/ 5 July 2019

The hopeful continent

Some good: Rwandese refugees in Uganda mark the anniversary of the 1994 genocide at the Kasensero memorial. Despite Uganda’s open policy on refugees, Reliefweb reports that Rwandans have faced detention and forced repatriation. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP)

Last week, the Mail & Guardian put out a call on Twitter for inspiring, uplifting and positive stories from around the African continent. The response was overwhelming. We received dozens of examples of courage, hope, resilience and ingenuity. What follows is a small selection, compiled by Simon Allison

Kenya beats Big Coal

In 2016, Kenya’s state environmental agency gave the green light to the construction of a new coal-fired power plant on the hitherto pristine island of Lamu. The coal plant would be Kenya’s first. Environmental activists were outraged: not only would the power plant upset Lamu’s delicate ecosystem, but it would also increase Kenya’s carbon footprint at a time when the effects of the global climate emergency are becoming ever more apparent.

So they fought back. The island’s residents demonstrated against the proposed plant, and international organisations supported a legal challenge, which argued that the environmental impact assessment had not been properly conducted. Last month, the activists won: Kenya’s National Environmental Tribunal suspended the licence that had been granted to Amu Power to build the controversial plant.

“We are now old, but we inherited a clean and healthy environment from our fathers, and it is our duty to give our children a clean and healthy environment as well,” said Save Lamu vice-chairperson Mohamed Mbwana. — Nominated by Nanjala Nyabola (@nanjala1)

Free trade for all

Fifty-two African nations have so far signed the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, which officially went into force on May 30. Once it is fully operational, the agreement will affect 1.2-billion people and bring in about $3-trillion in gross domestic product. Its backers say the agreement will unlock the continent’s economic future and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity.

But not everyone is convinced. Big question marks hover over how and when the agreement will be implemented, while Nigeria — Africa’s largest economy — has yet to confirm whether it will participate.

Nonetheless, the speedy passage of the agreement from pipe dream to continental law is an achievement in its own right, indicating that there is serious political will behind greater continental integration — and that pan-Africanism is alive and well. It is also a victory for the oft-maligned African Union, which has been pushing hard for a continent-wide free trade deal for years.

“Yes, there are plenty of nagging points, but one must commend the speed and enthusiasm around what, if properly managed, could be a game-changer,” said Babatunde Fagbayigbo, professor of international law at Unisa. — Nominated by Babatunde Fagbayigbo (@BabsFagbayibo)

Homosexuality is not a crime

With a bang of his gavel, a judge in Botswana overturned centuries of injustice, prejudice and discrimination.

“A democratic nation is one that embraces tolerance, diversity and open-mindedness,” said Judge Michael Leburu at the end of a three-year court battle. “We have determined that it is not the business of the law to regulate private consensual sexual encounters [between adults]”.

The decision to decriminalise homosexualitywas met with wild celebrations by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex organisations around the world.

Letsweletse Motshidiemang, the 24-year-old from a village in northern Botswana who lodged the historic legal case, said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor: “I’m just someone who takes pride in who he is,” he said. “I did this so people like me don’t need to feel like who we are is a crime.” — Nominated by @MzansiMaasai

Fatwa against child marriage

The deputy imam of Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, among the world’s most prestigious centres of Islamic learning, issued a fatwa against child marriage — the first decree of its kind that could protect millions of children from being forced into marriage.

“Marriage in Islam is based on the consent of both parties, particularly the young woman. Such consent requires the young woman to have reached the age of maturity and reason, so that her consent is validly given,” it reads.

The decree was drafted during the first African summit on child marriage and female genital mutilation, which took place in Dakar in June. It was the result of a months-long discussion between civil society groups and Al-Azhar.

