Colin Powell Shaped Lasting US Policies Toward Africa

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died Monday, is being remembered in Africa for peacemaking, supporting the fight against AIDS and sounding the alarm against war abuses.

Cameron Hudson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, recalled that Powell was the first U.S. official to declare genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur and was deeply involved in the peace agreement ending Sudan’s longest-running civil war, which paved the way for South Sudan independence.

In 2004, Powell testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the violence in Darfur, an area plagued by deadly clashes for decades, and used the term, “genocide.”

“That was the first time that word had been used in that conflict, and it really became a rallying cry around the world and certainly within U.S. activist communities. And you saw the United States get even deeper involved in the conflict there,” Hudson told VOA on Monday.

Powell also played a leading role in negotiations that ended the civil war in Sudan that lasted more than two decades.

“You saw the creation of a Sudan office in the State Department under Colin Powell,” Hudson said. “You saw his personal involvement in the negotiations culminating in the 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Nairobi (Kenya), which Colin Powell traveled to and bore witness to as guarantor of that.”

And while Powell’s legacy is often intertwined with his promotion of the war in Iraq, Hudson said he is remembered in Africa differently.

“I think that Colin Powell reflects that there was a very, very strong peacemaking element within, certainly, his State Department at the time,” he said.

“If … you look at what happened with the Bush administration when they came to office, there were civil wars going on in Liberia, in Sierra Leone, in Congo, in Angola and in Sudan,” Hudson said. “And by the end of that first term in government, all of those civil wars had some sort of peace agreement. That wasn’t by accident.”

Powell traveled to Africa in 2001 — stopping in Mali, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda — on a mission the State Department described as the “engagement of this administration and the secretary personally in Africa and Africa policy.”

The visit drew media criticism accusing Powell of ceremoniously lecturing Africans on democracy and transparency.

But many African leaders had a different view.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told the Nigerian newspaper Punch that Powell embodied Black culture across the Atlantic.

“He was not just an African American. He was an African American who understood Africa,” Obasanjo said.

Under Powell, the Bush administration put into place several aid programs to fight diseases and help build economies. Many of those programs remain.

Since 2003, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has distributed more than $85 billion globally for HIV/AIDS assistance, with most of the aid distributed in Africa.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation, created by the U.S. Congress in 2004, is an independent U.S. foreign assistance agency aimed at fighting global poverty. Much of its work is done in Africa.

Niger political analyst Moustapha Abdoulaye described Powell’s death as a major loss, not just for the United States but for the world, because of his personal and professional qualities.

Brook Hailu Beshah, a former Ethiopian diplomat and currently a political science professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, recalled personal encounters with Powell.

Powell was a “person who put America before self, open and respectful to opinions of others, humble and reasonable,” Beshah said.

 

Source: Voice of America

Book Detailing Rwanda’s Authoritarian Actions Angers President

WASHINGTON — Rwandan dissidents have died under mysterious circumstances inside and outside the country with alarming frequency in recent years.

On September 14, Revocat Karemangingo, an ex-Army officer, was gunned down while driving in Mozambique. Since 2016, Karemangingo had told authorities he had been targeted for assassination.

Earlier in September, a popular Rwandan rapper known as Jay Polly died while in custody after Rwandan authorities said he consumed a lethal concoction of methanol, sugar and water.

In February, opposition politician Seif Bamporiki was pulled from his vehicle and shot to death in South Africa in what police said was a robbery, but many Rwandan exiles say was a targeted killing.

In her new book, “Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad,” journalist Michela Wrong examines the ways in which dissent is silenced inside and outside of Rwanda. She also looks at the roots of the quest for power and asks why evidence of ruthlessly silencing opposition has not tarnished the reputation of the country.

“Despite the evidence of intimidation and harassment, people being beaten up, followed, threatened, the image of Rwanda abroad remains extraordinarily whiter than white,” she told VOA. “And it doesn’t seem to matter how much of this information comes out, both Western politicians and all these philanthropic foundations that engage with Rwanda, the Gates Foundation, Bill Clinton’s foundation, the Blair Foundation, Paul Farmer, Howard Buffett, it doesn’t seem to impact their relationship with Rwanda.”

The title of Wrong’s book “Do Not Disturb” refers to the universally recognized sign travelers hang on hotel room doors. In this case, she said the sign was a grizzly clue left by assassins in 2014 after they strangled Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan intelligence chief who was living in South Africa. Karegeya had become a critic of Kagame and was stripped of his rank and imprisoned before fleeing to South Africa to live in exile.

Wrong, who knew Karegeya, paints a picture of a gregarious political dissident who trusted people he should have feared.

“He trusted people, which is a very strange thing to say because you’d think if you were the head spy really for a long time in Rwanda, you would be very careful, very cautious, but when he decided he liked somebody he just trusted them,” Wrong said. “And in fact, that’s the characteristic that got him killed because he was lured to his death by somebody he thought was a friend.”

