My colleague Genet and I had the opportunity to interview founder and CEO of the Constituency for Africa, Melvin Foote on behalf of AllAfrica.com. Founded in 1990, CFA is a an organization of Africanists who came together to build American support for Africa. The D.C. based group has a pan-African focus and seeks to educate African Americans about Africa and strengthen the bonds between the two communities. Here is a snippet of CFA’s mission statement:
For almost two decades, CFA has worked to educate Americans about the critical challenges affecting Africa, and to encourage a strong public and private partnership to address issues of concern to the continent.
Foote has had a fascinating career throughout the continent but especially in the Horn of Africa. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea and Ethiopia in the early ’70s, during the time of the Ethiopian revolution. He has also done work in Somalia and Sudan, as well as 26 or so other countries in Africa. Read about the man and his unique experience from our interview with him, conducted on Tuesday, November 1.
Rahwa: Give us a background of CFA is and what it does.
Foote: I had spent many years with Africare in Ethiopia, Somalia. So I came back and was asked to head up a new effort to educate Americans about Africa and I was brought back from Somalia to do that. And so over the course of some years, it grew into a network. The work that I was doing at Africare grew into a need to network. What I saw was a lot of people cared about Africa because back then they would say nobody cares about Africa, there’s no constituency to support Africa. And so my job was to build a constituency. And so I went about my job. What I found out was that there was a lot of individuals who knew about Africa, some of them were political, some of them were development people, some were missionary, some were African immigrant, some were foreign service officers, former ambassadors but they were not connected. So my job was one of not so much building a new, something new as it was connecting the existing so TransAfrica, African American Institute, all of these organizations were working on Africa but they didn’t work together. They saw each other as competitors so Africare didn’t talk to TransAfrica and TransAfrica didn’t talk to AAI and ADF wouldn’t talk to. So they were all like tribalism. That’s what it was, it was like tribalism. And so I tried to say okay, let me build a link between all of these people and we didn’t go to the top people, to the C. Payne Lucas’s and the Randall Robinsons because those guys were ego set in their way, they were warlords. And so I said okay, that ain’t gonna work. If I told Randall Robinson go talk to C. Payne, never, never, never. And so I went to next level down to the operational people, the person who was responsible for education programs, public relations and building, the CFA was built with these people. My boss then was C. Payne Lucas at Africare and he used to call us little people, he said you little people, you know because we weren’t the presidents.
Foote transitions into his Peace Corps experience…
They took me up to my site by car, it was an Ethiopian guy who drove me by Land Rover and we went through Wollo and Tigre and all these people were starving and famine and begging on the road. And I said what is this? And so nobody really explained to me but then I got to Asmara on, it was on New Year’s Day, Ethiopian New Year’s Day in ’73 I think it was. And so I’m laying up in my hotel on the main piazza and all of the sudden it was like 3 o’clock in the middle of the afternoon, I’m hearing all of this noise, pow pow boom boom. And so I’m thinking like Fourth of July, I’m thinking fireworks. So I put on my clothes to go down and look at the festivities. And one woman said oh no, you can’t go out there and so I went back up in my room and I saw tanks in the street were in the streets. That was my introduction to Asmara. So there was a firefight then all of sudden things got quite. So that’s how I got to know about the war, that’s how I got to know about the famine. And so I stayed one year in Asmara and finally they moved me out because of the insurgency and there was military, the Ethiopian troops were everywhere, on every corner, troops. I’m just thinking they were police, I didn’t know the difference. But the insurgency was going on so they moved me to Harar. I spent my second year in Harar and then I stayed the third year at the American school, teaching at the American school in Addis.
Genet: So when you went in, last time you told us you had a Tarzan image of Africa so by the time your service was over, what kind of experiences did you walk away with?
Foote: I learned a lot. I mean, one of the things I learned, we did our language training in Awassa and there was about 35 of us, who were, who were a part of the group and there was only two Blacks. And so the teachers, the Ethiopian teachers, after the classes would take me and the other Black guy up to, out to lunch and we would go up in the hills and just all kinds of things. And they embraced us. And then everyday we had to walk to school, which was about a half a mile and all the little kids in the village would run over to us, selam ferenji, you know, selam ferenji. And then they would want to shake your hand and all that kind of thing, dirty hands, these are rural kids.They would walk right past me to grab one of the White’s hands and one of the White guys told me, oh they don’t like Black Americans over here. I was kind of hurt by that. And so I just kept watching and then I noticed after a period of time, all the Whites were getting tired of these little kids chasing them. They could not even go to the bathroom without drawing a big crowd. Then I finally realized that they looked at me and said, he speaks a little funny but he’s one of us, he’s African. And so there was nothing for them to run up to me, for what, he’s just another African but they would run up to the Whites.
