This summer, I listened to a number of disturbing stories on the BBC about migrants, many of them African, undertaking horrific journeys filled with risk and terror. If they get far enough, their efforts usually culminate in a Mediterranean crossing, the result of a desperate attempt to reach Europe. Many are fleeing war-torn lives and economic hardship or both with the hopes of starting over in a country where they’re safe and can find work to support themselves and their families. This weekend alone, 4,400 migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya, making it one of the largest single day rescues ever (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34028487). The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year tops more than a quarter of a million (!) – and counting.

These images and stories are in such sharp contrast to the experience of arriving in Europe by way of sleek airplanes which convey passengers to modern airports which double as expansive malls. I was recently on sabbatical in Uganda and on my way back to the US, I caught a connecting flight in Brussels. When I arrived from Entebbe @ 7am local time and made my way to section B of the airport, at that hour, it was filled with hundreds of Africans, who presumably, like me, had layovers and were waiting for their connecting flights. We lined up for coffee @ Starbucks, perused the Samsonite luggage on sale and then found comfortable chairs to nap on. At one point, I saw a family of 12 sitting across from each other in pairs, laughing and talking over inviting plates of eggs, bacon, sausage, bread and tea.

I dare say most (maybe all?) of us in the airport that day who’d come from various cities in Africa, including Dakar, Abijan, and Kigali, were not migrants. Some were likely on holiday; perhaps others were returning after a trip to their homeland. But the gap between those who can afford to experience Europe in this way and those who risk everything for the shores of Italy could not be more wide.

How privileged some of us are — and how tragic the lives of others of us are.

It’s a sobering reality to contemplate…

A month from today, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a President for a 5 year term. For a nation that has been independent from Britain for almost 55 years – and with much of it’s checkered past littered with military heads of state, a national “democratic” election (supposedly – that remains to be seen) is hardly an insignificant event.

However, what gives me pause before any votes are even cast is that the current President, Goodluck Jonathan, has been chosen by his party, the PDP, to be their presidential candidate once again. This is despite the fact that his leadership has been appalling, non-existent, ineffective, and embarrassing, at least as far as his response to the situation with Boko Haram is concerned. Attacks throughout the northeast of the country but extending as far south as the capital city of Abuja have taken thousands of lives and left entire villages decimated and destroyed since the insurgency began in 2002. There is minimal accountability: these deaths go unreported – often due to the risk of violence required to get near to the sites of the crimes – let alone investigated, so the perpetrators take life without impunity. They know they can get away with it.

Rather than be contained, the situation appears to be escalating and there is minimal evidence that the government at the state or national level has the will or the courage or the impetus to contain the violence. (Nigerians I’ve talked to – both those who live there and abroad – are convinced that some very high up in the government are benefiting greatly from this insurgency. Hence, the lack of motivation to mobilize the resources necessary to tackle it. As long as the oil money keeps flowing, those in power will continue to ignore the crisis that is building.)

That Goodluck Jonathan would issue a statement condemning the attacks in Paris last week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/13/goodluck-jonathan-boko-ha_n_6464928.html) and yet make no statement whatsoever regarding what may be the worst attack by Boko Haram so far, days earlier on Jan 3 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30794829) is disheartening at best, and pathetic at worst. And of course, despite the worldwide outrage at the abduction of 200+ girls from Chibok last spring, nothing more has been heard about the whereabouts of the girls except those who escaped of their own accord. Or what the government is doing to try to investigate this kidnapping and bring to justice those behind this attack.

How can we expect others to believe that Nigerian lives matter, when the man elected to lead his nation is unable to communicate that message to his people, let alone marshall the type of response needed to tackle this desperate situation? Over and over again, bombs are detonated (the latest one by a 10 year old girl), villages are attacked and burned, throats are slit (literally) and there is silence from Aso Rock, the Presidential Villa.

Who will stand for us?

dr ada igonoh ebola survivor nov2014

I continue to find myself gripped by the events surrounding the Ebola outbreak that continues to devastate Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As 2015 begins, there are now 20,000 reported cases and 8,000 deaths – and counting. I also keep reflecting on how thankful I am that the disease was successfully contained (at least so far) in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 170 million – and counting.

