Why Is Africa Important to Me? – An Essay by John Wanda

The following essay was written by REACH Founder, John Wanda, in response to an essay contest on Why I Love Africa sponsored by the Sullivan Foundation.  We aren’t surprised that he won!  Congratulations, John!

Why is Africa Important to Me


John Wanda

REACH for Uganda

I will begin this essay with a simple admission – I was born in Africa. I don’t know if this excludes or enhances my chances of winning the trip to Malabo. All I know is that it makes Africa that much more important to me. When people talk of Africa’s thin air, or its hills and ridges and forests, all I need do is close my eyes and think back to my early childhood, and the memories come flooding back to me. When they talk about its wildlife, I instantly remember my first encounter with what I thought was a leopard in the forests of Mt. Elgon when I was barely 11.  That moment is indelibly captured in my memory. It was my first day alone in the forest, carrying a bundle of bamboos, when I saw a spotted big cat-like animal in front of me. I stood my ground and never looked away, as our village elders had frequently advised when discussing wild animals in the forest. Do not run, or throw a stone. Wild animals will never harm a person unless threatened or hungry. I had to hope this animal was not hungry. After a few anxious moments, the animal slunk away into the forest, and I walked back home.

My love for Africa is, however, much more than my longing for my childhood and the lush countryside of Eastern Uganda where I grew up. I left Uganda more than 16 years ago, and while I feel the romantic pull every time I think of it, I also feel a certain sadness. It is OK to feel romantic about Africa and its people. It is OK to remember the warm embrace of my village when I return home. It is OK to feel that time has not changed for most of its people. But at the same time, it is important for Africa to know that the world has moved on, for its people to know that technology and progress has changed the world outside. Having fond memories of a past is not going to provide sufficient food for our people.

Africa’s villages need more than a hoe and an ax to tackle the challenges of food scarcity. The hoe and the ax and machete, while a mainstay of our African past, has no place in agriculture today. Forty years ago, in our village, people had more than enough to eat. Today, with more than double the population it had then, our village produces less than the food than it did in 1975. Children today in my village are malnourished, and the land they till is tired and cannot produce enough food. Corn stalks are thin and the ears paltry, beans pods have only a few beans in them. Most bananas plants have been decimated by the banana weevil, and newspapers warn of a deadly new cassava mosaic disease that has rendered our cassava tubes no longer edible.

When I went to school, our classrooms had 60 students. Today, those same schools stand, with much decay, but their classrooms have 120 children or more. More kids stay home in the village than go to school. And those who finish school are lucky to have jobs. Uganda’s youth unemployment rate stands at 83%, far higher than any country in Africa, except Niger. Africa’s problems are not unique. Nor are they unsolvable. The Agricultural Revolution came to Europe and Asia and America decades and centuries ago.

Africa does not have to re-invent the wheel to have an agricultural revolution of its own. It has been estimated that two-thirds of Africa’s land that is arable is dormant. And yet we go looking for food aid from other countries. It would not take much to grow enough food for Africa’s people, and even export to the rest of the world. And Africa has the manpower. Look at all those unemployed youth as a source of labor. Look to the world outside for capital and equipment.  It cannot take much to have an agricultural revolution in Africa that can feed its people. The same thing with education.

We can do a lot better for Africa’s children. Africa has produced many professors and doctors who live overseas because the facilities in Africa are inadequate. If we can provide adequate incentives for Africa’s intelligentsia to return, and a decent program in education, we can help our children in Africa acquire a relevant education worth of its place in the world. Africa’s children are plenty capable. They can learn as well as children from other continents. They just need the facilities, the resources, the encouragement, and the attention of their leaders and those of us in the Diaspora. Those of us who have seen better must plan to return home to make a real positive contribution for our countries. Our children deserve it. Our countries deserve it. Our people deserve it. Africa is that important.

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