Saturday, March 29, 2008

Gotta Give Bush Credit

I never thought I would utter words of praise for George W. Bush, but I have to give him credit for accomplishing something positive. His support for initiatives to battle HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa have actually made a difference in the lives of millions of people.

While in Uganda researching Heart of Diamonds, I met a British doctor who ran a small clinic near Bwindi. His facilities were primitive by our standards (a hand-cranked centrifuge!) and he counted the local traditional healer as an ally, but he stated unequivocally that the Bush initiatives were both well-intentioned and well-executed.

Distribution of antiviral drugs and equipping and building new clinics to treat AIDS patients is not only fighting the disease, but laying the groundwork for longer-term positive changes in many societies as well. As fewer children die from AIDS, for example, African families can be induced to have smaller families, which in turn makes it possible to invest more in the education and nutrition of each individual child.

The fight against malaria, though, may actually be more important. Malaria takes a million lives a year in Africa—and debilitates millions more. The simple distribution of insecticide-laden sleeping nets, if continued, can actually eradicate the disease completely! The parasite that causes the infection reproduces in human red blood cells—and gets there only by a bite from a female Anopheles mosquito. Stop the bites, and the parasite can’t reproduce. Stop enough bites, and it may die out.

Nets cost a few dollars, which is still beyond the means of many Africans. That’s where Bush’s support has made a difference. Millions of nets have been distributed at reduced prices (manufactured in Africa, too, which creates jobs), and millions more are slated to be handed out. According to some experts, malaria could be eradicated as early as 2012.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Another Scheme to Exploit Congo Resources

One of the scariest news items I saw about the Congo has nothing to do with civil war. It was a Reuters report about a UN economist touting the virtues of biofuel production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries. This sounds like a case of "we can, therefore we should" with some pretty dire potential consequences.

While it is certainly possible biofuel crops can be grown outside the rain forests, there is no guarantee that's where it would happen. And, while it is also certainly possible that abandoned arable land could be used to grow new crops, it is entirely more likely that the first biomass that's used will be the existing vegetation --rainforests-- because it is more economical to pluck the low-hanging fruit.

These aren't just theoretical musings, either. A Chinese company recently signed a billion-dollar contract to develop more than 3 millions hectares of the DRC from oil palm plantations. Those will supposedly not threaten the rainforest, but the Chinese don't exactly have a stellar record of good citizenship when it comes to economic development in the Third World.

Mostly, though, I question how turning the DRC's resources into a source of fuel for China, France, or the US will help the Congo any more than the exploitation of any other resource for major country consumption. Job creation? How much good have sugar and palm oil plantations done in that regard?

The economics of biofuels aren't necessarily positive for the Congo, although I'm sure they would be for the Chinese or whomever. Biomass becomes fuel only in expensive processing plants--sold to the Congo by whom and paid for with what?. They also require surface transportation to the end user (which uses energy, too). To make biofuels economically viable, raw feed stock costs have to be excruciatingly low--and that's the end of the stick the Congo would be holding. It's the same economic scenario as any other natural resource exploitation scheme in Africa's history.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Boy Solider

Children aren't new to the front lines of war. There have been child warriors ever since adults figured out they were cheap, expendable, and made good human shields. With modern weaponry, a four-year-old with an AK-47 is a deadly tool. In the Congo and other distressed regions of the world, children are recruited, kidnapped, and otherwise forced to serve as soldiers, sex slaves, and cannon fodder.

This video from UNICEF tells the story of one such young man. Fortunately for him, it has a happy ending.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Congo Global Action Conference

If you care about the Congo, consider supporting the Congo Global Action Conference. The theme is "CONNECT FOR THE CONGO: WORKING FOR HOPE AND PEACE IN THE DRC" and it's presented by the Congo Global Action Coalition, a consortium of leading organizations responding to the dire situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Opening Day and Educational Workshops are March 30 and 31, 2008, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Legislative Advocacy Day is April 1 on Capitol Hill.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Life In The Congo

Just in case you were wondering what it’s like to live in the Congo, here are a few interesting facts from Africare, a leading non-profit specializing in aid to Africa, about the country where Heart of Diamonds takes place:

  • Of every 1,000 babies born alive, 205 will die before their fifth birthday in the DRC, compared to only 8 out of 1,000 in the U.S.
  • Life expectancy in the DRC is just 49 years. In the U.S., the average person lives to be 77.
  • Safe water is available to practically everyone in the U.S., but is accessible to less than half of the people of the DRC.
  • In the DRC, 76% of the men and just 55% of the women are literate. In the U.S., nearly all adults — 97% of both men and women — can read and write.
  • Annual per capita income in the U.S. is $35,750. In the DRC, it’s $650—or less than $2 per day.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tribal Rivalry Easy To Blame

Every time I read how "tribal rivalries" have sparked another outbreak of violence, my B.S. detector goes off. It's a sure sign that someone (mainly the reporter) is taking the easy way out.

