FJA Shortlist 2021

Category: Contribution to Civil Rights

Authors: Xavier Aldekoa Morales Medina, Alfons Rodríguez (Spain)

Africa, a Future with Names and Surnames

The original publication is available via the following link: https://www.nationalgeographic.com.es/edicion-impresa/articulos/africa-futuro-nombres-y-apellidos_16512 

National Geographic - 1 October 2020

English translation

Ten stories of boys and girls from ten African countries to analyze the challenges and achievements of the youngest continent.

In Gambo, life and death are a snap away. The sound of happiness still echoes in the delivery room of a rural hospital, 240 km south of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, when everything goes wrong. The white coats of the doctors fly down the hall and Hawi Merga, 28 years old, cries because she anticipates the pain: her daughter Jamila, born an hour earlier, has a lung infection and dies. After reviving the girl's heart, a doctor runs with her in his arms to the intensive care room. Anguish makes the air in the room sticky, and every beep from the incubator, every breath of oxygen blown from a bellows into Jamila's tender lungs, sounds like a last chance. And suddenly, poverty: the power goes out. The generator thunders, but the hospital only has the resources to keep it running until midnight and then the incubators will shut down until the next morning. Kedir Ogato, one of the health workers who attended the delivery, bites his lip.

"If the light isn´t restored, then she will have hardly any chance”

That Jamila's chances of survival are a coin toss is not uncommon. Although neonatal mortality has been reduced in Africa - in 15 years the figure has dropped by 38%, according to the World Health Organization - each year 300,000 babies die during childbirth and 1.16 million more during their first day of life. Inequality begins at that zero minute: a baby is 10 times more likely to die in its first 24 hours of life in Africa than in a Western country. It could be avoided. Two-thirds of those deaths are due to poor quality healthcare or infections. Ethiopia, the second most populous African country with 109 million inhabitants, resists that written fate. Despite the fact that it is still an unsafe country to give birth, in three decades it has halved neonatal deaths. Its strategy has consisted in creating a health network with different levels of care, an awareness plan against home births and the training of 38,000 new health workers.

If around midnight Jamila's life is still hanging by a thread, it is because of that slow but constant reinforcement of the Ethiopian health system. If, as it happened with her two brothers, she had been born at home, she would already be dead. At ten minutes to twelve, the doctors resignedly begin preparations to remove the girl from her protective shell and Hawi puts his hands to his face. Sighs. Then the miracle happens. There is a click and the electricity returns. Jamila is still in the incubator; fighting.

The battle for Jamila's survival is that of an entire continent. The region of the planet where more babies are born in the world is already the youngest, with an average age of 18 years, while in Europe it is 42 years. Africa is the future: advances in education, health and women's rights or the irruption of technology has already begun to transform the African reality. The result is an explosion of life. Since 1960, when a wave of independence shook the continent, life expectancy has gone from 40 to 61 years and the population from 283 to 1.34 billion. But the African continent also has shadows. Even today, millions of Africans suffer the ravages of war, jihadism, poverty or climate change. A look at his childhood allows us to dwell on the challenges and achievements of a complex, diverse and constantly evolving continent.

STOLEN CHILDHOODS

Deep in the eastern jungle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 12-year-old Gloire Mishiki and Rodrigue Masudi are one of the deepest scars. Both are protagonists of one of the 16 armed conflicts in Africa. There are 34 in the world. Gloire and Rodrigue are child soldiers and three years ago they exchanged their childhood for a Kaláshnikov. It is noon, the sun drenches the temples and a cry breaks the calm: Go for them, now! They both hurl themselves like a broken tree into tall grass, staring at a ravine at the end of an esplanade, and clutching their weapons. All around him, adult screams: “Move forward! Without fear! Shoot!”. The two children progress crouched but with a calm look of someone who knows that today he won´t die or kill: it is a military drill. A military exercise of the Movement for Action for Change (MAC), one of the more than 70 active rebel groups in the country. At his side, militiamen dressed in torn T-shirts and in flip-flops, scrawny men who get drunk at night and frighten civilians, shoot an imaginary enemy in a gesture that encapsulates the pathos of a war suspended since the signing 18 years ago of a hollow peace: they raise their weapons, aim and make the sound of bullets with their mouths. There is no money to waste.

Bum Bum bum. Ratatatatá. Pam Pam.

Rodrigue and Gloire are child soldiers and must give their lives for the leader. They have no alternative. They belong to the personal guard of General Mbura, leader of the MAC, since some armed men from the FDLR, made up of former perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide who fled to Congo, stormed his village and killed his parents. Mbura, 34, claims that his group is defensive and that his child soldiers - recruiting children under 15 is a war crime - are so because of their generosity: “Because of what happened to them, they became volunteers. What can I tell you? I take care of them”.

