Ofeibea Quist-Arcton On Reporting From W. Africa

In the past year, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent, has brought us stories about everything from political violence, to natural disasters, to Senegalese rappers, to post-apartheid South African poets. She joins Neal Conan to talk about the stories she doesn't get a chance to cover.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

You may not be able to place Dakar on a map, but you know this voice.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Human rights officials put the number of those killed to date at 157, but it was the soldiers brutal assaults on women that has so shaken Guineans.

Jean Batiste Iyanga(ph) stands in the doorway of his flooded bedroom on the outskirts of Dakar. He stretches out his long arms to show an empty space: no bed, no wardrobe, nothing except water up to his calves.

The Obama family paid a visit to one of a string of slave forts and castles that dot the Atlantic slave coast of Ghana. The poignancy was not lost on President Obama.

Now being a diehard Jackson 5 follower during my teeny-bop years and now a journalist, I was as excited as his Ivorian fans about the visit. I managed to ask him just one question: How do you like Ivory Coast? The reply, in this tiny, tiny voice was: beautiful. I love it. My four-word exclusive with Michael Jackson.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra, Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Dakar.

CONAN: In the past year alone, NPR West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has reported on political violence, natural disasters and disputes over natural resources. But shes also sent us stories of a Senegalese rapper and a South African writer and poet who speaks to the born-frees, the post-apartheid generation. If youd like to speak with her about her stories, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at - thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And today, Ofeibea is kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Shes on a visit to Washington, D.C. Nice to have you with us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Its a great pleasure. Im afraid I seemed to have caught the lurgies thats going around in NPRs corridors, so my voice is a bit quirky. But very happy to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Lurgy. We dont have lurgy here in this country. We get colds. Nevertheless, it is interesting to talk to you, to have the chance to see you in person and say, what is it about West Africa that we just dont understand?

QUIST-ARCTON: I dont know whether its that we dont understand it. Its just that theres so much going on. You know, a lot of people say, oh, Africa, Africa, were tired of Africa. Africa, there are only wars and conflict. But thats not at all what the continent is about, West Africa or any other part of the continent. There are people who are, as I say, making Africa ascend. There are people who are making the continent tick. There are people who are doing things that are helping Africas children, helping Africas development. But its true that as journalists - and Im as guilty as all other journalists. We do tend to spend a lot of time talking about the negative aspects of Africa, because often they are so huge.

CONAN: Well, recently, the story in Guinea, in Conakry, the terrible story that happened there. Something like that mass murder just simply cant be overlooked.

QUIST-ARCTON: Of course not. And I was on my way to Nigeria to do a story on rebranding Nigeria or to Sierra Leone or Liberia, talking about post-war countries. But look what happened in Guinea. At least 150 people killed, women raped in public by the presidential guard, the Red Berets, as they call them. I mean, you cant say I am going off to do a story on rebranding Africa when just next door, this is happening. It was a truly pitiful, sorrowful assignment. I have to tell you, Neal. A lot of the women were just like me, professional women. Theyd gone to hear their opposition leaders talk about - you know, challenge, the new military government in Guinea. They were going to a rally. Nobody was going because they thought they would have been killed or raped. Look what happened, so unfortunately.

CONAN: And, indeed, despite what the government may have feared, they were not going to overthrow the government, either.

QUIST-ARCTON: No. Thats not what they said they were going to do. They just said they wanted democratic elections, they wanted democracy, and they wanted good government, and looked what happened.

CONAN: I know youve gotten a lot of reaction to that story and I wonder if some of it isnt - hasnt been along the veins of this is just another stereotypical African story whenever you report on the positive things.

QUIST-ARCTON: Actually, funnily enough, no. I think theres been a lot of empathy for the women of Guinea. And as Ive said, you know, people in Africa are busy doing positive things. The women of Guinea for 50 odd years have been the pillars of civil society. They are ones who have challenged successive military governments and repressive governments and said, no, this has to stop. Were not going to put up with impunity of soldiers when they kill us and when they kill our young people. So theres the positive as well as the negative.

CONAN: You were also in Ghana when President Obama, we heard a little clip of that, was there for a visit. What was that like?

QUIST-ARCTON: You know, I come from Ghana, Neal, so it was home from (unintelligible) it was, you know what, it was a delightful and very positive story because it was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa that President Obama chose to come to. And not only did he come but he brought the first lady, Michelle Obama, and many people in Ghana feel that her roots are on the Slave Coast in Ghana. And he brought his two children, and Ghanaians are very welcoming people. So he got a very, very big welcome. The only thing is, when George Bush went to Ghana, George Bush, Jr., and when Bill Clinton went to Ghana, it was more of the people visit. A lot of people were a little bit disappointed that the Obama visit wasnt perhaps quite as open, but still Ghanaians welcomed the Obama family.