Ascribing violence in Kenya (or anywhere else in Africa) solely to “tribal rivalries” is little more than a simplistic dismissal of complex reality. It’s also denigrating to individuals whose lives consist of much more than looking for ways to enhance their tribe’s fortunes. Finding a job, educating their children, putting food on the table are important to most of the people I’ve met in my travels to Africa.

When I was researching Heart of Diamonds, I found tribal identity an important but not dominating factor. It was there, it could be exploited, but it didn’t particularly define a person. Family ties were much stronger, for example, than membership in the tribe.

However, when an individual’s economic and social interests are suppressed by another group—be they a tribe, a religious group, or a political party—people complain. When institutions, governmental or otherwise, fail to respond to those complaints for various reasons, individual complaints are channeled into group protests. Tribal membership isn’t the cause of violence, it’s simply a facilitating device exploited by power-hungry leaders.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Some Congo Killers Are Silent

Over 2.5 million people have died since the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo officially ended in 2003, according to estimates from the International Rescue Committee. And 45,000 more die every month as a result of the country’s many conflicts.

Nearly half of them are children, the rest mostly women, the aged, and the infirm. Some are killed in the strife that continues in the Eastern provinces between government forces, rival warlords, rogue guerrilla bands, and gangs of rapacious criminals. Most, though, don’t die from bullets or blades; they’re victims instead of silent killers like malaria, pneumonia, malnutrition, and diarrhea. But they are casualties of war just as surely as if they had been hacked to death by machetes.

Food supplies are disrupted when fields are destroyed and farmers are driven from their lands. Medical care for easily-treatable diseases is unavailable because violence keeps all but the bravest—or most foolhardy—doctors and nurses away from the places they’re needed most. The cease fire of 2002 may have brought relative peace to the nation, but war continues to take its deadly toll.

People are still dying by the thousands because Congo’s economy and infrastructure was decimated during forty years of government by greedy dictators and wars large and small for control of the nation’s resources. The lack of a simple thing we take for granted—paved roads—is one of the largest single factors in the rising death toll. Because there are so few paved roads, surface transportation is all but unavailable during the best of times and totally impossible during the rainy season, a debilitating condition for a country about the size of Western Europe.

One of the accounts from a missionary I read while researching Heart of Diamonds said it took nine hours to drive 80 miles from Luebo to Bulape in 2000. The road was typical of all but the largest highways near the capital, a one-lane track that hasn’t been maintained because there is no funding for equipment or labor. What little income the government has goes to support the army necessary to keep a semblance of peace.

The lack of surface transportation (the railroads are in even worse shape and the rivers are impassable in many key places due to rapids) is strangling the already struggling economy. It also, of course, greatly complicates the delivery of aid even to the pacified regions.

It’s a recipe for death delivered by silent killers in a part of the world that can ill-afford to lose more of its children along with their mothers and fathers. When the children die, so does the Congo’s future.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Darkness Among Beauty In Africa

Africa is, purely and simply put, beautiful. When I visited it the first time to research Heart of Diamonds, I fell in love--as everyone does. Scenery to take your breath away, wildlife that fascinates, people who open their hearts to you like no other people on earth.

Unfortunately, while the events and characters in Heart of Diamonds are all fictional, they are not entirely figments of my overwrought imagination. Ruthless, evil murderers still haunt the Congo and many other countries in Africa. They may wear a cloak of patriotism, tribal self-realization, religious fervor or some other propaganda, but they are actually driven by one thing—unadulterated greed. While the rhetoric rolls on, so does the genocide. The only thing that doesn’t change is the total indifference of the so-called developed nations of the world.

In the 1960’s, millions died across the African continent as the lashes of colonialism were replaced by the automatic weapon fire of dictatorial self-government. In the 70’s and 80’s, civil wars claimed millions more while creatures like Idi Amin, Milton Obote, Hissene Habre, Mengistu Haile Mariam, and Mobutu Sese Seko murdered their own countrymen and pillaged their country’s treasuries. In 1994, the world was horrified by 900,000 hacked bodies in Rwanda.

As of this writing, five million people have been killed in the Congo since 1998, according to the International Rescue Committee. There is no end in sight. Today, Robert Mugabe starves the people of Zimbabwe and the body count builds in Darfur while the world pauses briefly to wring its hands and sniffle before turning back to its TV dinners.

Some of the death and destruction in the latter half of the 20th century was the direct result of rebellion against the affront to humanity that was apartheid as well as other vestiges of the colonial era. Today's killers, though, are after what men have always lusted after in Africa--gold, copper, timber, ivory, cobalt--and the new riches, coltan, uranium, and oil. And diamonds, always diamonds.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Free Mystery from Seth Harwood

If noir detectives are your thing, check out this free book--Jack Wakes Up--available from Seth Harwood. I think the offer is only good through Palm Sunday, though.