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'Africa Is Champion': Reporting From A Changing Continent


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It is our final week of programming here on TELL ME MORE. And we wanted to draw attention to the kinds of stories that have been important to us in our past seven years on the air. One of the show's missions has always been to highlight international stories that you might not be hearing anywhere else or perhaps in a depth that goes beyond coverage in other places. And so today we'd like to hear from those who have helped make that happen. For us and for many listeners, frankly, NPR's coverage of Africa is synonymous with the name Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Over the years, she's brought us news from Sudan, Ghana, South Africa and, of course, Dakar, Senegal, her base. So we were very happy to be able to hear from her one last time - in this venue, anyway. Ofeibea, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings - and this time, from London.

MARTIN: So, we'd like to talk about some of the stories that we're not hearing much about that you'd like to share with us in a minute. But I would like to start with some news out of West Africa. A lot of people are paying attention to this growing outbreak of Ebola that's killed more than 650 people so far. Now, this is the largest number of deaths ever recorded. It's put countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and now Nigeria, on notice. And we are hearing, even, that some medical workers now have been affected by this, and they're testing positive for the virus. Could you just tell us a bit more about why do people think that this has spread in this way, at this particular time, and anything you can tell us about this?

QUIST-ARCTON: Michel, the main thing is that there's a lot of fear, a lot of disinformation, a lot of rumor, suspicion. And that is, unfortunately, helping to fuel Ebola in West Africa. You've mentioned the three countries. The epicenter in Guinea started back in February and then spread across Guinea's borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia. And also, in Africa there are rituals and ceremonies when people die - burials, for example. You wash your dead. There's a lot of intimacy, and Ebola is spread through close contact with bodily fluids. So that is one of the ways that the virus is spreading. But many people are saying, no, but we have to bury our dead people this way. But if the person, your loved one, died of Ebola, that cannot be.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Ofeibea, are these governments taking any particular steps to try to, you know, intervene here?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, we've heard Liberia, which is one of the countries most affected, has now said it is closing its border crossings to try and stop the free flow of human beings across the borders. I've heard in my own country, Ghana, that steps are being taken. But many people are saying more has got to be done to contain this disease. The incubation period is anything from two days to 21 days. West Africa - you can cross how many borders within a day?

MARTIN: So as we've mentioned, Ofeibea, over the years, you really have brought Africa to life for so many of our listeners and certainly for us. You know, in the past seven years, the narrative about the continent has really changed. I mean, in 2000, The Economist dubbed it the hopeless continent. But now we are hearing, you know, Africa is rising and so forth. Could you just pick out one story, over the last seven years, that you feel you most want to be sure that people remember or hear about? I know that's hard, but if you would.

QUIST-ARCTON: It is hard. But let me first say that we knew that Africa was not a hopeless continent. That infuriated me, Michel. That - you know, because even when that cover came out on The Economist, Africa was not a hopeless continent. Yes, there are patches of hopelessness. Yes, there are areas of conflict. But there are so many Africans who are making the continent tick that we don't hear enough about. And mea maxima culpa - I blame myself, amongst other journalists, for not focusing enough on these stories. But, of course, we have to cover the conflict and the wars and the blood as well as the stories that make people smile, make people laugh and make people sit up and say, hey, is that happening in Africa? That is absolutely fantastic. I'm going to give you two stories. One was a desperate story back in 2008 - was it 2009? - 2008, in Guinea, that women were assaulted in the most brutal way - sexually assaulted in public in a stadium after soldiers had recently taken power. And these women, amongst others, were protesting, saying, no, we have to have an end of military rule. We must go back to an elected, democratic government in Guinea. They were corralled in this stadium. And then, the women were sexually brutalized with machetes, with bayonets, with rifles.

Now, you're going to say, well, Ofeibea, have you followed up on this story? And I'll tell you why I haven't, Michel - because the women involved - it was very difficult to get to them in the first place, you know? - a Muslim-majority country, very conservative. And these women found it hugely difficult to - I mean, women all over the world, but particularly here - to discuss these stories. They confided in me, and I shared their story. But years later, to go back and to try and find them, when many of them hadn't told their husbands, their children, their sisters - anyone except this one, health worker psychologist who was trying to help them. So that's why I haven't gone back and followed up on this story.

Now, that shows the brutality of Africa. But it's much more than that. Also, you have an African woman who is teaching mostly young women how to become mechanics. The Lady Mechanic Initiative, it's called. It's in Nigeria. She's based in the main city, Lagos, and has branches in different parts of the country. I'm sure you get women mechanics in the U.S. But in Africa, it's not habitual to see women underneath cars, covered in black, fuel oil. But the young women I spoke to, Michel, were absolutely delighted to be tinkering with and fixing cars for men and women. And they said, you know, this is my calling. This is what I'm good at. So barriers are being broken down, and African women are rising. And that was a wonderful story that I truly enjoyed.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with NPR's Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's with us from London. You know, one thing that I think a lot of people who have never traveled to the continent will have noticed here is that the artistic voices of Africa are really achieving a new prominence. Would you agree?

QUIST-ARCTON: I often say, Michel - I often say, if it were our writers and artists and creators who were leading Africa, perhaps our continent wouldn't have so many problems. If we had these people who create and bring light and hope and, you know, focus on what is important on the continent, if they were in leadership posts, perhaps Africa would all-around be doing better. And there are so many of them. I can't name them all. But let me just give you one example, may I?


QUIST-ARCTON: Thandiswa Mazwai. I guess we call her a singer because she is a musician. But she is so much more - a hugely talented young woman who could have done anything in this world, she's so intelligent. But she is using music to rediscover her roots and the roots of many in South Africa. And then she is bringing the old songs, you know, giving them a makeover, a new look, a new sound. Can we hear, perhaps, "Ntyilo Ntyilo"? That's one of the songs one would associate with the late Miriam Makeba, the mother of African music. But here is Thandiswa Mazwai - Thandiswa's version.


THANDISWA MAZWAI: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: Well, Ofeibea, you know, before we let you go, what about you? What are you fascinated by at the moment? How do you stay at it? How do you stay encouraged and motivated? I mean, you see so much suffering. You see a lot of joy, too, and a lot of great progress. And - but you see so much suffering too. What keeps you going? Do you mind if I ask?

QUIST-ARCTON: Africa is just such an extraordinary continent - full stop, in American. I mean, it is just - there is so much going on. There is so much humanity. There is so much good. You know, people talk about hatred, about all the negative things. But you step onto the continent of Africa, and you are uplifted. That's how I feel every time I land in Dakar, or Accra, or Nairobi, or Johannesburg - wherever it is on the continent. Let me just quote a friend of mine. Sobel Ngom, he's called. He's from Senegal. Now, he has joined President Obama's Young Leaders Initiative, so he spent the past - what? - six weeks or so in the U.S. And President Obama quoted Sobel at a town hall meeting that he had with these young people. He said, here, I have met Africa - the Africa I always believed in. She's beautiful. She's young. She's full of talent and motivation and ambition. And president Obama said, that's a good description. And that's how I feel. Well, sometimes Africa is not so young and not so beautiful. But it's an extraordinary continent. And I say to all of you, if you have the opportunity, don't listen to the doomsayers. Listen to those of us who say Africa is champion. Africa is a continent that, when you get there, you will realize that it just lifts you up. And there are so many good people. That's why I cover Africa for NPR.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's Africa correspondent, and we caught up with her at NPR's London studios. Ofeibea, thank you so much for all of your contributions to the program throughout the years. And hopefully, we'll keep talking.

QUIST-ARCTON: It's been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you to TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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