Africa is immense: larger in area than the total of China, India, the United States, Western Europe and Argentina. The continent is home to 53 countries with distinct cultures, economies and governments.
One cannot generalize about such a diverse continent. I’m referring here to the countries with which I have links – through EWB volunteers and staff: Ghana, Zambia and Malawi, all Sub-Saharan countries. In none of these countries does life expectancy exceed 58. Diseases like malaria, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS contribute to the low life expectancy; medical facilities are few and far between. The average adult has 4-7 year6 of education. Compared to Canada, where less than 2% of the population live below the poverty level, in these countries 30%-70% of the population live in poverty.
What does this mean for people living there?
People die young. In Zambia, Anthony Candelario explores the impact of early death in his blog Invest in People:
“It was afternoon. The sun was out of my sight, blocked by the thatched roof of the hut I was seated against. The village was mostly silent. The men were all sitting beside me speaking quietly to each other. The women were seated outside a hut opposite ours. Some were wailing in the distance. I sat there trying to comprehend the scene. In front of me was the son of the agent I was visiting. He’s no more than 3 feet tall and was wearing a little league soccer uniform. Out of my days in the village this was the first time I saw him stand silent. His tears were clearly traced through the dust on his face. I wondered if he just learned that his little sister passed away in the morning.
“I questioned what could have been if there was an infrastructure where a vehicle could easily bring someone to hospital instead of waiting for an NGO off-road vehicle to provide transport. What if travel time to the hospital was minutes instead of hours. What if medications were only 5 km away and not 50 km. What if the local clinic had ample electricity, diagnostic equipment and supplies instead of having to send people into town to receive treatment. What if there was access to information in the village; the ability to realize that the symptoms may have been malaria and not the cause of eating something bad as suggested by the village healer. What would the result be? Would it be that more people would be healthy? Would there be less death? Would it mean that a 7 month old girl would still be alive? Would it mean that a father wouldn’t have to bike 50km to the hospital to see his child? Would it mean the time they have together be extended by minutes, hours, months or years?”
Many children cannot obtain a secondary education. Families often have to make sacrifices to pay the fees to send even one child to school, if there is a school within reasonable travelling distance. From Zambia again, in 2009 Mike Klassen told the story of a man named Livias:
“… he’s 27 with a child named Harman, but the child’s mother has married someone else. This is because he [Livias] wanted to finish school (aka high school) before marriage and she wouldn’t wait. He’s 27 and didn’t finally get his grade 12 until 2 years ago. His father died when he was in grade 7, and his mother sold off all their livestock to pay for 3 years of school fees. Then he was sponsored by some people in Saudi Arabia for the next year and half (and the headmaster made him go to the Mosque as they tried to convert him). Finally that source ran out, and he scraped as much as he could together to finish grade 12.Unfortunately he still owed 400,000 ZMK (roughly $1000 CAN) and it took another 3 years to get his transcript. Like many Zambians, he shakes his head in disbelief when I tell him that high school education is free in Canada. And that we have less than 30 in a class, not 60 like it can be here.”
Children who do attend school also work long hours to help their families. Amir Allana provided a remarkable account of a day in the life of his host sister in Ghana. It’s too long to include, but you can read it here.
Annette Dunlop painted a picture of her host sister in her blog:
“Violet is a nine year old girl I lived with in Malawi for the summer 2009 and in this picture she’s carrying her two year old cousin Ephraim on her back. Both of Violet’s parents died of HIV/AIDS so she lives with her Aunt Meg in housing on the coffee co-operative I was working on. While Violet attends school she also has a huge amount of work to do around the house: waking up at 5am to start sweeping the house and yard, starting the fire for the day, taking care of Ephraim, collecting water from the bore hole (as seen in the painting) and tons of other chores that often keep her up late into the night.”
Mina Shahid’s reflections are pointed:
“Everything in rural Africa seems like a battle sometimes. There’s no tap to turn to get running water. There’s no toilet seat to sit on and “free yourself,” there are no smooth roads, there is no grocery store around the corner, there’s often no reprise from the heat. You just have to accept it. In order to survive you have to battle. And my battle is small compared to the battle rural Ghanaians face.
“They sweat, and toil, and sweat, and toil, so that they can wake up with a smile and a sense of comfort knowing that this year’s harvest will hold them over until the next. For most of them there’s no easy way out … They simply battle, relentless in their desire to improve their lot, or for some just to survive.
“… Sometimes, I wonder how people here do it. Wake up every day, knowing that the same thing must be done – grow food. It’s terrible, small-scale farming in rural Africa is actually terrible. It’s painful, it’s unreliable, and it’s often unrewarding. But what else can you do when you’re uneducated and have next to no money? What else can you do when geography dictated that you would be born in rural Ghana? What else can you do to survive when there are few real opportunities to do something different?”
In many ways, life in rural Africa is terrible, but that is only part of the story. As Brian Magee wrote:
“We have this view that they [people living in poverty in Africa] are helpless, lacking wealth, lacking willpower, and so we in the west inject money, and projects WE feel will work. The reality is that many of these people are not helpless. They are hopeful, energetic, and ready to create a better world for themselves. What they lack is opportunity, and sometimes the capacity to translate this hope and energy into sustainable action.”
They have great spirit – but little freedom of choice.
I’ll explore that spirit in my next post, but for a taste of it, watch Annette Dunlop’s video A Day in the Life of Violet.