The Foreign Service Journal, January 2012

F OCUS ON FS R EFLECT IONS B ORN IN K ANSAS , M ADE IN A FRICA 20 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2 orty years later, I realize that I learned a lot on my second day in Africa, though in Sep- tember 1970 I was too new to the continent to know it. I had been told that a good way to learn the local language was to read the daily newspaper, so I bought a copy of the Togo-Presse from a passing street vendor. I found the paper boring, as most of the articles were about Togo’s president- for-life, Etienne Eyadema, and his political party. The obituaries, by contrast, were interesting. One, in particular, reported that two men had died in prison at the same time from the same natural cause. Finding that to be quite a coincidence, I excitedly told my Togolese Peace Corps trainer what I had read. At first, Clément Hiheatro laughed loudly. Then, with a worried look, he stared straight into my eyes and said: “Young white man, you have a lot to learn about Africa.” It took years before I came to grips with what he meant, be- cause I could not accept that Africans could be so cruel to each other. The two men had, of course, been put to death on the order of the president. The tragedy is that the same, and much worse, is still possible in Africa, and presidents who commit such heinous crimes can stay in power for decades. The case of Togo, where Eyadema ruled for 38 years until his death and was replaced by one of his many sons, epitomizes the kinds of practices that hold Africa back. Indeed, the terrors of King Leopold’s Congo as related in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness are neither as fictional nor as distant as many believe. Most African coun- tries got off to a bad start, as was noted as early as 1962 by Rene Dumont in his classic work, Faux Depart en Afrique (False Start in Africa). Sadly, however, this “false start” has in many cases yet to be overcome. Still, in the midst of the unspeakable acts of violence and failed civic and economic development schemes, all over the continent many unsung heroes and heroines are sacri- ficing their lives to do the right thing to make Africa a bet- ter place. In reflecting onmy long involvement with Africa, I realize more clearly than ever that it is these individuals— and not donor nations and foreign aid workers—who hold the future of the African nations in their hands. I T IS THE MANY “ UNSUNG HEROES ” WORKING DAY AFTER DAY TO MAKE A FRICA A BETTER PLACE WHO HOLD THE CONTINENT ’ S FUTURE IN THEIR HANDS . B Y M ARK G. W ENTLING Mark G. Wentling spent nine years with the Peace Corps before joining USAID in 1977. He served in Niamey, Conakry, Lome, Mogadishu, Dar es Salaam and Wash- ington, D.C., before retiring from the Senior Foreign Serv- ice in 1996. He is currently the country director for Plan International in Burkina Faso, based in Ouagadougou. A previous reflection, “30 Years in Africa: Still Searching for Answers,” was published in the February 2002 FSJ .