A Month in African History

Week One--60 European and African leaders congregated in Cairo, Egypt, for a historic summit to discuss the two continents' troubled past relationships, with the hope of building new links between the world's poorest countries and some of the world's richest.

Week Two--Representatives of 133 developing countries met for a summit of the Group of 77 in Havana, Cuba.

Week Three--Former Rwandan rebel leader Paul Kagame, the country's highest ranking Tutsi, was "elected" president by the parliament after the resignation of the previous Hutu president.

Week Four--African leaders met in Abuja, the capitol of Nigeria, to discuss ways of fighting malaria. The World Bank suggested that it might be possible to find $300 to $500 million a year for this struggle--only a beginning, but definitely noteworthy.

Although this summary does not even mention the recent developments in Zimbabwe--where President Robert Mugabe postponed parliamentary elections, his supporters murdered opposition members, and the opposition leader threatened to look for ways to defend his party--the events mentioned above still seem significant. European and African leaders met for the first time, 133 countries met in Cuba, and there was the public health summit which caused moderate optimism pending the World Bank's move to free long-needed funds.

I don't recall reading about any of these events on the title pages of major U.S. papers and magazines. I do, however, remember that Elian Gonzalez received Play-Doh on the flight between Miami and Washington. Leaders and representatives from 133 developing countries congregating in Cuba and listening to Fidel Castro should rank higher in the order of newsworthy events than the psychological impact of Play-Doh on a kid named Elian who got to see Disney World.

Last week, USA Today reported almost eight million Ethiopians face severe food shortages as a result of several continuing months of drought. The newspaper also remarked that continuing rainfalls are expected to worsen conditions after the recent floods in Mozambique. This coverage represents a step in the right direction. But in addition to ignoring other countries in the horn of Africa--which would have doubled the number of starving people in the article's statistics--the paper found these events worthy to fill only a two-inch column of text. Even worse, the information was located on page 18 of the newspaper, just to the left of the U.S. temperature map. Eighteen pages earlier, the day's top headline proclaimed "U.S. Will Let Friends From Cuba Visit Elian," which was closely followed by the revelation that Jon Benet Ramsey's parents rejected a lie detector test.

Of course, there are newspapers that do have their priorities straight. On April 12, when most other papers designed their front pages around an article mentioning Elian's planned meeting with his father, the Washington Post pushed the issue to the side to make space for a lead article on Ethiopia's striking famine. But these attempts to balance the news of children dying at a rate of a dozen a day in some Ethiopian towns with the fate of a cute six-year-old are too rare.

In this light, it is more than understandable that Ethiopia's foreign minister accuses North America and Europe of waiting until they see "skeletons on screens" before any action is taken.

--Gernot Wagner