CONAN: Hmm. Weve asked youve done so many stories, the one story that has to be - still unresolved, its still weighing on everyones mind - is the political future in Zimbabwe, which seems to be such a tragic situation.

QUIST-ARCTON: It is. And it looked briefly, September-October, as if the things were going better. I havent been back to Zim, as they call it, since March.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUIST-ARCTON: And it looked as if perhaps this power sharing government between President Robert Mugabe and the former opposition leader, now prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, was moving forward. But a couple of weeks later, Tsvangirai disengaged, as he said it, from the power-sharing government. He said that Mugabes party is still bullying, is still suppressing and trying to repress his political opponents, and that theyre not going to put up with it, that unless he commits to this power-sharing government, they cant be a part of it.

CONAN: And therefore things just continue in stasis. All of the restrictions on trade with Zimbabwe and those kinds of things remain in force. It seems as if this has nowhere to go and do people continue to leave Zimbabwe, to flee, to South Africa for the most part?

QUIST-ARCTON: Fewer than before, but still Zimbabweans are leaving their country. From what I hear, things have got slightly better in that people kind of ah, I completely forgot to bring you in the one hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollar not, Neal. How could I?

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUIST-ARCTON: Can you imagine - one hundred trillion, ten trillion. I mean, ridiculous sums. This is a currency that no longer exists. The Zimbabweans now do their shopping and their currency exchange in dollars, in South African rand, in Botswana pula, but at least there are things on the shelves for people to buy. So from that point of view, from when I was there in December, where people were literally scrabbling for what to eat, things have improved slightly. But Zimbabweans, I think, deserve a better lot.

CONAN: Alright, heres an email we have from Yasmine in Mesa, Arizona: Not sure if the show is live. Yes, it is. What is Ofeibeas background? Where was she educated?

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea is from Ghana, as she said.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUIST-ARCTON: She was educated in England, went to the University in London.

CONAN: As we can hear in your accent.

QUIST-ARCTON: But Im, you know, Im a Ghanaian girl at heart.

CONAN: And which university?

QUIST-ARCTON: I went to London School of Economics.

CONAN: LSE.

QUIST-ARCTON: Yeah, part of the University of London.

CONAN: Lets see. We go next to a caller. This is BJ. BJ with us from Macon, Georgia.

BJ (Caller): Hello, (unintelligible) Im such a big fan. It is lovely to speak with you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you. Good to speak to you to, maam.

BJ: Thank you. And listen, heres my question, when Secretary of State Clinton was in Africa and she, of course, made headlines talking about the brutality against women and girls and the conflict on the African continent, do you see any progress in this horrible, horrible scenario?

QUIST-ARCTON: Unfortunately, since Secretary Clinton went to Africa, weve just been speaking about what happened in Guinea and the fact that women were raped in public and many people said this was absolutely a tool of repression and a weapon of war. So I think many women and many Africans want this to stop. But when you have rebel forces and government forces and all the different armed factions who see that by raping and sexually assaulting women, children, even men and boys

BJ: Uh-huh?

QUIST-ARCTON: that it gives them power and control.

BJ: Well, I really appreciate what you do, and I love your voice and I love your enthusiasm, or your compassion, just what youre feeling comes through. But I think youre exceedingly objective and I really appreciate that.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, maam.

BJ: All right, good bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Heres an email for Cy in Norfolk: Inspired by the medical and humanitarian work of Paul Farmer and Catherine Hamlin, I left a six figure job in 2005 to pursue a career in medicine, with the intent to work for a M�decins Sans Fronti�res, or Doctors Without Borders, or a similar organization. Im in my first year of medical school, in my 40s. Im wondering if Ive done the right thing. From your guests perspective, is my potential future contribution as a foreign medical provider more or less valuable to the people of Africa than my monetary contributions if I go back to the hands-off high-paying career?

QUIST-ARCTON: Theres a tough one to answer. Its really what you feel inspired by. And the fact that youve decided to go to medical school and then to try to go to Africa to help, that has to be a positive thing, yes.

CONAN: Now, lets see, we go next to Felix. Felix driving through Ohio.

FELIX (Caller): Yeah, good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

FELIX: Good afternoon, Ofeibea. Hey, I have a question for you. Well, how come you dont do about - report about corruption in Nigeria? Theres a lot of corruption in Nigeria because everybody that comes to the government, I think theyre trying to pocket the money from the oil.

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, Felix, I dont know whether you do me justice. I have over the five years Ive been with NPR reported on corruption in Nigeria. But I cant report on corruption every time I go to Nigeria. There are so many other stories.