I learned a lot, it was a total learning experience, everything that you did was learning. This was during the revolution so the time of zemecha, the killing of those government officials, the Derg, all that. The rise of Mengistu, the, Haile Selassie’s demise, his passing, I was there for all of that. Then the creeping revolution.
Rahwa: Did that make a huge impact into you wanting to connect both African Americans and Africa?
Foote: Well, I wrote an article for Ebony magazine while I was in Asmara and it was basically a smart article talking about don’t crawl under, the Peace Corp’s logo at that time, their theme was don’t crawl under a rock, be involved, don’t crawl under a rock. So I wrote a little piece to African Americans saying wow, it’s great over here, don’t crawl under a rock, Peace Corps. And I knew that my people here were uneducated, undereducated or mis-educated about Africa and for many reasons. I mean, people who are doing business in Africa don’t want African Americans to know what’s going on, they want you to stay away so they can go and corrupt the dictator and get the oil and diamonds. And then most African Americans always have cared about Africa, it goes back to when we came here as slaves. Even the slaves were trying to reach back to Africa. But the African Methodist Church came from the Methodist Church, but they wouldn’t allow Blacks to be in the Methodist Church so they formed their own church. They called it the African Methodist Church because they wanted to relate to Africa. There’s all kinds of indications where African Americans, even as slaves, wanted to reach back home. But over time they didn’t know what home was. And even to this day, a lot of, they have an imaginary vision about what home is, what Africa is. I see some of these guys with dashikis on and if you ask them anything about Africa, they really don’t know. They cling to it. And so our job is to raise awareness and we’ve done a lot of work in that area and we’ve been very good at that, actually. We’ve done a lot of work in raising the visibility of Africa and raising awareness.
Genet: For African Americans today who may not feel a connection to Africa, they may not see Africa as being home and they really don’t feel a sense of responsibility to care about Africa or get involved in African affairs, what would you say to them? Why is it important for them to care and for them to get involved?
Foote: Well, there are many reasons and I will say this, I would say over the last 10 years or so, that’s changed dramatically. It changed for many reasons, most African Americans are much better informed, some of it has been because of media coverage, some of it has been because of AllAfrica.com, some of it has been because of these town meetings we’ve been doing, also just starting to talk to people. So there’s a growing awareness about Africa. And so I think, for me, it’s important for African Americans because here we are, the wealthiest Blacks in the world, here. But we’re dropping out of school, we’re throwing away food, we’re throwing away opportunities, don’t want that job, obesity is a big problem. And we think that we’re downtrodden, we think that we’re the victim, when we’re the wealthiest Blacks anywhere in the world. But we measure ourselves against White Americans, not against Africans or Brazilians or Caribbeans or other Blacks. We don’t know how good we got it. You could go to prison in this country and get three meals a day, food, water, TV and that’s if you’re in prison, you know what I’m saying? And so these kids around here are killing each other over some tennis shoes and a jacket, because they don’t appreciate, they don’t know who they are and what they are. So part of this is for us to become stronger, we need to reconnect to Africa and African people in a real kind of way. It will make us stronger, you know. And we think that if we can help strengthen the African countries and make them vibrant and dynamic, that makes our position here stronger. It’s just like Obama being the president. Say what you want to say, it makes Black people stronger, to show that hey we can do something because we’ve been told all this time since slavery that we can’t do anything. You can’t be anything, you can’t be the mayor, you can’t be the head of a corporation. So that’s how I feel about it and so I think that going forward, we need to be stronger and we also need to be doing business with our people. We ought to be the ones who are doing business with Africa, bringing investors to Africa, helping build infrastructure.
So part of this is a healing process. You gotta look back at slavery, you gotta look back at colonialism because those things don’t end overnight. They don’t end overnight, we’re still going to be dealing with all this stuff 100 years from now. But we can make some progress on it and I think what we try to do in our work is to make progress, position ourselves to make progress.
Genet: You’ve traveled and worked in over 30 African countries. Can you pick maybe three African countries where you’ve worked for a significant amount of time and talk about what you did there.
Foote: Well, I worked in Ethiopia. I worked in Somalia for three years. I worked in Sudan I was heavily involved in, I was heavily involved in East Africa.
Genet: Would you say that’s your area of expertise, East Africa?
Foote: Well, it has gotten broader. I mean, I know a lot about Nigeria, I know a lot about Senegal, I know a lot about Mali, I know enough about Southern Africa. I really know the continent pretty well. But there was a time when I didn’t want to do anything in Nigeria, I was too scared of Nigeria. But now I had a really great experience with Nigeria and it’s not like Lagos is not the whole country. There is, you go out in the rural parts of Nigeria and the most wonderful people you ever want to meet are out there. But I worked heavily on the Horn of Africa, I worked on, I was part of a former Peace Corps delegation that did shuttle diplomacy between Asmara and Addis during the war, we were trying to stop the war. And so we were going to Asmara, going to Addis, talking to Meles and Isaias and all these guys, pushing them towards a path of peace and we couldn’t fly directly so we had to fly through Yemen, to get to, between the countries.