Wrong details how a Rwandan businessman, Apollo Kiririsi Gafaranga, befriended Karegeya and asked that he book a room for him at the upscale Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg. On New Year’s Eve, according to South African authorities, Gafaranga lured Karegeya to the hotel room for drinks, but instead he was killed by Rwandan assassins who had booked a room across the hall.

South Africa has issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans including Gafaranga, but the suspects fled South Africa immediately after killing Karegeya and Rwanda has refused to hand them over, authorities said.

Wrong said this political killing is an entry point to understand the regime of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Kagame was a schoolmate of Karegeya in Uganda, and they served together in the bush war led by Yoweri Museveni to overthrow President Milton Obote and later became president himself.

Upon taking the helm of Rwanda in 2000, following several years as a powerful vice president, Kagame was praised by many in the West as the savior of the country and was a darling of donors. However, Wrong outlines a pattern of quashing dissent and the disappearances of political dissidents that show a different side of the longtime president.

She interviews numerous people who served alongside Kagame in Uganda and later in the Rwandan Patriotic Front and found that he earned the nickname “Pilato” for the way he would turn in fellow soldiers who had broken rules, often resulting in their being executed.

“Kagame is not somebody who wants to be liked,” Wrong said. “And I think it’s very obvious that he has a different style of rule from [Yoweri Museveni’s]. Even if you’re not somebody who is deeply critical of his career you can see that he wants to be feared. He wants to be respected. He does not want to be popular. He’s constantly telling people in interviews that he really doesn’t care what the world thinks of him and he doesn’t really care what his voters think of him. He just wants their respect and their obedience.”

Kagame responds

In a television interview, Kagame denounced the book saying it was a biased product of Wrong’s personal connection with Karegeya and was sponsored by enemies of the country.

“By the time it came out, we had known it was being written for about a year or two, and we know those who sponsored her to do it both from outside and those in the neighboring countries, some from far away north others from here,” he said. “And again, it was part of that ‘Rwanda should not be allowed to be what it wants to be, the people of Rwanda should be cut to their size.’ And so, one way of doing it, attack those you want to attack. Attack the leaders or even individuals.”

But the book has come at a moment of heightened scrutiny of Kagame’s government. In September, Paul Rusesabagina, who was depicted as a hero in the film Hotel Rwanda, was convicted on charges of supporting a terrorist group and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The conviction drew condemnation from human rights groups who believe he was effectively kidnapped and brought to the country and did not receive a fair trial.

It also drew a rebuke from U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price who said the U.S. was “concerned” by the objections from Rusesabagina that he did not have “confidential, unimpeded access to his lawyers and relevant case documents and his initial lack of access to counsel.”

Wrong says she believes the arrest was a way of sending a message to dissidents all over the world that they are not beyond the reach of Kagame.

“I think that was definitely an element of: ‘I’m going to show anyone who is thinking of standing up to me, I can get anyone wherever they are.’ And now that’s a very powerful message,” she said.

But it remains to be seen what price Kagame will pay for the crackdown on dissidents. The Rusesabagina arrest has garnered global attention in a way that other arrests and alleged assassinations have not.

“Was it worth it, because behind Rusesabagina, you know you’ve got all the people that hadn’t been looking at Rwanda, hadn’t been examining what Kagame is doing and how the regime has changed are suddenly interested,” Wrong said. “So, you think, the reputational risk that Kagame is running as a result of this trial, was it really worth it? Because small things can damage reputations in totally disproportionate ways.”

 

Source: Voice of America

Tigrayan Forces Accuse Government of Air Strikes in Ethiopia’s Mekelle

NAIROBI — Media controlled by rebellious northern Ethiopian forces said the government launched air strikes on the capital of Tigray region on Monday, though the government denied the reports.

Tigrai TV, controlled by the northern region’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), said the attack on the city of Mekelle killed several civilians. An aid worker and a doctor in the region also said there had been a attack on the city.

Ethiopia’s government spokesman, Legesse Tulu, denied launching any attack. “Why would the Ethiopian government attack its own city? Mekelle is an Ethiopian city,” he said.

Reuters was unable to verify any of the accounts independently in an area that is off-limits to journalists.

Conflict erupted between forces loyal to the TPLF and the Ethiopian central government last November.

Tigrayan forces were initially beaten back, but recaptured most of the region in July and pushed into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, displacing hundreds of thousands more.

The TPLF, Tigray’s former ruling party, says the government began a new offensive this month, though that has not been confirmed by the government.
Diplomats are worried that renewed fighting will further destabilize Ethiopia, a nation of 109 million people, and deepen hunger in Tigray and the surrounding regions.

 

Source: Voice of America

South Africa’s Local Elections Test Loyalty to Party of Mandela

JOHANNESBURG — A floundering economy, party in-fighting and ceaseless corruption allegations are plaguing South Africa’s ruling African National Congress. The nationwide local elections on November 1 will test whether loyalty to the party that brought an end to apartheid will prevail or shift in favor of a new political order.

