15 June 2007

This may be free publicity for Vanity Fair's June issue on Africa and an open tribute to its special editor Bono. They deserve it.

We have often teased the Irish singer and his wily entree into the corridors of power. We have equally lampooned our distinguished professor Jeffrey Sachs and his tireless promotional obsession. But everyone admits that their heads are in the right place. One would wish that other successful accomplished people like them -- and like Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter -- would demonstrate a similar commitment to fight poverty, disease and illiteracy. They can keep their vanity, their millions (which they rightfully earned), and their "feel-good" approach. Their redeeming grace is that they at least mobilize an influential segment of the public in key countries that do matter in that international, inter-related fight.

While respecting the sovereignty of each country, we have to recognize that in today's world there are so many growing dangers that could not -- should not -- be handled by one country alone. Climate change, terrorism, drug smuggling, slave-trading, money laundering, eradication of poverty, HIV AIDS, drinkable water supply -- to mention a few examples -- will have to be worked out across borders. Not only governments should be concerned; but also individuals, grass-root groups and civic society figures. In fact, people in the most destitute of countries may not trust their political leaders anymore. But they could listen to an admired artist like Bono or Youssou N'Dour, a maestro like Pavarotti; a soccer player like Rinaldo; a human dignity icon like Nelson Mandela; a teacher-preacher like Jeffrey Sachs; and a creative editor like Graydon Carter.

Several personalities -- at least 21 -- helped work on that issue: recognized ones, like Mohammad Ali, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Barak Obama, Maya Angelou, Iman, Oprah Winfrey, and Alicia Keys; and unrecognized ones in their African garb, such as U.S. President George W. Bush, who quadrupled aid to that continent over the last six years and has pledged $15 billion to fight AIDS there plus $1.2 billion to fight malaria.

Dr. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's right hand in that effort, was the instigator behind an initiative supporting one million people on lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment; she is also the founder of Millennium Challenge Corporation to tackle global poverty. Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, George Clooney, Don Cheadle, even Jay-Z are given their due recognition.

But it is the issues that matter most. "Generation Kenya" indicates how often Africa's 53 countries are wrongly lumped into one helpless hopeless mass. "Out of Africa" charts DNA shared by billions of people. "The Continental Shelf" pinpoints literary giants telling African stories to the world. They include the "Voice of the Voiceless," Somalia writer Nurvddin Farah who lays bare the African woman's battle for freedom; Nigeria novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sierra Leonean Aminata Forna who eloquently and courageously described the ravages of war in her tormented country.

The business section is not business as usual. "Letter from Chad" points out the intricacies of oil interests, particularly over Darfur. Then there is the inevitable Jeffrey Sachs extolling us all to take action: "If you haven't noticed, people are dying. It's an emergency." Perhaps as a flattering reward, he gets a quote from Angelina Jolie describing him as "one of the smartest people in the world." (Carry on, Jeff, whatever you're doing!)

"The Lazarus Effect" describes the impact of lifesaving drugs made available through a partnership between the Global Fund of private companies that could achieve a revolution in consumer-driven philanthropy. Then there's a story about the blue-powdered Tuaregs who travel through the Sahara to enjoy good music. A selected play list of best African talent is selected by Senegal's Youssou N'Dour. It includes two albums of his own, but why not; he's the most popular Dakkarian abroad. At least he recognizes Cheik Lo, Boabab, Rokia Traore, Salef Kita, Baaba Mal and Ali Farka Troure. Delicious siren Angelique Kidjo has a page of her own. Then there is a list of people naming other people. The man above and beyond everyone else is "Madeba" Nelson Mandela. His name is enough recognition.

Quite the exquisite issue.