfur, especially when no one else was doing it,” Evans says.
6. How has Western literature presented an incomplete image of Africa?
Africa is an incredibly vast and varied continent teeming with cultures, languages, and lifestyles. Except, that is, in the pages of Western fiction, poetry, and drama up through the early 20th century, says Hollis Robbins, professor of humanities at the Peabody Institute. “For a long time the Western literary tradition didn’t take Africa seriously,” Robbins says. “Africa only existed as a kind of trope, a literary metaphor—you can think of Heart of Darkness. It wasn’t a place with distinct geo-political divisions and cultures.”
Whereas writers easily and readily differentiated between England, Scotland, and Ireland—indeed all of Europe—Africa was just Africa, the cultures of Kenya indistinguishable from those of Senegal or Egypt. Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, and even Shakespeare employed the now-archaic terms “Nubian” or “Ethiop” as literary shorthand for African, residents of a place, Robbins says, depicted largely as “uncivilized” and “scary.”
Robbins likes to expose her students to Victorian writer H. Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure, which involves—however improbably—an Englishman’s search for a white queen in central Africa. “Africans become the constitutive ‘other’ of heroic white Western heroes,” Robbins says. Things had improved by the 20th century. Isak Dinesen’s 1937 Out of Africa, though dealing primarily with white colonials in Kenya, does refer to native Kikuyu culture. However, Robbins credits Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart for ushering in the modern and more realistic era of African literature.
7. How is Facebook being used to slow the spread of HIV in Uganda?
The HIV infection rate is on the rise in Uganda—not so much among traditional at-risk groups, such as sex workers or migrants, but for people who are married or cohabiting. When individuals in such long-term relationships seek what are colloquially called “side dish” sexual partners, they place themselves and their domestic partner at risk for HIV.
In 2009, the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Communication Programs launched the “Get Off the Sexual Network” campaign to promote mutual monogamy, using TV, radio, and billboards. And starting in June of last year, Facebook became part of the effort.
The campaign targets Uganda’s urban, educated, and better-off population—just the folks most likely to have access to the social networking site. Nearly 11,000 people have become members of the campaign’s Facebook group, where they can participate in discussions about at-risk behavior and the benefits of mutual monogamy. “Facebook allows dialogue to happen outside of the technical experts,” says Leanne Wolff, program officer at the Center for Communication Programs. “Peers talk to peers, which is helping to move the process.”
8. What is a “ram pump” and how has it helped South African grandparents and orphans?
When you need to get water up a hill, one of the most straightforward mechanical devices you can employ is a “ram pump,” which harnesses the power of water flowing downhill to pump some water back up. Since 2006, the Johns Hopkins branch of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a nonprofit that sends volunteer engineers around the world to tackle community-based engineering projects, has installed eight such pumps in rural South Africa. The pumps are used to bring water to community gardens, improving yields while lessening the work required of their tenders.
“We got to see people trying to get water to their gardens before a pump was installed,” says Imbi Salasoo, a junior mechanical engineering major in the Whiting School of Engineering who visited South Africa last August as part of the Johns Hopkins EWB team. “They used plastic petrol tanks and a wheelbarrow, and it was quite the physical burden going up and down a hill.” Making matters worse, in some of the communities where student engineers have worked, many of the able-bodied adults have died of AIDS, leaving the elderly and children to raise the crops.
Although the pumps are built in South Africa, the students have to figure out how best to install them and then lay the necessary pipe. Eight Hopkins students went on last summer’s three-week trip, visiting the countryside northwest of the city of Durban. They installed one pump and checked on several others installed earlier.
“It’s a great way to apply what you’ve learned in books and see the benefits of how it helps people,” Salasoo says.
9. What can the scratches on million-year-old African teeth tell us about human evolution?
Mark Teaford examines teeth, but he is not a dentist. Indeed, his “patients” have been dead for more than 2 million years. Teaford is a professor of functional anatomy at the School of Medicine; he studies the dental abrasions of our primitive ancestors to gain new insight into their diets and evolution.
Teaford has visited museums in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa to bring back detailed dental molds of early human teeth in their collections. He then examines their surfaces using a computer analysis system he helped develop employing advanced microscopy and detailed 3-D modeling.
The degree of dental abrasion is related to the hardness of foods routinely eaten, and Teaford’s studies have shaken up some conventional evolutionary thinking. Take Paranthropus boisei (aka “Nutcracker Man”), an early human species from East Africa thought to have evolved a prominent jaw in response to the significant presence of hard foods in his diet. Teaford found very little abrasion when he examined the creature’s teeth. “So he wasn’t just going around eating nuts,” Teaford says. “Our ideas about his anatomy are either way off base, or more likely, he occasionally ate something hard and that was what was driving the evolutionary changes in his anatomy.”