In the neighborhood of Kliptown, Soweto, the late Nelson Mandela and others laid the foundation for the country’s democracy.

Now, nearly 30 years since the end of apartheid, the public housing that provided shelter to Mandela’s followers are crumbling.

As residents prepare to elect new mayors and city councils, they say they’re weighing the legacy of Mandela’s ruling African National Congress.

Some, like Shayne Biggers, are venting frustration.

“They [are] doing nothing for us. Absolutely nothing. As you can see how this place looks, as you can see, they’re nothing, nothing. I’m very angry, said Biggers. “Even if I see those people still campaigning, I think for myself, ‘Why must we still go and vote? Why must we go vote, because nothing [is] being done for our place here’.”

South Africa’s municipalities are in crisis, with many local governments insolvent and unable to deliver basic services like water and sanitation.

Years of disappointment may lead people to not vote at all.

For those who do turn out, there is no obvious favorite among the more than 300 parties and independent candidates.

Roland Henwood is a political scientist at the University of Pretoria.

“This is a very difficult election to call, probably the most difficult election to go since ‘94. The levels of mismanagement and corruption are staggering. And this is mostly something that can be put in front of the ANC. And that is why the levels of dissatisfaction, levels of disillusionment, are staggering,” said Henwood.

The past year has brought the country’s challenges to a peak.

A national inquiry into graft under former President Jacob Zuma revealed testimony of rigged tenders and kickbacks — which cost the public millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, economically stifling lockdowns saw the unemployment rate soar to 34 percent.

This scenario gives confidence to new opposition parties.

Herman Mashaba leads ActionSA, formed only a year ago.

“COVID-19, as bad as it was, it actually exposed the deep-rooted criminality of [the] ANC. It exposed the deep-rooted corruption element of the ANC. So, people are wide awake. We’re going to mobilize South Africans, use our democratic right of voting them out, to ensure that we can have a prosperous South Africa,” said Mashaba.

But life-long party members who attribute their freedom and right to vote to the ANC remain loyal.

Sifiso Khanyile is among the party faithful. “I can say let’s give them a chance, ma’am, one more chance. They will put this one through. They have to put people first now than themselves. If they can do that, this country will go forward without any hassle and hesitation,” said Khanyile.

On November 1, South African voters will show whether they believe the ANC can still bring reform, or whether it is time to give the opposition a chance to bring positive change.

 

Source: Voice of America

Tigray Forces Say Ethiopian Airstrikes Hit Regional Capital

Forces in Ethiopia’s Tigray region said Monday that the Ethiopian government launched airstrikes on the regional capital of Mekelle.

The bombing was also reported by residents and humanitarian workers in Tigray, but the Ethiopian government denied the claims.

The United Nations said it was looking into the reports of the strikes.

“We are deeply concerned about the potential impact on civilians,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States was also looking into the reported attack. “We, broadly speaking, do remain gravely concerned by what has been escalating violence in Tigray for some time,” he said.

Agence France-Presse reported that according to a hospital official in Mekelle, at least three people died in Monday’s airstrikes.

Witnesses in the region say one of the airstrikes hit close to a market. It was not possible to confirm the accounts, because the region is under a communications blackout.

Legesse Tulu, an Ethiopian government spokesperson, denied that the government had launched any attacks on Mekelle.

Mekelle has not seen large-scale fighting since June, when Tigray forces retook control of most of the region and Ethiopian forces withdrew from the area. Following that, the conflict continued to spill into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.

Last week, Tigray forces said the Ethiopian military had launched a ground offensive to push them out of Amhara.

The Ethiopian federal government has been engaged in an armed conflict with fighters from the northern Tigray region for nearly a year.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray last November, saying it was a response to attacks on federal army camps by forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

The United Nations said the fighting has killed thousands of people and put hundreds of thousands of people in danger of famine.

 

Source: Voice of America

Massive Pro-Military Sit-In Shakes Sudan Democracy Efforts

KHARDOUM — On Monday, as thousands of demonstrators aligned with the Sudan military remain outside the presidential palace for a third day, analysts warn that the civilian-led interim government is facing a growing crisis that could topple its rule.

With upheaval escalating nationwide, government leaders must find a way to “defuse the polarization” and “reach a compromise,” said political analyst Hassan Haj Ali.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok should “make a partial reshuffle of his Cabinet and appoint new ministers” or expand the number of ministers in the transitional government, Ali said.

Sudan is facing its most trying political challenges since it formed an interim government among rival factions after the fall of ex-president Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

After a political coup attempt was thwarted in September, al-Bashir loyalists have upped their dissent and are demanding changes to the civilian Cabinet and the shaky coalition co-running the government.

“The essence of this crisis … is the inability to reach a consensus on a national project among the revolutionary and change forces,” Hamdok said in a televised address last week.

People participating in the massive sit-in outside the presidential palace in Khartoum are demanding the government be dissolved and replaced with technocrats.

Sudan will never have a stable government if only a small group of people continue to make the decisions, said protester Ibrahim Ishaaq Yousif.

