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Expand your horizons

Dignitaries attending the East Africa Trade Summit in Atlanta, Georgia  

July 6, 2001
Web posted at: 5:05 PM EDT (2105 GMT)

It's summertime, and the temptation is always to kick back and forget about work for a while. True, we all need a vacation and a brief break from our regular routines, but if you have the opportunity, put some hours into learning about something new. Perhaps it will be something you've always wanted to learn, or perhaps something that has never occurred to you to explore.

As an example, two weeks ago I was contacted about attending an educational forum that was part of the second East Africa Trade Summit being held in Atlanta, Georgia. It meant starting my day four hours before my usual 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. routine and I really wasn't sure I could use the information in my job, but I was intrigued and agreed to attend.

Here's what happened as a result of giving in to expand my horizons a bit:

I listened to and met the Prime Minister of Uganda, Apolo Nsibambi, and his gracious wife (who is an education professor at a university in Uganda); the Secretary General of the East Africa Community, Amanya Mushega; and the Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism for Kenya, Nicholas Biwott. I talked briefly to Mrs. Nsibambi about partnership opportunities with her university.

As I listened to the honorable speakers, I learned that Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are working to create an East Africa federation to increase their political and economic strength and help their citizens by creating jobs, increasing education and exporting more goods. I also learned about the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act signed by former President Clinton to allow free trade and growth opportunities for the continent. In terms of international trade, the Secretary General stated that a global economy can't work if it ignores a billion people, emphasizing the need to include African nations in the rush towards globalization.

The Prime Minister spoke about the pandemic of AIDS in East Africa and the need to be "transparent" about the problem and solutions. He mentioned that some difficulties result from long-standing cultural traditions, such as the custom of having a brother marry the wife of another brother if he dies. The reason for the tradition is to insure that the wife does not fall into economic or domestic difficulty, but as AIDS has become so widespread, the custom can now mean that she is more likely to contract the disease. There is also widespread ignorance about the proper use of prophylactics, with the result that citizens often contract the HIV virus even though they have protection against the disease, because they do not understand the proper use. Nsibambi spoke passionately about the need for education and open-mindedness.

Prime Minister Nsibambi was a professor prior to entering politics, and he was equally passionate about that profession. He joked, "I love teaching so much that when I die I wish to be buried in one of the lecture rooms." In a more serious tone he said, "Unless you address poverty of knowledge, you cannot eradicate poverty of material." Nsibambi wants to increase educational exchange programs for teachers and students with the United States as well as international collaborative projects among university faculty.

Problems that we rarely hear about in the news were prominent at the Summit. For example, I learned about the desperate situation created in Kenya by the influx of Sudanese refugees. I also discovered that East Africa views tourism as its best bet for immediate economic help, but backed-up production of airlines has prevented it from reaching its potential. For instance, Delta is still waiting for the delivery of jets that can make the nonstop trip from the United States to East Africa. Unfair media hype has also cut into the potential for increased tourism. Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke of a headline in a U.S. paper, "11 killed in African riot," the weekend his wife was attending a conference there. He said that in the same weekend, 15 people were killed in Atlanta, but that would not prevent anyone from visiting the Georgian city, as it did not receive that kind of negative press.

Representatives of East Africa spoke about how many have tended to look at all the countries in Africa as one giant country rather than recognizing and learning about their distinctions and differences. I spoke with one visiting dignitary who told me that he still meets Americans who expect that they would land in the middle of a jungle to be greeted by giraffes and lions! They believe that most people still hunt game with spears to put dinner on the table, and they don't expect to find modern industrialized cities.

Stereotypes die hard, and they are obviously still a large part of modern people's beliefs, perhaps due to the difficulty of traveling to the African continent. Representatives from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda spoke of the need for more accurate media, especially video, portrayals of their cities and citizens. We considered the potential impact of the upcoming "Survivor" series that will be produced in East Africa. While it will create a temporary economic gain, some wondered if the CBS portrayal of the country will serve to strengthen the stereotype and serve to keep all but the heartiest of souls away.

What is the point? I came away with my intellect awakened and with a more realistic picture of countries that I don't think about often. Meeting leaders of the countries and hearing about their needs made them less of an enclosed border on a paper map and more human to me. In doing so, I hope it enlarged my humanity a bit to allow me to communicate their message more accurately to others.

You don't need to find something as unusual as an economic summit of an African or Asian nation to expand your horizons. Look in the newspaper for local or city meetings; sign up for a community project or 10K run; attend a lecture at a local university. Just a short break from routine is likely to refresh and revitalize your perspective on life and give you something to pass on to your students in the fall.

Enjoy the unexpected!

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