Ebola arrived there at the end of July when a Liberian man who had Ebola and turned about to be extremely infectious flew into to Lagos from Monrovia. He denied that he’d been in contact with any Ebola patients or that he’d been at a burial recently, though he’d gone to Liberia from the US, where he lived, to bury his sister who’d died from Ebola. Due to his failure to provide this crucial information, it took several days before he was tested for Ebola and the appropriate preventive measures put in place. A number of health workers who cared for him were infected with Ebola and some died but fortunately the disease did not spread in ways it might have.

With all the reports coming out of Nigeria about the relentless attacks of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, limiting the spread of Ebola was a huge national triumph. And in many ways, I think the true significance of this containment got lost in the haze of the international community’s attempts to face the enormity of what was unfolding further up the coast of West Africa in the worst affected nations.

Several months ago, I wrote here about the heroic efforts of Dr. Adadevoh, a senior doctor at First Consultant’s Hospital where the Liberian man was admitted. Sadly, her leadership and courage in caring for this patient ultimately cost this mother of one her life: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-29685127 . But she played a key role in preventing a catastrophe. Recently, I came across an inside account from another female doctor, Dr Ada Igonoh, who was also involved in the care of the Liberian man. She too contracted Ebola – but after battling heroically for several weeks, she survived. Her remarkable and sobering account was posted on Bill Gates’ blog: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Surviving-Ebola-Dr-Ada-Igonoh .

Her story gives us a vivid inside view of the terror infected health workers are facing on the front lines of this outbreak. In Dr. Igonoh’s case, the power of her faith in God to sustain her in the face of such fear is remarkable and her determination to live and the unwavering support of her Pastor are also particularly noteworthy.

(Photo credit: http://www.nta.ng)

nneka okafor kibeho dec2014

Last Friday evening, almost on a whim, I went with a friend to see a play that was entering its final weekend. I was intrigued when I heard ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’ was written by Katori Hall, a young playwright whose ‘The Mountaintop’ several years earlier on Broadway had garnered awards and lots of attention. That play featured Samuel L Jackson as Martin Luther King, Jr and Angela Bassett as a maid whom Dr. King had an extended conversation with on what turned out to be his final night alive. While the performances were strong, the show included some supernatural elements at its conclusion which I found ruined what had come before. Still, I was curious about ‘Our Lady’ which was highly recommended by arts reviewers on my local radio station and which, I thought, might lend itself more readily to the supernatural. I was not disappointed.

Set in Rwanda, ‘Our Lady’ is based on a true story of 3 girls at a Catholic high school in the 1980s who claim visitations by the Virgin Mary. These sightings occur repeatedly over a period of  years and among the things she tells and shows them is a warning of the violence that is to befall this nation 10 years later. I was unfamiliar with this story which took place in the village of Kibeho (“chi be ho”), despite my keen interest in Rwanda and the subsequent ways forgiveness and reconciliation have been woven into the fabric of that nation following the tragic genocide of almost 1 million people over just 3 months in April of 1994.  Reports of visitations from Mary had occurred in several places in Europe but it was the first time this occurred in Africa which contributed to both local and international skepticism as to whether it was really true. In fact in the play, an envoy from the Vatican is sent to verify whether the girls’ accounts of seeing and hearing from Mary are credible. We as the audience observe some of girls’ experiences and are invited to decide this for ourselves. Is Mary really communicating with and through them or are the girls making the whole thing up to garner attention?

From the minute I walked into the 300 person space, one of three that is part of the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street, I felt as I was back in East Africa again. The set resembled many secondary schools I’ve seen in Uganda, banana trees framed the stage, and the horizon offered a view of lush rolling hills. Rwanda is known as “the land of a thousand hills”. Recall that the hotel featured in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was called Mille Collines – 1,000 hills. Turns out Rwanda is so spectacularly beautiful that Rwandans like to joke that its where God goes on vacation. The priest sent by the Vatican at one point in the play counters that, God may vacation in Rwanda, but he lives in Rome.

The two main characters were Africans and as a result, they were extremely convincing (which doesn’t often happen when African-American actors try to play Africans. They often struggle with the accent which is an immediate give-away.) A Kenyan actor, Owiso Odera, played a Rwandan priest, the head of the school, who struggles to come to terms with whether to believe these events. The main actress, Nneka Okafor, who played the first schoolgirl to experience the visitations, was Nigerian-American. She was outstanding. Her powerful performance conveyed an unusual combination of innocence, humility and courage. It was out her mouth that the words “truth is not afraid of the machete” were spoken.