According to a UN report, there are 12,000 child soldiers in the world, half in Africa, although the agency admits that its survey only indicates verified cases and that the real figure is much higher. In 2003, an analysis by a coalition of international organizations denounced that in Africa alone there were more than 100,000 child soldiers. In addition to the DRC, they currently exist in South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, the Central African Republic, and in the conflicts in the Sahel or Lake Chad. Unaware, manipulable and replaceable, children are perfect soldiers in low intensity wars, where they fight to maintain a militarized economy of prey, that feeds on the blood and fear of others to control the black market of weapons, minerals or people.

Gloire and Rodrigue are the weakest link in that chain. At first, Rodrigue is suspicious and seals any question with elusive answers. Until one morning, when on a reconnaissance outing he comes across some children in school uniforms, he explodes and spits words sharp as razors:

“Why did I join the MAC? I want to go back to school, but I don't have anyone who can pay for me. The person who paid for me, is already dead”.

Although, the hopelessness of child soldiers is not the whole picture. Heritier Jackson, 17, is the other side of the coin. Like him, from 2015 to 2018, 17,141 minors were released from Congolese armed groups. Since then, Heritier finds that only the trickling sound of water on rocks calms the demons. When the past haunts him and keeps him from sleeping, he approaches the shore of Lake Kivu and gazes at the horizon in silence. From the age of eleven to fifteen, he fought under General Mbura in the MAC until he fled: he stole ten cartridges, ordered three eleven-year-old soldiers under his charge to follow him and surrendered with them to a base in UN blue helmets. The ten bullets were proof that he was not lying; the three children, an intimate attempt at absolution.

“At that time, I had the rank of captain and several child soldiers under my command. I took those three because they were eleven years old, like I was when I started. I was afraid that they would snitch, but I wanted to save them. I do not know why".

Media attention, especially in Africa, tends to focus on the guerrilla, the murderer, the executioner or savagery. But when war and hatred eat away at the foundations of a country, when violence becomes a form of survival there are still millions of Africans who risk acting like human beings by helping others. Djibrine Mbodou, 17, is one of them. He was kidnapped for a year and a half in Lake Chad, a border area between Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chadian territory, where the jihadist band Boko Haram takes refuge, whose name in the Hausa language translates as "Western education is a sin." In the last eleven years, the fundamentalist group, which emerged in the Nigerian north and that seeks to impose a radical vision of sharia, has caused a carnage with 37,500 dead, 2.5 million displaced and thousands of kidnappings, the 219 girls of Chibok among them. Djibrine trembles as she remembers the night she first saw them. When the bearded men entered the island of Galoa, they varnished their message with blood: they gathered everyone in the center of the village, slit the throat of the village chief and kidnapped the 700 residents. The weeks that followed were a chaotic frenzy of starvation and summary executions for any reason. From stealing an egg to praying inadequately. Then they made an irrefutable offer to young people like Djibrine. If they took a rifle and enlisted, their suffering would end because they would participate in the looting and they could even choose a wife from among the hostages. As the alternative was a likely death, many joined. Not Djibrine . “I am just a fisherman, I am not a murderer. “I fished for them, but I knew that my only way out was to flee ”.

Djibrine endured the terror of the whipping when he returned without enough fish in the net until one day he left with the canoe and as soon as he stepped onto dry land, he started to run. If they caught him, he had seen this before, they would slit his throat.

Now Djibrine watches his life go by in the Chadian village of Melea, dotted with straw huts on the mainland of refugees like him, where humanitarian organizations are hardly present and the sun transforms the breeze into a warm cotton ball that sticks to your neck . For Djibrine, her life on that site is a victory.

"I am proud to have come here like this." Without killing anyone.

A STEP FOR AFRICAN WOMAN.

There is a different Africa, peaceful and enjoying social achievements. Here women are the highest stake.

Giovanna Delgado Durâo, a 12-year-old Cape Verdean girl, is determined to change her inevitable destiny as a housewife in her 270-inhabitant fishing village of Monte Trigo for a future as a singer. The reason? Seven years ago, a local company installed solar panels over the school and brought electricity to the houses for the first time. There is a continental revolution underway: in the last five years, 23 million Africans have had access to solar energy and there will be 250 million in 2030. In Monte Trigo, light has changed the lives of everyone, from the fishermen who can freeze their catch instead of selling them off cheeply, to those who discover the world through their television sets, and now Giovana in particular. As her uncle can now plug in the radio and play music (previously the poor family economy did not allow buying batteries), music floods the living room and feeds the girl's dreams of emulating Cesárea Evora.

“I would like to be a professional artist; sing, travel and see the world”

The ability to imagine another life not only comes from the backlog of technological development such as the irruption of renewable energies or the introduction of mobile phones - Africa is the region where its use is increasing the most (600 million subscribers) or payments from digital banking (450 million accounts) – it also arises from basic concepts such as education and equality. Although African women still have fewer rights than men and there is a wide wage gap due to the fact that they earn on average a third less for the same work and only 15% own the land they cultivate, access to education for girls has increased. No other place in the world has seen greater growth in female access to primary education. If in 1970 one in every two African women under the age of 24 was illiterate, today the figure is one in five.

