Washington, DC — Africare, the oldest and largest African-American private organization grappling with health and development issues in Africa honors Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, President of Morehouse College, at its annual dinner, November 6, in Washington, DC. Secretary of State Colin Powell will be the keynote speaker. The organization is 30-years-old now and this is the tenth year for the dinner. In an interview with allAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr, a reflective C. Payne Lucas, President of Africare, looked back as well as ahead. Excerpts:
You've managed to keep working for Africa longer than almost anybody. How have you managed to do that?
Well, I started out working in Africa in 1961 at the Peace Corps. I had no idea of what I was getting involved in. I was coming directly from the Democratic National Committee. The election was over and I asked John Baily who was then the Chairman of the DNC, "Now that John Kennedy has won the election, what about a job for me?"
He said, "Well, why don't you go over to the Peace Corps and ask Sargeant Shriver for a job?" I went over and asked, and he said: "Alright, Lucas, you've got a job. You're going to Africa and you're going to be going out to Togo." I thought the guy was crazy. I had no idea where Togo was. Was it a country? So I rushed home and got myself a map and found out it was a country in West Africa. The rest is history.
I went off to Africa. I had grown up in a little place in North Carolina called Spring Hope, North Carolina, where you spring up and hope to get out; I had no idea where Togo was or what it was. The only thing I knew about Africa was what the Tarzan movies showed. Wildlife, game, unclad people, virtually no civilization.
A couple of weeks later, I was on a plane to West Africa and I landed in this place called Lomé, Togo. And less than a month after I arrived, they had a coup, the first real coup in West Africa. Sylvanus Olympio, the first President, was overthrown and Nicolas Grunitzky came to power. And suddenly, everything was coming down on me because the country director got fired - I had gone out to be his assistant and Shriver was not pleased with his work - and I wound up being the acting country director, this little boy from Spring Hope, North Carolina. And quite frankly, I fell in love with the place.
What was it that made you fall in love with the place?
Because all the myths about Africa were being destroyed - that Africa had no civilization, that it was just a place for wildlife and game. I was in a place where black people were running the country! I had never seen any place where blacks were running the government. While it might not have been a perfect government, it was a government run by black people.
I made numerous African friends and what I found out was that Africans had enormous respect for African-Americans who knew what they were doing. I didn't have some mystical notion about Africa. I was just pleased to find market women running markets and national assemblies meeting and black people running movie theaters, running hotels, all these things being run by Africans, something I had never seen before, because when it came to these same things in America, I was just a servant to them.
So what I saw in Togo those first weeks was appealing and gave me enormous respect for Africans. I became addicted to the African continent. And 40-some years later, I'm still working in Africa.
So, how do you get from this first experience in Togo to Africare?
Well, my Peace Corps experience was, by law, restricted to five years. I had been in the Peace Corps six years when they passed a law saying you could only stay in the Corps for five so I wound up staying eleven years before they literally said, "Lucas, you've got to get out, by law."
I'd gone from Togo to the Republic of Niger, on to Senegal and Kenya and Ghana to set up Peace Corps programs, so with my mandatory retirement, I said: "What am I supposed to do? All I'm committed to is helping my brothers and sisters in Africa."
While I was in Niger I got to meet Hamani Diori, who was then the President. He had grown to like Americans because American volunteers were teaching him English. I got to know him. I had gone to Niger on a temporary assignment because no one wanted to go there. The temperature was around 101 degrees. Shriver said: "Lucas, we want you to stay in Niger." I said, "You've got to be kidding!" But he said, "it's Niger or nothing."
Well, I didn't want to go back to Spring Hope. I took Niger on and I fell in love with the country. I came to appreciate, with my tour in Niger, that you don't have to be in a country with large buildings, big universities and lots of material things to appreciate a country and its culture. Because these things were not present in Niger.
I got to know the people, I got to know the culture, predominantly Islamic. I met the Hausa people, Nur people, Fulani people, the Tuaregs, and others. And out of each of those groups of people I grew to have respect for their cultures. It was out of my stay in Niger that I learned to appreciate that this continent, with its vast resources and varied cultures, is one of the most exciting places in the world.