“The situation is deteriorating every day, people are unable to find bread, and life has become hard for everyone in this country,” he told South Sudan in Focus. “The government has been dominated by only four political parties, and they are unable to do something to change the situation.”

Interim government supporters say members of the military and security forces are driving the latest protests, which involve counterrevolutionary sympathizers of al-Bashir.

Some protesters accuse political parties within the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance of excluding them from the country’s political processes and say the government is not doing enough to achieve the objectives of Sudanese revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives for the cause.

Hamdok should consider dissolving the Cabinet and expanding the political participation in the FFC coalition, said protester Omer Yousif.

Hamdok should “change this Cabinet not from the parties but from the professionals among the common people,” he told South Sudan in Focus. “All the infrastructures will be damaged soon. That is why we focus on changing this regime for the better.”

Khartoum-based analyst Ali said the government must quickly institute changes.

“Now the trend or the compromise probably is that the prime minister would perform a partial change in his government in order to please those who are demanding change and at the same time keep his own coalition intact by letting members stay in the council of ministers,” Ali told South Sudan in Focus.

Ali also recommends setting a timetable for the composition of the legislative assembly and taking steps toward organizing a general election, which is tentatively slated for late 2023.

The protesters began the sit-in on Saturday by chanting “one people, one army” and setting up tents in front of the presidential palace. They say they will not leave until their demands are met.

“The country is striving, and the people are tired,” said protester Muhiddeen Adam Juma, a member of the Sudan Liberation Movement faction. “People need to move to real democracy and prosperity.

“But few political forces want to drive the policy of this county by the same policies of the previous administration,” Juma told South Sudan in Focus. “And these policies will never take us anywhere.”

Hamdok, in his televised address, reiterated the government’s commitment to dialogue and to seeking a solution to any political disputes. He also guaranteed the safety and security of people who take part in peaceful protests.

“We respect the right of our people for a peaceful democratic expression,” he said. “They got this right through their continuous struggle, and we shall work to safeguard this right.”

 

Source: Voice of America

Pan-African film festival opens in Burkina Faso amid COVID19 and security challenges

OUAGADOUGOU, Africa’s premier film festival opened in Burkina Faso with a colourful ceremony showcasing choreography, and acrobatic and musical acts from some of the continent’s biggest names, including Senegalese Grammy nominee Baaba Maal.

 

With a backdrop of Islamic militant attacks in the Sahel West African nation and the coronavirus pandemic, the glitzy ceremony saw a tribute to the country’s military and to former president and revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara.

 

The festival initially was planned for February, but was postponed as Burkina Faso battled a surge in coronavirus cases.

 

“It was important to postpone the festival,” Alex Moussa Sawadogo, delegate-general of the festival, said during the opening ceremony, saying it would not have been possible to get the quality of films selected had it been held in February.

 

Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Kabore, in a post on Twitter, said it was with pride that he gave the opening clap of the 27th edition of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).

 

“The holding of this biennial of African cinema, in a dual context of security and health challenges, testifies to the resilience and selflessness of the Burkinabe people,” Kabore said.

 

FESPACO, launched in 1969, is monitored by global industry players who scout the event for new films, productions, talents and ideas.

 

The 2021 edition will see the participation of the African International Film & TV Market organisation in a dedicated platform aimed at connecting international buyers and outlets with sellers of African contents, promoting transactions and proposing new business models for the sector.

 

Over 200 films made by Africans and predominantly produced in Africa have been selected from around 1,132 productions for the week-long event.

 

Seventy films divided into six categories including feature films, short films, documentaries, animated films and school productions are in the official competition.

 

In the feature films category, 17 are competing, including Nigerian drama “Eyimofe (This is My Desire),” by twin brothers Arie Esiri and Chuko Esiri, which has received positive reviews and won the 2021 Best Feature Narrative in the Philadelphia BlackStar Film Festival.

 

Other feature films include Narcise Wandji’s “Bendskins” from Cameroon; Mamadou Dia’s “Baamum Nafi” from Senegal; Desiree Kahipoko-Meiffret’s “The White Line” from Namibia; and Burkina Faso’s “The Three Lascars” by Boubakar Diallo.

 

The festival ends on Oct 23 with the award of the prestigious Stallion of Yennenga prize for the best film.

 

Source: Nam News Network

Enslaved Black Man Created World’s Most Popular Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s is the world’s most popular whiskey brand, but until recently, few people knew the liquor was created by Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved Black man who mentored Daniel.

“We’ve always known,” says Debbie Staples, a great-great-granddaughter of Green’s who heard the story from her grandmother. … “He made the whiskey, and he taught Jack Daniel. And people didn’t believe it … it’s hurtful. I don’t know if it was because he was a Black man.”

But people believe it now — in large part because Brown-Forman Corporation, owner of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, has acknowledged the foundational role Green played in the brand’s development.