Sadly the play’s two month run ended on Sunday. This was the play’s debut but it’s sure to appear somewhere else in the next year or two – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a film one day. Hall, the playwright, disclosed in an interview that she was looking for a fresh way to write about the genocide, to better understand for herself what led to those terrible events. She learned about the visitations during a trip to Rwanda in 2009 when she visited the shrine now built to Our Lady in Kibeho. Focusing on three poor, Rwandan girls in a small village in the most Christian of African countries, Hall has succeeded in giving us new ways to understand the complex intertwining of ethnic tensions, Catholicism, political power, and colonialism  – Rwanda was under Belgian rule – on the psyche of a nation.

Photo: Nneka Okafor by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Signature Theatre.

i lift my eyes to the hills

When I lived in southwestern Uganda for two years, one of the treats of my time there was having a breathtaking view of the Rwenzori Mountains on a daily basis. The Rwenzori’s, also called the mountains of the moon, are higher than the Alps and the Rockies, and can boast of having Africa’s third highest mountain. The waters which originate in these mountains are believed to feed the Nile River. And much of the vegetation and animals which can be found there are found only in this region.

The Rwenzoris, not well known, are quite unique: though they sit on the equator, their tallest peaks are covered in snow. On a clear day in Bundibugyo, when they weren’t shrouded in clouds, I recall seeing a sliver of snow on those peaks in the distance. It used to give me chills!

A recent documentary reveals that the glaciers on those mountains are disappearing quickly, however. If you’re a believer in climate change, or better yet, a skeptic, take a look at this short video.

http://ecowatch.com/2014/11/06/snows-nile-rwenzori-mountains/

Evidence that our planet indeed is getting warmer.

Sobering words coming from Dr. Pardis Sabeti, an infectious disease researcher at Harvard in a forthcoming OpEd to appear in the NY Times on Sept 7. Take a look:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/opinion/sunday/studying-ebola-then-dying-from-it.html?mabReward=RI%3A7&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&region=Footer&module=Recommendation&src=recg&pgtype=article

The time to act – by praying, giving money to MSF or WHO, and sending health care experts is now… Ebola may be in West Africa today but it could find its way very quickly to America or Europe or Asia or Australia if not tomorrow, in a matter of a very short time. And then it will take far more than 2,000 lives.

This weekend, the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Senegal, the fifth African nation to report a case in this latest and largest horrific outbreak. He is a Guinean man who’s been placed under observation. When a country knows exactly who the index case is for this disease, and are able to track the spread of the outbreak from the start, that once gave me hope that the spread of the disease could be contained. Now,  I have my doubts.

I’ve been holding my breath ever since a naturalized American from Minnesota, whose roots were Liberian, landed in Lagos on July 21. Reports indicate he was symptomatic on the plane and its not clear how or why he was cleared to board the flight in Monrovia. He died 4 days later. At least 4 health care workers who came into contact with him have subsequently died, as well as a driver who took him from the hospital to a nearby medical center – which has now since closed.

Few updates are emerging from Nigeria so its hard to tell if no news is in fact good news, or if the government is trying to keep anxiety in check, or both. To contain the spread of Ebola in Nigeria, the government has postponed the start of the school year until October 13, presumably to curb cross-country travel until them. This seems a bit reactionary, unless contact tracing occurring from the initial case has broken down. Recent reports suggest that it may have. The latest I read on line about the Nigeria situation concerned the death of a doctor in the southern city of Port Harcourt, who treated one of the original Liberian man’s contacts. The contact is reportedly doing OK, but the doctor who treated him has succumbed to the disease: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28966258 .

This is troubling, to hear of Ebola spreading to another urban center in a completely different geographic region of the country – and that it has taken the life of yet another health care worker, a group that has been particularly hard hit.

We’ve not seen anything quite like this before. On the world’s poorest continent, in countries that are recovering from war (like Liberia and Sierra Leone), and others (like Nigeria) that are trying not to teeter towards war, and in nations that already have such fragile health systems, this epidemic of an infectious disease emerging where its never been seen before, will stretch Africa’s leadership to the extreme.

Lord, have mercy.

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