MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this program we are often able to have conversations with talented writers. In fact, we are having another such conversation later on in today's program and we often have conversations with important public officials from around the world. Today we are lucky enough to have someone who is both. The Vice President of the Republic of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama. If you're a regular reader of the online publication theroot.com then you might have caught his dispatches on African and American politics and policy.
He's also pinned a poignant forthcoming memoir. We caught up with Vice President John Dramani Mahama last week when he was in the U.S. for a high level meeting at the United Nations on HIV/AIDS, one of the persistent health challenges on the continent and around the world. Mr. vice president, thank you for joining us.
Vice President JOHN DRAMANI MAHAMA: Thanks, Michel, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: There are a number of things we want to talk about obviously but we thought we'd start by talking about the immediate reason for your U.S. visit. You were a number of African leaders who have attended the high level meeting at the United Nations. You know, in advance of the meeting the Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon issued a report saying that there is progress in fighting HIV/AIDS. He says that between 2001 and 2009, the rate of new HIV infections in 33 countries fell by at least 25 percent.
He says that by the end of 2010 more than six million people were on antiretroviral treatment, but he says that for every person who starts antiretroviral treatment two people become newly affected, that these gains are very fragile. I wanted to ask you first, what's the situation in Ghana and why do you think that it has been so hard to get our hands around this?
MAHAMA: Ghana is one of the countries that has made significant progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Since we launched our first national strategic plan and set up the Ghana Aids Commission, we have brought the prevalence rate down from nearly 4 percent to the current level of 1.5 percent. That's significant. I remember when we started the program, you know, it was a culture where people didn't want to talk about HIV/AIDS. It wasn't something that people talked about and eventually, I mean, when people realized that this was a major issue, you know, that needed to be dealt with, a lot of them have come out and participated traditional rulers, religious leaders, you know, have all come on board and we've made significant progress.
MARTIN: One of the recommendations that the U.N. secretary-general made - it's a five point program. We're not going to talk about all of them, but one of the points that he says needs to be addressed is to promote the health, human rights and dignity of women and girls.
MAHAMA: Yeah, that's right.
MARTIN: Do you think that's true?
MAHAMA: That's right. In our new national strategic plan there is a focus, you know, that especially on pregnant mothers and also the issue to do with stigma and so, we are aiming for zero transmissions from mother to child and so, we're going to increase surveillance, you know, in terms of pregnant mothers, so that we prevent them from passing on the transmission. We are also working in the era of stigma and discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS, and that has gone very well.
MARTIN: Give us some examples, if you would, about some of the initiatives that you've undertaken?
MAHAMA: One of the initiatives has been working with community-based organizations and educating communities about what the disease is about. There existed a misunderstanding of what the disease was about, and so people were afraid to eat from the same plate with an HIV infected person because they thought they could get infected or sharing things together. You know, and that has dispelled a lot of the misunderstanding of the sickness and we are encouraging (unintelligible) counseling and testing, you know, so, that people can go and test and know what their status is.
And now that they know is not a death sentence - even when you're HIV/AIDS positive - I think people are coming around.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with John Dramani Mahama, the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana. He's here in the United States. He recently participated in a high level meeting at the United Nations on HIV/AIDS. We want to talk about other things. I want to talk a little bit about world affairs. You wrote in The Root, a daily online magazine, so I wanted to ask how did that come about, these regular essays that you've been writing?
MAHAMA: In my quite moments as a leader my mind fills with a lot of thoughts about the work I do, the people I meet, and so when I have a quite moments, traveling, in my hotel room or sometimes I wake up early in the morning and the muse descends on me. I just take my laptop and start pounding away.
MARTIN: Well, we're glad. I want to read a piece from something that you wrote a couple of months ago. You wrote: (Reading) Times are changing in Africa. Pooches and autocracies are fast becoming a thing of the past. Our citizens are tired of despots and corrupt leaders dimming the prospects of a bright future for them and their children. Africans are becoming more politically vocal and savvy, refusing silence and staking their lives on their right to suffrage.
What's most interesting about this to me is you wrote this back in December.
MARTIN: And since then all these events that we've seen in the Arab world, particularly the fall of the government in Egypt, the fall of the government in Tunisia. And I was wondering what prompted you to say that back then? How did you know?
MAHAMA: It's something I've known and it's something that has been going on in Africa imperceptively. A lot of people don't know the rapid changes that are going on in Africa and especially in the west. The perceptions of Africa are normally negative. When Africa and is mentioned in the headlines is normally about something negative - natural disasters, hunger, you know, HIV/AIDS or disease, or something like that. But from the 90's most countries went back to national conferences, drafted new constitutions, elections are taking place, more countries are governed, you know, by democratic principals and so on and so forth.
