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We cannot ignore Africa

10/01/02 12:00AM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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Let me take you on a safari in Kenya. Five of us board a Toyota van which has a pop-up roof which enables us to stand up and take pictures. The desire to photograph everything that moves and some things that don't is overwhelming. The only pictures we can't take are those of people. Kenyans don't like to have their photos taken because they believe we are taking their souls when we snap the shutter.

The first animal we see is the backside of a buffalo. Much excitement. Click go the cameras as he retreats to the woods. That night at a lodge called the Ark, which is next to a salt lick in the middle of the park, we are told to speak softly so we don't disturb the animals. An elephant stands in perfect profile, as if he were portraying the taxidermist's art, but he is real - calm and stately, filling the entire picture frame with his bulk.

It's a thrill to see giraffes, lions, cheetah, baboons and two kinds of gazelles, lots of zebras hanging out with thousands of wildebeest, and more as our van drives on potholed bumpy roads in the game parks. National Geographic leaps off the page on and into our line of sight. How glorious the male lion looks as he stares at the camera, his mane freshly frizzed out, illuminated by the equatorial sun.

Our van also rides on washed out roads that are boarded by dismal small villages and markets. Corrugated steel sheets and pieces of cardboard are stacked loosely together to form a store, a house. Red dirt blows in the air. Women with babies tied to their backs draw water from a stream and dry their clothes on the bushes. Three donkeys pull a cart, a man with a bicycle is rich.

Kenya is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. Unemployment is 45%. Life expectancy is going down and infant mortality is going up. AIDS and malaria are taking their deadly toll. Polygamy and female circumcision remain the practice in several tribes. Population continues to soar and arable land is scarce.

The country has not yet learned to transfer power from one president to another without violence. Daniel Moi has been in power for 24 years. He has promised to step down in January and has designated his successor before the election has taken place. Opposition parties are splintered and trying to unite. Some have hope that the election will create change, others believe nothing will change.

I ask myself how to reconcile the stunning wildlife of the parks with the poverty that exists just outside the gates? One answer is that I am indirectly helping the economy through the tourist industry which provides good jobs. People are happy to see us with out shillings.

I return home with a message: We cannot ignore Africa. It is crying for our help.

Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.
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