I went to Niger around 1965 and stayed for about three years and then I finally got a request from Sargeant Shriver to come in and become the regional director for all of Africa. And I came in, then, and that was also part of that transition from being the director in Niger to President Diori asking me to do something on my own. I did a couple of years in Washington and then decided to leave the Peace Corps.
I'd become so involved with, and so committed to, the people of Africa, I felt compelled to work with all these black people because I saw so much potential. I saw the art. I saw the music. I saw the capability of nations of people. I said to myself, if we can give them a little bit of help, this continent can tap its vast potential.
I continue to make that case for Africa, in the sense that African-Americans should organize themselves to support the culture and people of Africa, in the same way that our Jewish brothers and sisters do with Israel, or our Irish brothers and sisters do with Ireland. or Italians or all the other hyphenated Americans. Africa could realize its full potential, become a major trading partner in the global economic community; it could become a major player in the political community. And that is the great challenge of our time.
Africa wasn't very high on anybody's agenda back then. How did you find money and resources? And what did you do?
I was unable to sell the idea to the foundation community in America, but the [1974 Sahelian] drought and famine was so desperate for the people in West Africa that I was able to sell my ideas to the poor people in Washington, DC.
In the early days of our appeal it was the poor people of Southeast and Northeast who came with their bags of pennies and their churches who responded to the drought and famine because they knew what it was like to be without! Our initial support in America came from the people least able to give; they saw the brotherhood and the desperate needs better than anyone else. When I showed them pictures of people starving, the famine and whatnot, they reached into their pockets and into their church plates to contribute. And having gotten that initial contribution I went to other foundations and out of that suddenly, we had almost $75,000 which, back in 1975, was all the money in the world.
Remember, President Diori had authorized us to work from the Niger embassy, so we had no overhead. We were in the embassy working and we were able to convince Carl Rowan, who then was working at Channel 9 television, to go to Africa and make a movie on the West African drought. Carl's drought and famine piece, done with J.C. Hayward, was so dramatic that after it was shown in Washington and around the nation we were able to raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars. This was another motivator for building the institution.
Out of this, and a nucleus of three or four predominantly African-Americans and former Peace Corps volunteers, Africare in a real sense was born, committed to helping Africa realize its full potential. We're not there, but we were convinced, even in the face of that drought - and remain convinced now in the face of the HIV/Aids crisis and the events of September 11 - that Africa will one day become a full partner. While many Africans have given up the struggle, those of us who work in Africare have never given up.
What's changed for Africare over the decades?
The major thing that keeps us alive and drives us every day is this strange quality to the continent. When you think Africa is finished, something happens in Africa.
There were those of us who thought that South Africa would never be free in our lifetime; that it would be a bloody battle, that Mandela would never walk free. Mandela walks free! And when you look at the inspiration that Mandela has provided around the world, that's one of the great stories of our time.
We saw the change in Nigeria. People said, "Give it up! Nigeria's just a corrupt country. Nothing's ever going to change there." And then out of Nigeria's struggle against Abacha and military rule there emerged Obasanjo. There are still people who think that Nigeria is not out of the woods, but there is hope in Nigeria.
And Benin. It's a bastion of democracy. I can remember when Botswana was starving; today they don't even take foreign aid. I can remember yesterday when they said the Ivory Coast was going to go up in flames. It still has not gone up in flames. I can remember when they said Mobutu had destroyed the country; Congo is finished. And while the book is still out on Kabila, there are signs that the Congo might yet emerge as a real nation-state. In Tanzania, when Nyerere died they said, "What will happen to Tanzania?" Now we see Tanzania, a nation of nearly fifty million people with one potential language, just on the threshold of becoming a real player in the international community.
This is what makes it difficult for Africa: You see Rwanda and you see Burundi and you see all the crisis between the Tutsis and the Hutus and you say, "Oh my God, when will this killing stop?" But you have to see things in perspective.
When it's blacks killing it's one thing, but when you look around you there is killing going on in Northern Ireland. If we devoted as much leadership to bringing peace in the Congo as we have to Northern Ireland, God only knows what sort of peace we would have right now. Even in places where things seem desperate, Africa seems to move on. It's that little mystique of it moving on that drives people like myself and the team here [at Africare] into the future.
How much does the HIV/Aids epidemic ravaging so much of Africa, particularly its leadership at many levels, threaten this progress?
