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Africa in Transition

February 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation about a new book, and to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: The book is “Mandela, Mobutu, and Me,” a newswoman’s African journey. The author is Lynne Duke. For four years, she was a Washington Post bureau chief in Johannesburg, covering some of the continent’s most notorious leaders and its bloodiest wars. Her book chronicles her time there, including her own journey of self-discovery.

Welcome, Lynne.

LYNNE DUKE: Thanks for having me, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: We both worked at the Washington Post for some years, and we pursued different tasks. Yours was to go abroad, and particularly to go to Africa, the kind of heart of darkness in many people’s minds. The memories of Africa are tainted by wars and upheavals and Tarzan movies. Why did you want to cover the continent?

LYNNE DUKE: Because I had gone to South Africa in 1990 and also in 1994, surrounding first the release of Mandela in ’90, and then the elections when he became president in ’94. And I had been infected in a way that many journalists of that period were with this sense of momentum and hopefulness that was what South Africa was about then. And the chance to go back there and be based in Johannesburg and chronicle sort of the journey of this nation coming into its own and leaving behind the past of apartheid and moving on to become something different seemed to me like a fabulous story, but also something that would be personally fulfilling, to actually see this positive and really wonderful African story unfold.

I was a bit naive because I did have this incredible optimism about, you know, Africa itself carrying over just from my experiences in South Africa. So during the four years that I was there, obviously my naiveté was tempered a bit by some real experiences.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk about your first impressions. If you’d read a chapter from your book that I’ve outlined here for you; I am very curious to hear it in your own words.

LYNNE DUKE: “I held Africa in awe. As I traveled, I felt as if Africa reached out and claimed me as one of its own. That sensation was brilliantly clarifying for who I am in this world, part of a bridge between continents, and connected as much to America as to a vast African narrative that resonates within me like an ancestral whisper. But sometimes the whisper was a scream, for I also had to grapple with ugly Africa: The Africa of horror and unspeakable brutality; the Africa that sometimes made me question the existence of God; the Africa that I could not ignore if I was to claim the continent as my own. I witnessed a terrible warping of the human spirit, and I loathed it.”

GWEN IFILL: You take us on kind of a travelogue, an emotional travelogue at times– kind of an angry one sometimes, and amusing sometimes. But take us to Angola first. You tell the story in the book of a young woman you met named Cecilia.

LYNNE DUKE: She was a little girl, ten years old. My first trip to Angola in 1995 was to look at the immediate aftermath of war. The war had just ended a few months prior. And one of the things I did was to report on just the legions of street children that I noticed and was struck by right upon my arrival because they swarmed around my car. And it was just absolutely heartbreaking to see these little kids.

They clearly were malnourished and they were clearly just living on the streets. And there were bands of them. I went out one evening with a doctor from UNICEF, Amalian, and he had a mobile clinic that went around trying to attract the street children from the shadows to get treatment for their various illness– I mean, cuts that become infected, et cetera. And on that night there was this little girl named Cecilia who, you know, had a terrible injury on her leg that the doctor had treated before, and it was an old injury and, you know, she had to be helped up into the back of the mobile clinic so that he could treat her. And it was… it was actually just one of those moments when you realize how deep people’s suffering can actually be, that a little child could be roaming on the streets on her own with a wound that looked like… and the doctor said was going to probably result in amputation. It was just one of those clarifying and very heartbreaking moments.

GWEN IFILL: You were also on hand– we now go to Zaire– for the pretty chaotic fall of Mobutu.

LYNNE DUKE: Yes, definitely. I spent a lot of time in Zaire both in Kinshasa, his… Mobutu’s capital, and in the east, which had been taken by the rebels who were ousting him. And it was a very strenuous time as a journalist, but it was one of those times where you get a sense that… or you have this sense that — you know — this is bad; war in this case has been very brutal and bloody; but maybe the end of Mobutu is going to mean something really positive for the country. And there were tons of journalists on hand, and I think many of us were not… not supportive of the rebels, but certainly welcoming change, as were the ordinary people in the country.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about change, and I don’t want to bury the lead here. You spent most of your time in South Africa right after the great big change and Nelson Mandela’s rise to power, but you found that it wasn’t all good.

LYNNE DUKE: Yeah, that was part of me having to move and grow from this naive sense that I started out with. I did a series of stories that chronicled things like how the government was delivering health care, which was one of its promises; housing, et cetera. And you know, this was a new government that had to rewrite laws, policy, regulation. Everything was being made anew. And in the void that was left, a lot of so-called delivery of new services and the fruits of liberation was very slow. And that was a hard thing to embrace for me because, you know, I had sort of come like, “this is going to be a great story; it’s going to be all progress and momentum.” Well, the momentum slowed because it obviously became bogged down in a lot of practical issues of running a new government.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about practical issues, there’s also the practical politics that involved U.S. policy toward Rwanda, for instance, and the Rwandan genocide. You had some very harsh words for U.S. policy toward the continent at that time.

LYNNE DUKE: Yeah. Yes, U.S. policy… and it’s the international community, really, as represented by the U.N., of which the U.S. was and is a major player. You know, I took my up my posting after the genocide occurred, but I traveled to Rwanda on several occasions and wrote about post-genocide Rwanda. And it became very clear to me, and it was totally clear to journalists who covered the genocide and that whole period, that had the international community intervened much sooner than it did in 1994, the death toll wouldn’t have been 800,000. It would have been far smaller. The general who was in charge of the peacekeeping commission on the ground, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, he’s written and spoken extensively about the fact that if he only had a few thousand additional troops, they could have squashed some of the bloodletting. And it really was more one side against the other, in terms of slaughter, as opposed to real fighting. But instead of augmenting the peacekeeping force that was already in the country, the international community, the U.N. Security Council, led by the U.S., decided to pull them out. And you know, that just opened the floodgates for what we now know as one of the most intense and rapid slaughters in modern history.

GWEN IFILL: Lynne, after four years spent traveling the continent, spent get to go know yourself, getting to know the continent, getting to know Africa the way we thought we knew it but didn’t, did it change you?

LYNNE DUKE: In a way, it did. Not in fundamental ways, but it certainly did sharpen and clarify my understanding of the world, African issues, but also just generally, the world as a place that can be hard and brutal and very unfair. In the book, I describe myself not an Afro-pessimist or an Afro-optimist but an Afro- realist. And basically what I mean by that is I understand and know firsthand how dysfunctional, chaotic, and ruinous some African regimes can be and have been. And, you know, that gives one pause, thinking about the future for many African countries.

But I call myself a realist because I won’t give up hope on the continent as long as I know the many people that I met who were the most dignified, gracious, and profoundly humane people one could ever hope to meet, and yet they were people living… coming through life with… against the steepest odds and living in the most disastrous circumstances. And I found that to be, for me, the real spirit of Africa.

GWEN IFILL: Lynne Duke, thank you very much.

LYNNE DUKE: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.