Trial and Triumph: Stories Out Of Africa Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's Africa-based correspondent, discusses the stories that have been painful and devastating for many nations on the continent. She also describes the stories that have been exciting, including the U.S. presidential race of Sen. Barack Obama.
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Trial and Triumph: Stories Out Of Africa

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Trial and Triumph: Stories Out Of Africa

Trial and Triumph: Stories Out Of Africa

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, how one young woman found a way to make a big difference for some of the world's poorest children. But first, we know you've heard this voice on our airways.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Welcome to Santane (ph). Greetings from Conakry, the Guinean capital. Greetings from Ghana.

MARTIN: That's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent. Her beat has proven to be one of the most interesting and volatile this year. This year, Ofeibea covered the bloody aftermath of elections in Kenya, the historic power-sharing deal between Zimbabwe's incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and the rising influence of China on the continent, and now, she has stopped into NPR headquarters in Washington.

We asked her to stop by our studios to talk about the stories she's been covering, including some she may not have even gotten on the air. Ofeibea, thank you so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Lovely to be here.

MARTIN: It's so great to see you in person.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Instead of over a crackly phone line someplace.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's right. They were a bit crackly, weren't they?

MARTIN: Yes, well, you've had quite a year. You started the year by flying to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where conflict erupted after presidential elections. Let's play a short clip of one of your reports.

(Soundbite of a people crying)

QUIST-ARCTON: Women wore strips of red and black cloth to show they were bereaved, and they wailed at Nairobi City Mortuary as the caskets of their loved ones and friends were hoisted onto trucks to be driven to the venue of the funeral prayer service. The ceremony was organized by the main opposition party, headed by Raila Odinga. He claims he was robbed of victory by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and is challenging the December 27 vote tally.

MARTIN: And, of course, as you covered this, went on for weeks. What was it like there for you at that time?

QUIST-ARCTON: It was actually really very sad. The last main reporting that I did there was covering the elections when Mwai Kibaki was elected president. I mean, it was just such a joyous feel-good atmosphere. There was going to be change, and this was just so very different to go into a Kenya that was tense and where the violence had already started. So it was actually quite depressing for me as a reporter, so imagine what it was like for ordinary Kenyans.

MARTIN: In fact, I think it was a shock to many people that this erupted there, Kenya being considered one of the most stable places on the continent there. When you finally left, and, in fact, it took some months to organize an end to the violence, to organize sort of a power-sharing deal. Is it your sense that the country's recovering from this? (Unintelligible) I mean, like, there were tens of thousands of people displaced over the course of this conflict.

QUIST-ARCTON: And that hasn't ended. People are still displaced, and people are worried about going to the communities that either drove them out, you know, with pangas they call them, machetes, knives, burned their homes. But the government is saying, you know, it's time for reconciliation. You must go back.

But if you don't feel safe, how do you go back? And then the other thing, Michel, is this, which is becoming almost a trend in Africa, power-sharing deals. There are a lot of people who are saying, you know, when the opposition wins, and there was clearly fraud, why should they share power with the person who was defeated at the polls? And we've seen it in Kenya.

Then, where I've also been this year, in Zimbabwe, a power-sharing deal, where most people say that the election was not free and fair, that the only part of the election, the presidential election in March, was won by the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. So, it's a growing trend that people are questioning. Are we going to have elections in democracy, or are we going to have power sharing as a new type of election?

MARTIN: Speaking of Zimbabwe, which is a story you've followed very closely through the elections and all of that that sort of followed. I really want to know how is it that people are living there? I mean, you've talked about hyperinflations. How is it that people buy food and basic supplies?

QUIST-ARCTON: With great, great difficulty. In Zimbabwe, you have had a political crisis. You have had an economic crisis running parallel and just ordinary people struggling to make ends meet. All you see in Zim, as they call Zimbabwe, are these long queues, long lines of people waiting to try and get money out of the bank, not even the ATM.

And when they get the money out of the bank, Michel, does it even buy a loaf of bread, let alone pay for your children's school fees, let alone buy the cornmeal that is the staple in Zimbabwe. Let alone do anything else, fuel shortages. So, dealing with that whilst everybody, of course, in the outside world is focused on the political problems, Zimbabweans are having to deal with the reality of a very, very, very difficult life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Our guest is NPR's West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's emptying her notebook and telling us about many of the stories that she's covered this year.

I must say, this may not have been a shock to you, but it was a shock to many of us that when South African President Thabo Mbeki stepped down months short of the end of his term. He played a pivotal role in negotiating this power-sharing agreement, for good or for ill, in Zimbabwe, but given the level of violence that people were experiencing, I think many people saw it as an advance. Was this a surprise that he has stepped down, and what are South Africans saying about his legacy?

Ms. QUIST-ARCTON: I think the speed of how it happened was what surprised even South Africans. Things have been going wrong politically in South Africa. There's been a power struggle between now deposed President Thabo Mbeki and his nemesis, Jacob Zuma, who's now head of the party, the very powerful African National Congress, and, of course, that's the party that brought liberation to South Africa.