10. What is life in Rwanda like 16 years after the genocide there?
In 1994, 800,000 people were murdered in this landlocked nation when the majority ethnic group, the Hutus, waged bloody attacks on the rival minority group, the Tutsis. The brutal genocide shocked the world. And today? “Rwanda is actually one of the safest countries in Africa,” says Jon Rosen, SAIS ’09, a freelance journalist based in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, whose writings have appeared in Global Post, USA Today, and World Politics Review. “You can walk around the streets of Kigali at night and not really worry about getting mugged.”
The nation now has great economic ambition, aiming to become the “Singapore of east-central Africa,” Rosen says. Whereas some 90 percent of the population is involved in small-scale agriculture, government plans call for transforming the country into “a regional hub of information technology and education.” The fact that stability and promise have come to the country is due in large part to President Paul Kagame. The lanky, bespectacled leader has done much over the past 10 years to root out corruption, and he counts Tony Blair and Pastor Rick Warren among his Western admirers. Still, though Kagame was re-elected last year with more than 90 percent of the vote, questions remain about the openness of his Tutsi-led regime and the degree to which credible opposition candidates had access to the ballot.
“He’s a dictator—there’s no question about that,” Rosen says. “The debate is more on whether he’s a benign dictator who’s good for the country, as many say, or whether ultimately he’s dangerous.”
And although Rosen is optimistic about Rwanda’s economic future, he says deep divisions remain between Hutu and Tutsi that “people are not allowed to talk about.” Foreigners who make brief visits to the scrubbed capital might not discern these tensions. “If you are here long enough,” he says, “you begin to feel like there are still a lot of fundamental problems that really haven’t been addressed.”
11. What is your vision for the future of Johns Hopkins’ relationship with Africa?
Last June university President Ron Daniels made a two-week, three-country trip to Africa for a firsthand look at some of the in-country health programs affiliated with the Bloomberg School, including the Rakai Health Sciences program in Uganda and Zambia’s Malaria Institute at Macha. The experience left a deep impression on the university’s new leader, then barely a year on the job.
“I had read and had been briefed on a number of different dimensions of Johns Hopkins’ work in Africa,” Daniels says. “But you really need to be there on the ground to understand how genuine and enduring the ties are between Hopkins and the continent.”
Even before his trip, last spring Daniels sought to increase the number of students traveling to Africa for research and fieldwork opportunities and launched the Johns Hopkins global health awards program—85 new grants of as much as $3,500 each for students in all divisions to pursue international public health experiences. The idea is to enable students to see firsthand the challenges Africa faces and how research can help resolve them.
“A lot of institutions can talk about sending more students abroad to Africa on exchange programs or internships but don’t have the capacity to draw on the deep research networks and faculty commitments that Hopkins has made over the decades,” Daniels says. “What we’d like to see is a very dramatic enhancement of the level of interaction and collaboration with Africa across our triplicate mission of research, teaching, and service.”
Adds Daniels, “Hopkins—not just in words but also in deed—has long had an institutional commitment to the development of the continent. I’m anxious for us to build on that, and on the strong moral imperative that we continue to be part of the solution for Africa’s many challenges.”
12. How did an American born of Swiss parents come to write a novel about Africa and Africans?
Susi Wyss, A&S ’04 (MA), an editor with Jhpiego, a global health nonprofit affiliated with Johns Hopkins, released her debut novel, The Civilized World, in March. Billed as a “novel set in stories,” its nine interconnecting tales ramble across Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, Malawi, Ghana, Ethiopia, and the United States. At the book’s core are two characters, a Ghanaian and an American expatriot living in Africa, and their reactions to a shared tragedy.
The author says she “caught the African bug” at age 7, when her family moved from Washington, D.C., for a three-year stay in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A career in public health followed, with opportunities to visit and live in a dozen African countries, first with the Peace Corps and then for 11 years as a program manager with Jhpiego (a position she left to work on her novel). “There is such a large population here that doesn’t have any concept about what Africa is like, and I wanted to give them a window,” Wyss says of her move into fiction. “My agenda was to establish a human connection and show day-to-day life, not the things you usually read about Africa—the headlines of civil war and despots.”
13. What’s the most promising new strategy to curb the spread of HIV in Africa?
Four years ago a team of Bloomberg School researchers completed clinical trials in Uganda showing that circumcision can prevent the male-to-female spread of HIV by as much as 60 percent. It was Time magazine’s No. 1 medical breakthrough of 2007.
Ron Gray, a professor of epidemiology and one of the leaders of the circumcision study, says he and his colleagues are now hopeful about a trial completed last summer at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal involving a microbicide vaginal gel. When applied before or soon after sex, it was shown to reduce a woman’s chances of contracting HIV by nearly 40 percent.