And so we've come a long way from the early '90's till now. If you notice on the continent civil society organizations are more expressive, we have more media freedom than used to exist before. Military dictatorships have gone the way of the dinosaurs. They are extinct, you know, and so a lot of progress has happened, and I thought that somebody should be documenting that positive side.
MARTIN: And speaking as a communications (unintelligible), there are those who argue that what Africa needs is an Al Jazeera for Africa.
MAHAMA: Africa needs a medium to tell it's story. We don't have an Al Jazeera yet but I think that the media institutions developing in Sub-Saharan Africa. That potentially could achieve that kind of status.
MARTIN: Well, why isn't there, why not, why isn't there one? There's a tremendous wealth. There's tremendous wealth in Africa and there are tremendous media figures particularly in the wireless communications area.
MARTIN: So, why isn't there one?
MAHAMA: I think it should be private sector driven and then the African private sector with the kind of communications we had on the continent was not yet ready but since the deregulation of the telecom sector, we have dedicated satellites over Africa and I think the time has come for that.
MARTIN: I understand that you have a particular interest in green jobs and the environment.
MARTIN: Which is also not something that one necessarily associates with Africa, although, of course, the great Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Wangari Maathai from Kenya has sort of been associated with the green movement and the reforestation, and things of that. So, talk a little bit that. You talk about plastic pollution.
MARTIN: How did you get interested in this and tell us what you want to accomplish?
MAHAMA: I'm a member of parliament and there's one time I went back to the (unintelligible) and I visited a village. There were little plastic bags, you know, just laying all over the place. It was like a garden of plastic, you know. It struck me. I said, where's all this plastic coming from and after I leave to go to the main market in the district capital and when they buy things they package it in plastics for them and so, they bring the plastics back.
They use whatever it is and throw the plastics away. They don't know how to deal with the plastic and so, my advocacy is about single use plastics for people use and plastic bags from shopping and just discard them. Africa has less of a capacity to deal with these plastics and so, the plastics are becoming a very serious menace. They're just poisonous to the environment.
MARTIN: And you hope to accomplish what?
MAHAMA: I hope to create an awareness, you know, amongst people. One, that we don't need to use as much single-use plastics. Two, if they use them, they must dispose of them properly. And we're taking some of the measures. We have imposed a tax on plastics. That would let people recognize what the real value of using that plastic is. And so we're advocating, you know, better use of plastic.
MARTIN: If you don't mind, I wanted to talk a little a bit about your writing. You were nice enough to make an excerpt from your forthcoming memoir available. And I do hope, if I may, that you'll come back and talk with us again when the memoir is published, which I believe is going to happen early next year. What made you decide to put forward this memoir at this time and who do you hope will read it, and what do you hope they'll get from it?
MAHAMA: There was a lot of euphoria when Africa got independence from colonial domination. And so there's, you know, a lot of books writing about pre-independence Africa. There's been a lot of books written about post-independence Africa. There's a period between the '70s and '80s, which I refer and a lot of people refer to, as the lost decades of Africa. It was a time when there was a brain drain. A lot of Africans left the continent, you know, out of harassment or they just were fed up with the conditions, you know, back home.
And so there's a dearth of knowledge and writing in that period. And that's the period I was growing up. That's the period I was forming my consciousness. And I think that that period needs to be documented. And so I take chapters in my life, incidents in my life, and I build stories around them. And I hope that that will be a contribution to showing that even though those are the lost decades and African countries had retrogressed, in terms of democracy and economically, there were some good things happening.
We were growing up. We were having fun. You know, knowledge and consciousness was being built and that's what the essence of the book is.
MARTIN: There is a, still, a large first generation African diaspora in the United States. I'm interested in what your message is to them. 'Cause on the one hand, many people express a great desire to remain involved with their countries of origin. On the other hand, when governance falls apart, it really falls apart in a dramatic way. And I'm just wondering, what's your message to these first generation diasporans who might be here now listening to you and saying - who are wondering, should I stay? Should I go? I mean, obviously every country is different. Professor, what do you think?
MAHAMA: Well, it's happening already. I mean, in the case of Ghana, we are seeing significant movements back. The brain drain appears to be reversing and becoming a brain gain, because many significant, you know, relocations are taking place. We have a new growing oil industry in Ghana and incidentally we've had a lot of Ghanaians working out with oil companies and all kinds of, you know, expertise in oil. And they are coming back. The kind of loss Africa suffered with people drifting out en masse appears to have abated.
MARTIN: John Dramani Mahama is a vice president of the Republic of Ghana and advocate for the environment. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. He was attending the United Nation's high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS. Thank you so much for joining us.
MAHAMA: Thank you, Michel.