“The truth of the matter is, Nearest Green was the first head distiller of Jack Daniels whiskey,” says Matt Blevins, global brand director for Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. “We’re very proud of this story and are very committed to amplifying it and acknowledging that. In the past, we did not amplify it the way that we could have in earlier eras, but we’re about the future and moving forward.”

America’s first-known Black master distiller

The story begins in Lynchburg, Tennessee, current home of the Jack Daniel Distillery. In the mid-1800s, Green’s slaveholders hired him out to a local preacher named Dan Call. Green, who had a reputation as a skilled distiller, made whiskey for Call, using a sugar maple charcoal filtering process that is believed to have originated in West Africa. Daniel, a boy who worked for Call, became Green’s apprentice and learned the special technique that gave the Tennessee whiskey its smooth taste.

After emancipation in 1863, when all enslaved people were freed, Daniel purchased Call’s distillery and hired Green as Jack Daniel Distillery’s first master distiller.

“The best knowledge that we have is that they had a mentor-and-mentee sort of a relationship, and I would say, a friendship,” says Blevins. “The stories that have been passed down [talk] about the care that Jack Daniel took to always acknowledge … the Green family.”

There are no known pictures of Green, but there is one of Daniel with Green’s son, George, sitting next to Daniel, rather than being relegated to the back.

“That photograph shows the respect that they had for one another and for their families,” says Stefanie Benjamin, an assistant professor of tourism management at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “To be not only allowed in that photograph, but also positioned in the foreground and sitting right next to Jack Daniels himself.”

Search for the truth

Green’s role in the history of the brand was uncovered by a writer and entrepreneur named Fawn Weaver, who became fascinated by Green’s unheralded contribution to the world’s most popular whiskey. After extensive research, including interviews with Green’s descendants, Weaver shared her documentation with the company.

“I was very pleasantly surprised when they embraced my research and updated their records to reflect that,” Weaver told VOA via email. “I think it said a lot about the character of their company that they moved that quickly to course correct.”

Jack Daniel’s has incorporated Green’s contributions into the official history of the brand, but Weaver has gone a step further. She invested $1 million of her own money to establish Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, which is now the fastest-growing independent American whiskey brand in U.S. history.

The company’s master distiller is Victoria Eady Butler, Green’s great‐great‐granddaughter.

“Uncle Nearest is the most-awarded American whiskey or bourbon of 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the fact that it is the bloodline of Nearest Green blending and approving what goes into our bottles is something I marvel at regularly,” Weaver says. “Victoria is an absolute natural when it comes to blending, and to watch her work is to see something pretty darn close to perfection.”

Family business

Seven generations of Green’s family have worked at the Jack Daniel Distillery, a tradition that continues today with Staples and two of her siblings. But the Green family did not benefit when the Daniel family sold the Jack Daniel distillery to Brown-Forman for $20 million in 1956.

“Although they [the Green family] were very well off in terms of finances [in the 1800s] in that time, they were not the owners or co-owners of the Jack Daniel distillery,” Benjamin says. “And so, those millions of dollars have been passed down through generations of the Jack Daniel family, and not necessarily the Green family.”

Weaver’s Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey has joined forces with Jack Daniel’s to launch a program that provides support, expertise and resources to African-American entrepreneurs entering the spirits industry.

Staples says her family is thrilled their great-great-grandfather is finally being recognized.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling … and we are so proud,” Staples says. “And to think that from here to Africa, that recipe goes all the way back. And to think that he played such an important role in establishing this company. It sometimes seems unreal. It really does.”

Because of Weaver’s tenacity, Green’s story, although left untold for more than a century, will not be lost to history. But that’s not the case with so many other stories of Black achievement and contributions to the nation.

“Part of telling his story and sharing his legacy is to give credit and to give attention to a person who, if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the Jack Daniel whiskey as we know it today,” Benjamin says. “It showcases yet another example of how formerly enslaved people, Black people, African American people who have really built this country, are left out of the dominant narrative that we tell.”

 

Source: Voice of America

Women Left Behind: Gender Gap Emerges in Africa’s Vaccines

SARE GIBEL, GAMBIA — The health outreach workers who drove past Lama Mballow’s village with a megaphone handed out T-shirts emblazoned with the words: “I GOT MY COVID-19 VACCINE!”

By then, the women in Sare Gibel already had heard the rumors on social media: The vaccines could make your blood stop or cause you to miscarry. Women who took it wouldn’t get pregnant again.

Lama Mballow and her sister-in-law, Fatoumata Mballow, never made the 3.4-mile trip (5.5 kilometers) to town for their vaccines, but the family kept the free shirt. Its lettering is now well-worn from washing, but the women’s resolve has not softened. They share much — meal preparation duties, child care, trips to the well with plastic jugs, and their outlook on the vaccine.

“I definitely need a lot of children,” said Lama Mballow, 24, who has a 4-year-old son, another child on the way and no plans to get vaccinated after giving birth. And Fatoumata Mballow, 29, struggling to get pregnant for a third time in a village where some women have as many as 10 children, quietly insists: “I don’t want to make it worse and destroy my womb.”

