Sunday, September 12, 2010

Visible Progress in Africa?

From Sao Tome & Principe, one of the world's (and Africa's) smallest countries; still, it's a nation with the same difficulties to face as the others.  I've been here regularly since '07.

Political and public events of interest in Sao Tome & Principe: With recent election results now confirmed by the courts, there has been a change of government with a popular mandate for fiscal accountability and reform, at least according to the word on the street. I’m told that the incoming prime minister was ousted in a preceding government because he insisted on strong accountability measures in the budget processes. Now, perhaps, he has a chance to push hard on the issue again with a cooperative cabinet and national assembly.

Numerous road construction projects are visible in areas we’ve not seen served since our program’s inception. They seem generally to be significant efforts including new concrete curbs and ditches, short seawall borders for roads along the beach, significant amounts of material, and so on.

The three photos here show examples of major road work above and below Santana and of a new seawall at Ribeira Afonso. There’s a new secondary school in final construction just above Trinidade and due to open in November; capacity perhaps 600 or so. All encouraging developments, particularly to those of us who have been driving these roads with heretofore epic potholes!

Embassy staff tells me there’s a new power plant in operation that is now being integrated into the national grid. Until that is complete rural community power is still just a few hours a day.

All of these efforts precede the election and continue afterward.

Schools have textbooks as of last September. I'm told it covers the entire school system. Impressive.

Health care remains unnerving for a westerner, and difficult for the local folks to access. I had occasion to rush a lady to the hospital; she’d been in an encounter at the community water spigot; she had her nose split and broken by a blow from a water jug; thirty-six stitches and some impressive swelling. The hospital was an uncomfortable flurry of activity when we were there, late afternoon.

The Seabees, always well received and appreciated here, are working on security fencing at the airport. Although an essential for the country, this particular project is less popular with some of the locals (photo) since they walk across the airport to get to the nearest water, to school, etc. On the upside, the airport authority is building a water tank for the affected community on the far side of the airport. That should ease the imposition somewhat.

For regular folks, life remains difficult for all but a small, wealthy percentage. In schools, the failure rate at the critical 6th and 9th grade levels remains above 70%, precluding advancement for most. Under-nutrition in children persists at around the 35% level.

Some accuse Africans of being lazy, and in doing so illustrate their misunderstanding of the plight of many. It doesn't matter how far they walk or how hard they work, they'll get little to nothing for their efforts. My African friends including their children work harder than I do, but there are few who will pay them for their efforts. Fishing and garden agriculture produce a bare subsistence. It remains a difficult world.

To keep the people and culture in perspective, these fine folks in the last picture are a Catholic volunteer organization working in a community to restore their fields to productivity. They spent a couple of weeks working in a hillside community, lending a hand where it's needed. It wasn't easy work. I met them through three of their guys wheel-barrowing drums of water along the road and up the hillside. We put the water in the back of my truck, went up the hill, and met the rest of the crowd. Nice folks. Came back a few hours later with cold cases of soft drinks. Big hit; got a standing ovation.

Intelligence, perseverance, a strong work ethic, and grace, all evident in the folks here.  It's a pleasure to work with them and heartbreaking to experience the difficulties that are part of their lives every day.