The clicks of a few cameras portray that trend. Hawa Faye and Catherine Bassen, 19 and 18, melt into the bustle of the sunset on Tanji Beach in southern Gambia as the fishermen return to sell their catch after spending the day at sea. They observe, frame and photograph every detail. Click, click. When discovered, the young men of the fishing vessels and the stall vendors on the sand stare in disbelief. The girls puff their chests out with pride and smile. Click.

"Photography empowers us," says Hawa, "sometimes I'm embarrassed when I ask to take a photo and they say no, but the camera makes me feel strong."

4

Both are the youngest students in the first photography course at the Fandema training center for women, in neighboring Tujereng, and they seek to find a place in a historically male profession. They are not naive.

“I know there are hardly any female photographers and it is difficult,” Catherine emphasizes. That used to scare me, but not anymore ”.

The courage that Hawa and Catherine display travels a path which has been opened by others. In recent years, the political representation of African women has doubled, already occupying 24.4% of parliamentary seats while in 2002 they did not reach 11%. The figure is lower than that of Europe (29.9%), but it is above those of Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific. The greater presence of women in decision-making positions is noticeable. According to the World Bank, in the last decade Africa has carried out more reforms - 71 in total - to promote gender equality than any other region on the planet.

The feminist turnaround on the continent has not come in time for many. In the village of Bad Munu, in northern Uganda, the parents of 13-year-old Margaret Ayo have just agreed to marry Joseph Okot, a boy twice her age, in exchange for a dowry of cash and cows. In just a few days, Margaret has gone from playing with her friends, to running a household and serving her husband, whom she had only met a few times before. "This is my life now," she says. Their lives. Every year, three million girls are forced into marrying adult men in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Margaret has long eyelashes, a candid gaze, and an adolescent figure. She seems fragile but she is not. After a week she dusts off her reservations and rises up in a whirlwind. She protests even in front of her husband.

"This is wrong, huh? A girl should be a girl, she should be able to finish her childhood, that would be the right thing to do. If in the future God gives me the gift of having daughters, I would like to be with them and that they will not marry so young ”.

Sitting at the other end of the hut, Joseph looks at her and lowers his head. He makes furrows with his fingers in the sand and nods.

Beyond its probability of success, Margaret's rebellion heralds changes. Although she knows that in a rural context like hers it is difficult to avoid customs, Margaret has hatched a plan: she wants her daughters to go to school. It's the key. Each additional year of secondary education reduces the risk of marrying whilst still children, or giving birth before the age of 18 by 7.5% on average.

PERSEVERANCE IN THE FACE OF OBSTACLES.

Like a weapon of massive construction, education will define the future of the entire continent. There are two stones on the road: poverty and the sun. The continent that produces the least CO2 in the world is the one that will suffer the most from the consequences of global warming. According to the World Bank, 60% of the 143 million inhabitants of the world will be Africans who in 2050 will leave their homes due to droughts, the advance of the desert or the multiplication of extreme meteorological phenomena. For Marceline Razanantsoa, 15, the impact of climate change will not come tomorrow, it is here now. She studies in Betafo, in the highlands of Madagascar and wants to be a teacher, but the increase in typhoons and floods, coupled with the erosion of the roads by the illegal cutting of trees, whose roots have stopped supporting the land, keep her away from school. Literally.

- Before the road was accessible because it went through another valley, but now it is full of holes and you cannot go through. The new road is longer and when it rains it collapses.

The thorny future of millions of Africans has a common denominator. From the stomach rumbling of Kandji Diallo, grandson of the sorcerer from a village in western Mali, to the unwavering tenacity of being a seamstress in Guinea Bissau of Paulo Nenque, one of the 52 million African orphans, or the helplessness of José Albino , a street child in the Mozambican city of Beira, economic hardship is at the core of millions of mangled lives. Centuries of international exploitation and decades of poor governance, with unsustainable corruption rates, have left millions of people without a network. Although poverty has been reduced in percentage terms in Africa —from 54.7% in 1990 to 41.4% today—, if the same standards are established in Western countries, where those who earn less than $ 5.50 per day are poor, the 85% of Africans are below that income figure.

As she makes her way down a slippery gorge toward her Malagasy school, Marceline refuses to be defined by her empty pockets. Now it takes her two hours to go to school and another two hours to return, and she can only do her homework in the evening, when she finishes housework and caring for the animals. In the absence of a desk, she writes the essays on her knees on the floor, by the light of a flashlight while the others sleep. But she, like the rest of the continent, resists being reduced to injury, trauma, or hardship. In the morning, Marceline avoids a gap in the road by jumping between two stones and when asked for alternatives if she cannot be a teacher, she stops in her tracks.

"I'll be a teacher, you'll see." I know it's difficult, but that's the way things have always been here.