As health officials in Gambia and across Africa urge women to be vaccinated, they’ve confronted unwillingness among those of childbearing age. Many women worry that current or future pregnancies will be threatened, and in Africa, the success of a woman’s marriage often depends on the number of children she bears. Other women say they’re simply more afraid of the vaccine than the virus: As breadwinners, they can’t miss a day of work if side effects such as fatigue and fever briefly sideline them.

Their fears are hardly exceptional, with rumors proliferating across Africa, where fewer than 4% of the population is immunized. Although data on gender breakdown of vaccine distribution are lacking globally, experts see a growing number of women in Africa’s poorest countries consistently missing out on vaccines. Officials who already bemoan the inequity of vaccine distribution between rich and poor nations now fear that the stark gender disparity means African women are the least vaccinated population in the world.

This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. AP’s series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AP is responsible for all content.

“We do see, unfortunately, that even as COVID vaccines arrive in Africa after a long delay, women are being left behind,” said Dr. Abdahalah Ziraba, an epidemiologist at the African Population and Health Research Center. “This could mean they will suffer a heavier toll during the pandemic.”

The spread of vaccine misinformation is in large part to blame for the gender gap, officials say. Delays in getting vaccines to impoverished countries allowed misinformation to flourish, even in outlying villages where few people own smart phones. And with female literacy a challenge across Africa, women have long relied on word of mouth for information.

Despite the rampant concerns about pregnancy and fertility, there is no evidence that vaccines affect a woman’s chances of getting pregnant. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked tens of thousands of immunized women and found no difference in their pregnancy outcomes. The CDC, World Health Organization, and other agencies recommend pregnant women get vaccinated because they’re at higher risk of severe disease and death.

In Gambia, like many African countries, AstraZeneca was the only vaccine available initially. Widespread publicity of the links between that shot and rare blood clots in women during a fumbled rollout in Europe set back vaccination efforts. Many Gambians believed the shot would stop their blood from flowing altogether, thanks to poor translation of news into local languages.

Officials also confronted a deep mistrust of government and a belief that Africans were getting shots no one else wanted. Rumors swirled that the vaccine was designed to control the continent’s birth rate.

Health officials have since made strides getting Gambian women vaccinated; they now make up about 53 percent of those who’ve had the jabs, up several percentage points from just a few months ago. But there’s been a lag among those of child-bearing age, despite how frequently they’re in contact with maternity clinic workers.

Across Africa, officials report similar trends despite lacking wider data. In South Sudan, Gabon and Somalia, fewer than 30% of those who received at least one dose in the early stages of COVID-19 immunization campaigns were women.

In those countries — as elsewhere in the world, especially impoverished nations in parts of the Middle East and Asia — women face other obstacles accessing vaccines. Some need their husbands’ permission, or they lack technology to make appointments, or vaccine prioritization lists simply didn’t include them.

Dr. Roopa Dhatt, assistant professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, said it’s not surprising African women have been left behind, but addressing the problem is urgent. “If they do not get vaccinated at the same rate as men, they will become this pocket for COVID-19, and it will make it more difficult for all of us to get out of the pandemic,” she said.

In Gambia, many women begin their day at dawn by starting a fire to cook breakfast, so Lucy Jarju rises and makes her way to the river after morning chores. She and other women spend hours paddling small boats on the open water in search of dinner. The oysters, crab or small fish that are left uneaten will be sold, making up the bulk of their household income.

Jarju, 53, isn’t willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if it means missing even a day’s work. Her husband died a decade ago, leaving her alone to provide for her seven children and three grandchildren.

“Every day I am running up and down to make ends meet. If I go and take the vaccine, it will be a problem for me,” said Jarju, who often doesn’t make it home until dark, washing dishes before finally heading to bed, ready to repeat her routine the next day. “If my arm gets heavy and I can’t go to the water, who will feed my children?”

Jarju said she’s gotten other vaccines, but has yet to make the 25-minute trek on foot to the nearest clinic for her COVID-19 shot.

“Maybe later,” she demurred, heading off to prepare dinner with her share of the day’s catch.

Only about half of the world’s 200 countries and regions have reported COVID-19 vaccine data by gender, according to a global tracker at University College London. But since similar scenes play out across this country of 2.2 million people and its neighboring nations, experts fear the worst for women in these impoverished countries.

“In most countries in the world, we just don’t have the data to tell us if there is a COVID-19 gender divide,” said Sarah Hawkes, director of the Centre for Gender and Global Health at UCL. “But the few numbers that we do have suggest that it’s a problem.”

Gambia’s fate has been intertwined with that of its much larger West African neighbor Senegal, which completely envelops the tiny enclave of a nation except for the coast. Most foreigners arrive by land at checkpoints where no proof of negative COVID-19 results are needed, which allowed the virus to intensify as Senegal faced a crushing third wave.