This is a serious question. It goes to the root of some real problems in Africa. For a society that is basically not monogamous, it's important to educate people about this dreadful disease.
But necessity is the mother of invention. What we have to do is mount a program against the common enemy. What we have to say to the Burundians, the Rwandans and the Congolese is that the enemy is not the Tutsi, it's not the Hutu. It's HIV/Aids. Let us join ranks to kill this monster. That's my charge.
That's my charge to the people of Nigeria. Forget about racial struggles between the Ibo, Yoruba and Hausas. Let's launch a nationwide campaign to kill this monster because this monster cares nothing about racial groups.
That is not an easy task. And in some ways goes to the point of the September 11 attack in New York and on the Pentagon.
What happened in New York on September 11; what happened at the Pentagon and Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Tanzania is a real wake-up call. The terrorists have to be caught and brought to justice; there's no question about that. No nation or group of nations can permit people to kill people indiscriminately like that. It's not even about race, because in Tanzania they killed the Africans! So it's not about race. They have to be brought to justice.
But in bringing people to justice, you want a real legacy for the people who died for nothing in New York, at the Pentagon, in Tanzania and Kenya. We have to create a better world, a world of tolerance. Not a world of getting all African, Asians and Europeans to look alike or to behave alike, but to tolerate each other's cultures, to respect each other's culture. If we do that, the death in New York, and the deaths at the Pentagon will be worthwhile.
You have to remember, at the end of the day, there are very few black people who know a lot about white people and very few white people who know a lot about black people. And there are very few Arabs who know a lot about black people. I am saying that there is no hope for mankind unless we literally learn to live together.
I continue to make the case that every bit of progress that has been made on the face of the globe has been made because of leadership. Jesus was a leader! Mohammed was a leader! Mandela is a leader! See what I mean? To overcome this crisis around the world we have to have extraordinary leadership.
The Bush administration?
There is another culture, another contributor to civilization. And that is Islam. There are a lot of people who didn't know anything about Islam until what happened in New York. One of the signs of the [Bush] Administration that is promising to me is that it is trying to convince the people that our brothers and sisters are not just Christian; they are also Muslim.
I think the President has an opportunity. I think President Bush has a chance not to be a good President, but a great President. He has a chance to pull the world together in a way no other President has had, obviously in the 21st century, but in the last century too. He has a chance to convince the world that dialogue and mutual respect counts for more than just power. This can happen in Africa now.
What would happen if Hausas, Yorubas and Ibos finally learned to live together? If the leadership in America, while it pursues these criminals, also pursues a program of cultural diversity and managing diversity, making everybody feel that they are full partners in civilization? It would be one of the greatest achievements of our time.
Are you optimistic?
Well, I'm the eternal optimist. People ask me how I can remain optimistic about Africa when so many people are running around killing other people. And people riding in Mercedes when they should be walking. But I say there are always glimmers of hope, it's been that way since the beginning of time. You get glimmers of hope, even with oppression. Leadership emerges in the strangest places, at the strangest moments. We have found out from watching Mr. Mandela that you don't have to graduate from Harvard, Yale or Princeton [universities] to be the greatest man on earth.
Changing subjects radically. There have been fitful efforts to bring the various Africa interest groups together around some common issues related to Africa. At least in my view, with the exception of the anti-apartheid effort, and maybe the debt issue, not much has happened. What would it take?
I think it has been disappointing that we have not been able to harness all the disparate groups in a way that we can march in unity around the problems in Africa. I think we've had sub-leaders. I think we've had the Randall Robinsons, the C. Payne Lucas's, the Eddie Williams, all these different people. A charismatic leader is lacking. If we could get someone like Andy Young...
No. We need a leader that will set up his own broad agenda. My agenda is health, governance, food security. Randall's is a better foreign aid set-up, foreign policy. We need a kind of Mandela, we really do. And how do we get that? I'm not sure. Africa has not been able to get everybody here thinking about Africa. I want a movement where everybody - not just at the Congressional Black Caucus weekend - in their day-to-day thinking - thinks about Africa the way the Jewish community thinks about Israel. You need the kind of person who has a lot of energy but has a lot of respect. I can harness the development community because I know something about that. But I want to harness the energy of the people in the street, the people speaking from the pulpit. We need a different kind of person for that.