FELIX: Please, because Im from Nigeria. I live here in America, you know. Its tough when you see a country with so much wealth. (Unintelligible) million people (unintelligible) theres no good roads, no electricity, no good food. You know, its crazy. Im driving through Ohio. There is a good network of roads in this - God bless America, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FELIX: (Unintelligible) God bless America.

QUIST-ARCTON: And Felix, God bless Africa.

FELIX: Yeah, God bless Africa. If Africa cant find their way, at least remove all the old guard who think they own Africa, all the old guard

CONAN: All right, Felix, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

FELIX: Thank you.

CONAN: Were talking with NPRs West African correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, with us on a brief visit to Washington, D.C. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And one of the things that we always ask our visitors from overseas to bring us is some music of - that they might want to share with our audience. And you have brought us a CD of somebody, well, somebody we know well, Miriam Makeba.

QUIST-ARCTON: The late Miriam Makeba, whose death occurred a year ago this week. I mean she is absolutely my number one, Neal. I discovered Makeba when my parents lived in Nairobi, Kenya, perhaps I was 9, 10 years old. And she has remained my absolute number one. Can we listen?

CONAN: We can listen. Heres a clip of Miriam Makeba singing Dubula - I hope Im not mispronouncing that too badly.

(Soundbite of the song, Dubula)

Ms. MIRIAM MAKEBA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: Miriam Makeba, and she has a special place in your heart.

QUIST-ARCTON: She has. Shes got a special place in the hearts of many, many, many Africans. Not only did she have the most sublime voice, Neal, but she was also such a champion for rights, not only the rights of South Africans under apartheid but for all Africans. She moved to Guinea, the country that I we were talking about not so long ago. And she said that the positive thing about Guinea was the arts, the culture, the dancers, the music. She was such a pan-Africanist champion. I mean theres just no two Miriam Makebas. May she rest in peace.

CONAN: Now, lets see we get another caller in. This is Lenu(ph). I hope Im got that right. And this is from Kansas City.

LENU (Caller): Yes, youre right.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LENU: Yeah, my question is, that Ive been listening to - thank you Mr. Neal and thank you to the young lady that is talking now. Im very happy to hear her talking about Africa today.

QUIST-ARCTON: Shes happy to hear you call her a young lady.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LENU: (Unintelligible) thank you. But my question is, why do Western media always portray the negative part of Africa? And Ill take my question off the air.

CONAN: All right.

QUIST-ARCTON: Are you listening all the time, sir. Do you remember Emerging Voices, when we talked about artists in Africa, when we profiled a singer from Ethiopia, a rapper from Senegal, a writer from Uganda, a poet from South Africa, and an artist from Ghana? Its not all the time. But I think that so many egregious things are happening on the continent that you cant close your eyes and forget about them. The thing is to try and balance what you report, so that you cover those stories as well as the positive developments. Thank you.

CONAN: In that light, here is an email from Joseph. Which sub-Saharan African countries have the brightest futures politically and which have the best prospects economically?

QUIST-ARCTON: Hmm. Botswana, diamond producing, Rwanda, Mozambique, some say Ghana. There are quite a few countries that are doing pretty well, that have managed to, through good leadership and good governance, propel their countries forward. But unfortunately there are still a number of countries that are holding their people back.

CONAN: And here is another email, this from John in Oakland. Can you please ask your guest to speak her thoughts on China and the Chinese influence in Africa?

QUIST-ARCTON: Its huge. Everybody watch out, because they forget how many Chinese people there are. And the Chinese are now very, very evident in Africa and theyre challenging American supremacy in Africa, European, former colonial supremacy in Africa. But you know what, the difference is that the Chinese coming and they almost have, I would say, like a pioneer mentality. They didnt have to stay in air-conditioned hotels drinking Cokes full of ice.

They will go to the market, they will go anywhere ordinary Africans go, and they just get on with it. And I think in a way many Africans do appreciate that. The problem is that many people say China is like the former European colonial powers, also raping Africa of its natural resources, and that Africa should be as organized as China is, having done its homework, so that it doesnt lose out all over again in this new scramble for Africa, as theyre calling it.

CONAN: The new scramble for Africa - well, perhaps played out no more vividly than in the oil country of Nigeria?

QUIST-ARCTON: Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, I mean there are many countries, actually, that you can quote where now China is rivaling the U.S. and the former European colonial powers. So I think in all of this what Africa has to do is make sure that Africa is on the ball, so that Africans benefit and dont lose out.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, we wish you would visit Washington more often.

QUIST-ARCTON: When the sun comes out, I promise Ill be back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This is pretty cold for you. Anyway, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joined us here in Studio 3A. She is NPRs West African correspondent, normally based in Dakar in Senegal. I cant begin to pronounce it the way you can. She is with us here. Thank you so much for your time.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow its SCIENCE FRIDAY. Well see you again on Monday.

Im Neal Conan. Its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.