And the pandemic has devastated the Gambian economy, which is sustained by tourists from Europe and money sent home from Gambians abroad. Gambians now depend more than ever on fishing and farming. Increasing numbers are taking to rickety boats to flee Gambia — which emerged from more than two decades of dictatorship in 2017 — risking death for a chance to reach European countries.

Hawkes said some hope exists that any initial imbalances in COVID-19 immunization rates between men and women continue to even out in Gambia and other countries once they have steady vaccine supplies. In most rich countries where vaccines have been freely available — including Britain, Canada, Germany and the U.S. — there is a nearly even split between the numbers of men and women getting inoculated.

But it’s particularly difficult to push vaccines in areas that haven’t had explosive outbreaks of the virus, such as parts of Gambia and South Sudan.

“Women here are worried their children will get pneumonia or malaria,” said nurse Anger Ater, who works on immunization campaigns in South Sudan. “They are not worried about COVID-19.”

Not just a rural problem

Reluctance to the coronavirus vaccine isn’t limited to remote villages. At the Bundung hospital in Serrekunda, on the outskirts of Gambia’s capital, the situation confounds chief executive officer Kebba Manneh, who has worked there for more than 20 years.

On a recent morning in the hospital’s maternity clinic, Manneh asked a group of dozens of expectant mothers how many had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Just one raised her hand.

Footsteps away, other women brought in their babies and toddlers for routine immunizations — measles, diphtheria and tetanus.

“You take your child to get vaccinations. What is so special about this one?” Manneh asked. A pregnant woman pulled out her phone to show him a video claiming a person’s body became magnetic after the COVID-19 shot, with a spoon stuck to the arm.

Initially, confusion stemmed from advice against vaccination for many women, said Marielle Bouyou Akotet, who leads the COVID-19 immunization plan in the central African nation of Gabon.

“As we did not know the effect of the vaccine on pregnant women, breastfeeding women and women who want to have a baby in the next six months, we recommended not to vaccinate this category,” said Bouyou Akotet, a professor at the University of Health Sciences in Libreville.

That recommendation was updated after several months, but many women in Gabon and elsewhere have still decided to skip vaccination altogether.

“‘If I take this vaccine, can I still conceive?'” patients ask Mariama Sonko, an infection control specialist at the Bundung hospital. “We tell them the research says it has nothing to do with that.”

But many women listen to stories instead of research. They hear about a woman who miscarried after her vaccination, at 11 weeks, and the fear spreads, even though pregnancy losses are common in the first trimester.

“What makes me afraid is what I heard on social media,” said Binta Balde, 29, who has been married for two years and has struggled to conceive. “That if you take the shot, you will not get pregnant.”

She’s visited the local health clinic and a traditional spiritual healer, who counseled her to swallow pieces of paper with Quranic verses and to drink tea made from herbs to boost fertility.

“When you get married and go to your husband’s house, you have to have a child,” she said. “If not, he could divorce you or leave you at any time. He may say, ‘She cannot give me a child, so I should look for another.'”

The rumors about COVID-19 and fertility have been especially troublesome in predominantly Muslim countries such as Gambia and Somalia, where polygamy is common.

“For Somali women, it means a lot to them,” said Abdikadir Ore Ahmed, a health specialist with CARE. “For you to stay in a family and a marriage, it’s expected you should be able to give birth to more children. The more children you have, the more acceptance you get.”

In Gambia, husbands must give permission for their wives’ medical procedures. Most women tell health care workers they won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine unless their spouse consents. But few husbands come to prenatal visits — only about half even attend their children’s birth at the Bundung hospital.

The hospital recently held an information session for fathers, where Manneh tried to explain the vaccine’s proven effectiveness.

“All the pregnant women coming here are not getting the vaccine because the husbands haven’t given their authorization,” he told the men. “Two of them have died. We are not forcing anybody, but lots of vaccine will expire soon.”

Fatoumata Nyabally’s job as a security officer puts her at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, and she hasn’t been vaccinated. She’s seven months pregnant, but her husband did not attend Manneh’s presentation. He’s already refused to consent for his wife’s vaccination.

So Nyabally declined the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, telling workers: “He’s the head of the family, so I have to obey him in anything we do.”

Of the 100 women approached that day at the hospital, only nine agreed to be vaccinated.

 

Source: Voice of America

Volunteers in the Sky Watch Over Migrant Rescues by Sea

ABOARD THE SEABIRD — As dozens of African migrants traversed the Mediterranean Sea on a flimsy white rubber boat, a small aircraft circling 1,000 feet above closely monitored their attempt to reach Europe.

The twin-engine Seabird, owned by the German non-governmental organization Sea-Watch, is tasked with documenting human rights violations committed against migrants at sea and relaying distress cases to nearby ships and authorities who have increasingly ignored their pleas.

On this cloudy October afternoon, an approaching thunderstorm heightened the dangers for the overcrowded boat. Nearly 23,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe since 2014, according to the United Nations’ migration agency.