During, when Badme became a flash point. Yea, we were going through, we were doing shuttle diplomacy. And so we were credited with helping set the basis for the peace agreement. And then I took a, I was part of a U.S. White House delegation that promoted the trade, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act so we were on Air Force Two flying to all of these countries but we were in Addis, which was one of the stops, the foreign minister from Eritrea came down and really persuaded us to come to Asmara so we shipped the plane, flew up to Asmara, made them happy. So I’ve been involved in a lot of high-level dealings with the countries and that was kind of unique. When I went with the delegation, there was five of us and the one guy now is a member of Congress, John Garrett Mindy.But out of the five, I was the only Black, and all five were kind of high level, and it was kind of interesting how they, some say that Ethiopians are, they look at Whites more valuable than the Blacks. Say what you want to say but I know that whole time they were looking at me like oh he must be carrying the bags, and I’m the one who worked on Africa everyday. It’s kind of interesting. In Asmara, the reception, because my view was that Asmara had a war culture, they were stuck in this mold of warmonger. They’d just come out of a 30-year war and so if I step on your shoes, you’re ready to get the gun, as opposed to excuse me. And so I made a comment or something like the fact that something must be made to promote peace, reconciliation among the Eritreans. They took that as oh, he’s choosing sides and I became the bad guy and they wrote me up in the paper and all that kind of thing.
Rahwa: Not to get off subject but have you heard about the government officials and journalists who got arrested by Isaias Afwerki back in 2000 and how basically there are human rights issues going on with that?
Foote: Well, what happened was, I think what happened in Eritrea, I was there also for the referendum on independence, I was one of the monitors, I was a monitor there. And I think what happened was, the country became independent, it was wide jubilation. I think they were 99 percent in favor of separation and so it was non-issue really, it was going to happen. But they didn’t develop democratic institutions. And at the time, Isaias is not a bad guy. If he decided that he wanted everybody to sweep the streets, everybody would do that, which was good because you could get everybody moving in the same direction. But I think they failed to build democratic institutions, that was the tragedy. I mean, he’s still the president and nobody else can be the president. They would’ve been a lot better if they could’ve figured out some way to allow for political parties, build, become a true democracy. They had a chance but they haven’t. And a lot of the problems that they have are tied to that. Not bad people but lacking democratic institutions. And then the pressure, they became us against the world. Us against the United States. What kind of battle is that? Us against the Ethiopians, us against this, us against that, we, that common where we all work together became something else.
Genet: Can you talk briefly about your work in Somalia and Sudan?
Foote: For Somalia, I was doing a lot of refugee assistance and this was the war between Ethiopia and, I think that in the Horn of Africa, environment has played a lot of impact in terms of pushing people to war. It was competition for water, for grazing land and the way those borders were drawn. In the case of Somalia, the way the borders were drawn, the past they were all nomadic people, they would make this circle. So once they became militarized on the border, you couldn’t go across that border and so you went back and so you overgrazed, you overgrazed and it created sand issues and a big part of the problem. Call it global warming, call it what you want to.Then you had the Russians on one side, the Americans on the other side so we were running a proxy war in the Horn of Africa that ended up pitting the people against each other. They gave you a communist ideology and then they had to flip flop where Ethiopia went Marxist so Somalia, the Russians left Somalia, went to Ethiopia and America left Ethiopia and went to Somalia. These people, it’s going to take them a long time to get straight because of that stuff. You don’t hear much talk about that. And then Jimmy Carter’s administration bashed this new government, the Derg on human rights abuses and so forth. Now, I was there, I thought that some of the, the tactics that the Derg did in the early stages were great. I mean, you had a monarchy –
Genet: What tactics did you think were great?
Foote: Well, I mean, I thought that, okay, the way the country was structured around a monarchy and the monarchy had, well you had the royal family living like kings and the lion gets steaks and all this kind of thing and then the masses of the people, the peasants, especially outside of Addis, what did they get? They got nothing, the Oromo. So the country was in a, then when the government took over, they were like we’ve gotta do better than this, this is a country for all the people. And they tried to implement programs and policies that would buttress and benefit all the people but military guys tend to, they’re not political scientists so eventually when things got rough, what did they do? Rather than maintain political discourse, they brought the guns out and a lot of the Red Terror and all that kind of stuff came from military. Then they nationalized houses, if you have two houses, you had a big house on Bole Road and you had a small house, you only can keep one. So you’re seeing the revolution coming on, are you going to move into the big house? No, you’re going to keep the small house and you were renting the big house out to the Americans in the corner. Well, now you only can have one so whatever happened to those big houses? The military guys moved in. But the U.S. government put so much pressure on the Derg, on Mengistu that it created tension and they were already paranoid and that’s when a lot of the stuff happened because, you don’t hear that story.