Mbeki was due out anyway in the first half of next year because elections were coming up, and he had served his constitutional two terms. But what was a real catalyst for Mbeki's final demise and speedy demise was the fact that a South African judge in at the corruption case against Zuma - charges of corruption, money laundering, and other - said that he felt there had been political meddling by the Mbeki government in the case.

I think, when that happened, two, three weeks ago, Thabo Mbeki must have known that his political opponents within the party would come knocking at the door. And, as it's an election where it's the party that is elected and not the president, you have to obey your party. If they give you your marching orders, and they say, Thabo Mbeki, you step down, you step down. It's true he could have contested it, but in a way, what was he going to do?

MARTIN: When you look at all the stories that you've covered this year, what is the sense that you get? Obviously, Africa's just this huge place, but do you get a sense of the beginning of a new era, a generational shift? Is there more of a sense of kind of exhaustion from all that's going on?

Ms. QUIST-ARCTON: I think that's been happening for a while, the generational shift in leadership. And, you know, I'm afraid I have been a conflict reporter this year. It's not a title I like, and it's not a job that I like doing. But when you're quite thin on the ground for, as you say, a continent that's 54 nations, so that's what we've had to do.

But there are countries that are doing really well in Africa - Mozambique, my own country Ghana, coming up to elections, and the change one way or another, just - they're similar to the United States; President Bush came in at the same time as President Kufuor came in - you know, Benin, a little French speaking country, not so far away from Ghana, Zambia.

There are countries that are doing well, but when there are big crises, like Zimbabwe, those other countries, sadly, get left behind. But I'm hoping that in the last quarter of the year, I'll be able to cover some of, you know, some of the more successful stories, some of the stories that show Africa going forward, Africans inventing, Africans creating, and Africans getting on with their lives.

MARTIN: In fact, I was going to ask you that. Are there stories that you had to pass by this year?

Ms. QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, how many.

MARTIN: Because you were so busy, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. QUIST-ARCTON: You should see my list of features, and every year, one puts them in, and unfortunately one only gets to do one or two or three or maybe ten of them. Yeah, my dream is to ride on the Congo River, the mighty Congo in the Democratic Republican of Congo, and just tell NPR listeners and Tell Me More listeners what life is like on this river, which is absolutely at the heart of the continent and the heart of the nation because that is one of the main ways transport up and down and things move.

MARTIN: And, of course, I understand that it's the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Things Fall Apart," and I'm - you're going to tell us more about that at some point.

Ms. QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, yes. Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, one of the leading writers on the continent, his seminal book, "Things Fall Apart," which merits some of the African states that failed before they rose up again.

It's a book that is taught in all African schools, be it English speaking, French speaking, everybody knows the story of Okonko (ph), and how pride comes before a fall. 50 years ago already, Chinua Achebe, who's actually based here in the United States, his book is being celebrated not only in Africa, but here in the U.S. and in Europe, all over. You know, before the end of the year, before this book turns 51, we must profile him and the book.

MARTIN: Absolutely, we're going to hold you to that, Ofeibea.


MARTIN: Yes. Finally, I wanted to ask you on a son of Africa, Barack Obama, is a poised to - at least have the opportunity to become the next president of the United States. How does this campaign look overseas?

QUIST-ARCTON: You know, it has absolutely fired the imagination, not only of the American people, but people in Africa. The fact that, for starters, Barack Obama's father is from Kenya, people were very excited. And because they had had a failed election in Kenya, and the opposition leading Kenya, Raila Odinga, comes from the same tribe as Barack Obama's father, the Luo, the joke was going around Kenya that America is going to have a Luo president before Kenya does.

Now, there's huge interest, not just in Kenya, all over the continent. Nobody for a moment, I think, believes that he is anything but a - would be anything but an American president if he is elected. The fact that a black man and one with African blood has managed to get this far, you know, I think it has made young people sit up and listen and watch and follow the campaign. It has made the older generations who lived through the colonialism and independence sit down and say, well, well, well, so it can happen in America, too. Huge interest.

MARTIN: Does it changed in some way the way Africans, some Africans - because you certainly cannot speak for all - think about the United States?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think the U.S. generally gets a pretty good press in Africa, but, especially the predominantly Muslim countries, over the span of George Bush's governance here, I think they have felt very disappointed because they feel that, because of the continuing war in Iraq, they don't feel well-disposed towards President Bush.

But I think, generally, the president probably gets a better press in Africa than he does right here in the United States, and that's because of things like PEPFAR, the president's program, which has helped on HIV and AIDS. Although this criticism that the U.S. administration is talking about abstinence rather than abstinence and fidelity and, of course, condomize, make sure that you use protection. But I think, generally, George Bush is not as popular as Bill Clinton in Africa and probably not as well known, but still, I think he can go out, leave office here feeling that he has friends in Africa. Yeah.

MARTIN: So a lot of interests.

QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent. She was traveling through Washington, and she was kind enough to join us in our studios here. Ofeibea, will you stay in touch?


MARTIN: Thank you so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, a pleasure.

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