Nour 2Nour 2, this is aircraft Seabird, aircraft Seabird,” the aircraft’s tactical coordinator, Eike Bretschneider, communicated via radio with the only vessel nearby. The captain of the Nour 2 agreed to change course and check up on the flimsy boat. But after seeing the boat had a Libyan flag, the people refused its assistance, the captain reported back on the crackling radio.

“They say they only have 20 liters of fuel left,” the captain, who did not identify himself by name, told the Seabird. “They want to continue on their journey.”

The small boat’s destination was the Italian island of Lampedusa, where tourists sitting in outdoor cafés sipped on Aperol Spritz, oblivious to what was unfolding some 111 kilometers south of them on the Mediterranean Sea.

Bretschneider, a 30-year-old social worker, made some quick calculations and concluded the migrants must have departed Libya approximately 20 hours ago and still had some 15 hours ahead of them before they reached Lampedusa. That was if their boat did not fall apart or capsize along the way.

Despite the risks, many migrants and refugees say they’d rather die trying to cross to Europe than be returned to Libya where, upon disembarkation, they are placed in detention centers and often subjected to relentless abuse.

Bretschneider sent the rubber boat’s coordinates to the air liaison officer sitting in Berlin, who then relayed the position (inside the Maltese Search and Rescue zone) to both Malta and Italy. Unsurprisingly to them, they received no response.

Running low on fuel, the Seabird had to leave the scene.

“We can only hope the people will reach the shore at some moment or will get rescued by a European coast guard vessel,” Bretschneider told AP as they made their way back.

The activists have grown used to having their distress calls go unanswered.

For years human rights groups and international law experts have denounced that European countries are increasingly ignoring their international obligations to rescue migrants at sea. Instead, they’ve outsourced rescues to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has a track record of reckless interceptions as well as ties to human traffickers and militias.

“I’m sorry, we don’t speak with NGOs,” a man answering the phone of the Maltese Rescue and Coordination Center told a member of Sea-Watch inquiring about a boat in distress this past June. In a separate call to the Rescue and Coordination Center in Rome, another Sea-Watch member was told: “We have no information to report to you.”

Maltese and Italian authorities did not respond to questions sent by AP.

Trying to get in touch with the Libyan rescue and coordination center is an even greater challenge. On the rare occasion that someone does pick up, the person on the other side of the line often doesn’t speak English.

More than 49,000 migrants have reached Italian shores so far this year according to the Italian Ministry of Interior, nearly double the number of people who crossed in the same time period last year.

Although it is illegal for European vessels to take rescued migrants back to Libya themselves, information shared by the EU’s surveillance drones and planes have allowed the Libyan Coast Guard to considerably increase its ability to stop migrants from reaching Europe. So far this year, it has intercepted roughly half of those who have attempted to leave, returning more than 26,000 men, women and children to Libya.

Sea-Watch has relied on millions of euros from individual donations over several years to expand its air monitoring capabilities as well. It now has two small aircraft that, with a bird’s-eye view, can find boats in distress much faster than ships can.

Taking off from Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than Italy, the planes can reach a distress case relatively quickly if its position is known. But when there are no exact coordinates, they must fly a search pattern, sometimes for hours, and scan the sea with the help of binoculars.

Even when flying low, finding a tiny boat in the vast Mediterranean can strain the most experienced eyes. The three- to four-person crew of volunteers reports every little dot on the horizon that could potentially be people in distress.

“Target at 10 o’clock,” the Seabird’s photographer sitting in the back alerted on a recent flight.

The pilot veered left to inspect it.

“Fishing boat, disregard,” Bretschneider, the tactical coordinator, replied.

In rough seas, breaking waves can play tricks and for brief moments resemble wobbly boats in the distance. Frequently, the “targets” turn out to be nothing at all, and the Seabird returns to land hours later without any new information.

But finding boats in distress is only the first challenge. Getting them rescued is just as difficult, if not harder.

With the absence of state rescue vessels and NGO ships getting increasingly blocked from leaving port, Sea-Watch often relies on the good will of merchant vessels navigating the area. But many are also reluctant to get involved after several commercial ships found themselves stuck at sea for days as they waited for Italy’s or Malta’s permission to disembark rescued migrants. Others have taken them back to Libya in violation of maritime and refugee conventions.

This week, a court in Naples convicted the captain of an Italian commercial ship for returning 101 migrants to Libya in 2018.

Without any state authority, the Seabird can only remind captains of their duty to rescue persons in distress. In this way, Bretschneider recently got an Italian supply vessel to save 65 people from a drifting migrant boat, just moments before the Libyan Coast Guard arrived.

On another mission a few days later, the Seabird returned from its flight without knowing what would happen to the people they had seen on the white rubber boat.

Bretschneider checked his phone at dinner that night, hoping for good news. On the other side of the Mediterranean, 17 bodies had washed up in Western Libya, apparently from a different boat.

The next day the Seabird took off to look for the white rubber boat again, in vain. On their way back, they got a message from land.

The white rubber boat had reached waters near Lampedusa and was picked up by the Italian Coast Guard. The people had made it.

 

Source: Voice of America