The gel contains the antiretroviral drug tenofovir, widely used as an HIV treatment but here being applied as a preventive. Trials involving oral doses of the drug taken to prevent male-to-male HIV transmission are also under way, though Gray sees the gel as having special appeal. “We’ve been very desperate to develop female control methods,” Gray says. “This gives women something that they can use to protect themselves.”
Generic forms of the drug reduce costs, which is crucial in Africa, where high drug costs can be an obstacle in the war on HIV/AIDS. Gray says plans are already in the works to bring the gel to Uganda, pending the outcome of several ongoing trials. “We already use these drugs for treatment anyway, so it’s just a matter of getting them formulated for a microbicide.”
14. How do you get 25,000 used books to Gambia?
The short answer: in a shipping container, which holds about that many titles.
Amassing such libraries and sending them off to West Africa is the work of the Wings of the Dawn International Institute for Children, a Fort Worth–based charity where Jaracus Copes, Ed ’10 (MS), has served as an adviser and volunteer since 2007. “Having access to books can make a real difference in someone’s life,” Copes says. “In Africa, we’re talking about off-the-beaten-path villages that don’t have the infrastructure for the Internet.”
To date, Copes has had a hand in shipping five book-filled containers across the Atlantic to Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana, and other countries where English is a principal language. Copes, who runs after-school programs for middle- and high-school-age kids in Montgomery County, Maryland, solicits his charges to help with book drives. He also seeks donations from school systems and libraries, which sometimes decommission books. Another challenge is raising the $6,500 it takes to ship the containers.
What kind of books does he seek? All types—from Dr. Seuss titles to textbooks to Tom Clancy thrillers—providing they are in decent shape. “I think just the power of reading—to be able to escape where you are and go to an imaginary world—is the greatest thing,” Copes says. “We try to help bring literacy to where it might not have a chance.”
15. What’s being done to ensure that human medical research projects in Africa are conducted ethically?
Africa is awash in human medical research, as scientists and doctors from around the world strive to confront the continent’s daunting health challenges. In the United States and other developed nations, laws codify the ethical oversight of human research, with independent review boards looking at, among other aspects, each study’s fairness, validity, and the informed consent of participants. Across much of Africa, however, a framework for bioethical oversight is less established.
Since 2000, the Johns Hopkins–Fogarty African Bioethics Training Program, a joint project of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the Bloomberg School, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, has trained more than two dozen African scientists, scholars, and government officials in the principles of bioethics. “We had one trainee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who created an ethics committee in the Congo, a place where there had never been one of these committees before,” says Nancy Kass, a professor of bioethics and public health in the Bloomberg School and director of the African bioethics program. More recently the program has begun forming yearlong partnerships with African universities to help them develop localized bioethical training programs. In 2010, the University of Botswana participated; this year it’s Uganda’s Makrere University.
“It’s not really for me, a Johns Hopkins professor, to figure out the best way to resolve ethical research issues in Africa,” Kass says. “What we want to do is equip Africans to be able to make their own decisions.”
16. Is it true that many Africans have poor diets because their farms are stagnant and inefficient?
Agricultural practices and challenges vary when talking about an entire continent, and although hunger is a problem in parts of Africa (often as a result of drought or civil unrest), many Africans enjoy a bounty of fresh, varied, and healthful foods. And they do so mostly without relying on the heavily industrialized mega-farms that exist in the West.
“People think of Africans as being malnourished, but when you visit West Africa, you encounter people who are muscular and strong looking with beautiful teeth,” says Jane Guyer, a Krieger School anthropology professor who has been doing research in rural farming areas in Nigeria and Cameroon intermittently for 40 years.
Whereas the “foodie” fad in the United States touts seasonal produce grown locally, that kind of eating has long been the norm in places like Nigeria. And it seems to be working well: Food markets in Lagos brim with goods that are largely the product of a network of small farms in the hinterlands, Guyer says. It’s an agricultural system that not only feeds the cities but also provides employment opportunities.
Over the years, Guyer has seen the range of farm size in western Nigeria grow wider, from about four or five acres to 12 acres and beyond. That growth has not been the result of an aid scheme or government program. Rather, commercially minded Africans developed tractor rental programs to provide smaller farms with affordable access to mechanization.
“This notion that African agriculture is stagnant creates an invitation for someone else to come in with a different idea altogether,” Guyer says. “My work on agriculture suggests that Africans themselves have developed the resources to grow their economies and generate a varied diet.”
17. What surprised you the most about America?
Anita Okoh was born and raised in Accra, Ghana, and is a member of the first class in the Carey Business School’s new Global MBA program, which launched last fall. She first arrived in the United States in 2001 to attend Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and health sciences.
Moving from a bustling West African city of nearly 2 million people to a small Pennsylvania town certainly provided opportunities for culture shock, but one thing that struck her was how little her fellow students knew about her homeland and the degree to which they took their ready access to information and education for granted. “People in my classes in college probably grew up with computers in their rooms and could surf the Net 24/7, and they didn’t think they could type in ‘Ghana’ and learn something?” Okoh says. “That was a shock.”
Things were different for Okoh growing up in Accra. Although she attended one of the country’s premier high schools, her access to the Internet was sporadic at best. Students would huddle over computers for the one or two hours a day they might be online and connected with the wider world. “As school-age children we had a thirst for knowledge,” Okoh says. “You learned beyond the classroom, took any opportunity to read books or talk to people who may be from a different country or culture.”
18. What is Johns Hopkins doing to address the nursing shortage in South Africa?
Nurses are in short supply in much of Africa, and the shortage is acute in South Africa. School of Nursing professor Phyllis Sharps recently read a report indicating that Western Cape alone, just one of the nation’s nine provinces, needs another 1,000 nurses to address its health care needs.
South Africa, with its epidemic levels of HIV infection and vast rural areas, can be a challenging place for nurses to work, prompting some to leave their homeland for better pay and opportunities in Europe or the United States. Still, Sharps has seen some heroic nurses during her numerous trips to the country. “They will fill a small SUV with all the supplies they need to provide hospice care in rural settings and drive as far as the road will go and then walk the rest,” she says.
One key to dealing with the shortage is to increase nursing programs and the number of instructors at South African universities. For several years, the School of Nursing has run a program in which doctoral nursing students at South African universities spend a semester or more studying at Johns Hopkins. Ten nurses have participated to date.
“These nurses are going to become faculty members [in South Africa] and they’re going to become leaders in health departments and be able to influence health policy and the delivery of care,” Sharps says. “People are realizing that nurses prepared at the graduate and the doctoral level are going to be critical to meet the challenges of increased health care demands.”
19. Are there really more doctors of Ethiopian descent in Chicago than in the entire nation of Ethiopia?
Yes, according to estimates made by the International Organization for Migration, a Swiss group that examines migration issues. This is just one of the eye-opening statistics Richard Cambridge, SAIS ’79 (PhD), likes to employ to highlight the urgency of his work as director of the World Bank’s African Diaspora Program. Launched in 2007, the program aims to harness the skills and resources of the millions of people of African descent living around the world. “It’s not that Africa doesn’t have the talent; it’s just that a lot of it isn’t resident in the continent,” Cambridge says.
Beyond expat talent, there are also finances that could be tapped. Cambridge estimates that the diaspora from sub-Saharan Africa sends as much as $40 billion a year back to the continent in the form of “remittances,” or cash transfers to relatives. The World Bank recently helped the African Union, a collaborative organization of 53 African nations, form the Africa Institute of Remittances to examine ways in which the diaspora can be encouraged to channel at least a portion of these billions into development projects. Cambridge’s program has also helped 25 African nations develop a Ministry of the Diaspora to create policies and mechanisms to help their far-flung citizens give time and/or money back to the homeland.
“Bottom line: The bank decided that the diaspora is an important part of any strategy to deal with development on the continent,” Cambridge says. “Every discussion and analysis about challenges to development in Africa starts with this notion of a ‘lack of capacity’—the countries don’t have the people, they don’t have the institutions they need. But then here’s this cadre of well-educated people with resources that can be brought into the mix.”
20. How has the election of Barack Obama affected U.S.-Africa relations?
The election of the first U.S. president of African descent was a milestone event, but its impact on the nation’s relationship with Africa is hard to determine, says Floyd Hayes, senior lecturer in the Krieger School’s Political Science Department and coordinator of programs and undergraduate studies in the Center for Africana Studies. “I’m just not quite sure yet what significance his administration will have on economic and political relations with Africa. America is still in an economic crisis, and it would be difficult to justify a lot of new aid to anyone these days.”
Certainly nowhere in Africa has Obama’s rise been as closely watched as in the East African nation of Kenya, where Obama’s father was born. This is a change of sorts. “More East Africans are paying attention to what’s going on with the United States and with the presidency,” Hayes says. “This area has generally been more distant from the United States because most black Americans are descendants of West Africa.”
If an Obama-led United States enjoys a stronger connection to Africa, it’s certainly not showing in Ivory Coast, where efforts to resolve a deeply conflicted presidential election have so far been fruitless. Hayes, however, is hopeful that “a more serious relationship” will develop. But as Obama is mired in a pressing domestic agenda, says Hayes, his presidency has so far been more symbolic than substantive when it comes to deepening connections.
Baltimore-based freelancer Brennen Jensen is a former senior reporter for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.