Child marriage is a huge problem in Africa — in sub-Saharan Africa, four in 10 women are married before their 18th birthday — and it is hoped that the fatwa will help to change attitudes of religious leaders in countries with high rates of child marriage.Nominated by Ruth Maclean (@RuthMaclean)

Cameroonian’s meteoric NBA rise

In the world of professional sport, potential superstars are usually discovered early, their talent honed from a young age. But Cameroon’s Pascal Siakam was 15 years old before he picked up a basketball for the first time.

In addition, he had already decided on a career as a Catholic priest. But so obvious was Siakam’s natural talent that he got a scholarship to a university in the United States, although there were more hurdles to overcome: his father died in a car accident before his first full season of college ball. Alone in a foreign country, Siakam has described this period of his life as his hardest.

Since then, Siakam has gone from strength to strength, culminating in a starring role as his unfancied Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. As significant is what his meteoric rise means for other African athletes — the NBA scouts will probably pay more attention to the continent from now on. — Nominated by Jamie Hitchen (jchitchen)

The West rejects, Uganda accepts

As of May 31, the tiny, landlocked, lower-income nation of Uganda was hosting 1 276 208 refugees — in a country that already has a population of 42.8-million.

Two thirds of these refugees are from neighbouring South Sudan, which is in the midst of a long-running civil war. Others come from all over the region, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia.

“Uganda has continued to maintain an open-door policy to refugees based on traditional African hospitality and not turning away anybody who is running to us for safety,” says Hilary Onek, Uganda’s minister of relief, disaster preparedness and refugees.

This approach stands in shameful contrast to the images emerging from Europe and North America, where governments are choosing to let refugees and migrants drown at sea or starve in desert crossings rather than provide assistance.

“Uganda remains open to neighbours fleeing conflict. The response has its critics and shortcomings but, in a world gone crazy with border controls, it’s something,” says Lydia Numuburu, a Ugandan journalist. — Nominated by Lydia Numuburu (@namlyd)

SA snubs rapist musician

Koffi Olomidé is one of the most famous names on the African music scene. He is also a convicted rapist, having been found guilty of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old dancer by a court in France in March. Olomidé, whose real name is Antoine Agbepa Mumba, was given a two-year suspended sentence.

It was unclear what effect this verdict would have on his career, but the Congolese musician continued to receive invitations from clubs and venues across the continent to perform — including at the Gallagher Estate in Johannesburg and the Shimmy Beach Club in Cape Town.

But South Africans had other ideas. A hastily arranged campaign, under the banner “Stop Koffi Olomidé”, attracted huge support for a petition to stop his performances in the country. Bowing to this public pressure, both venues announced that the shows would be cancelled — thereby depriving Olomidé of an influential public platform, and a chance to rehabilitate his reputation. — Nominated by Koketso Moeti (@Kmoeti)

Ethiopia opens its borders

Last year, Ethiopia was one of the most difficult countries for other African countries to get into: in a measure of visa openness by the African Development Bank, it ranked 50 out of 54 countries. This poor record was even more embarrassing given that Addis Ababa is the home of the African Union.

But things changed this year when the government made it possible for citizens of any African country to obtain a visa on arrival, in an explicit effort to foster a closer bond with the rest of the continent.

“This social bond of interaction of Ethiopians with the rest of Africa’s systems could be more facilitated, and the flow of business and investment, and of course tourism, could be easily felt here in Ethiopia,” says Sileshi Demisew, a spokesperson for Ethiopia’s immigration department.

Part of the AU’s continental integration schemes is to promote visa-free travel for all Africans within the continent. Ethiopia’s open borders are a positive step in the right direction. — Nominated by Ryan Cummings (@Pol_Sec_Analyst)

Diaspora responds to Idai

When Freeman Chari heard that his country, Zimbabwe, was being battered by Cyclone Idai, he wanted to help. But what could he do from Ohio in the United States, where he currently lives? He quickly set up a GoFundMe campaign online, in an effort to raise a few thousand dollars to help with the relief effort in Chimanimani region, which was worst hit. The response exceeded all his expectations. More than 2 000 donations later — mostly small contributions from other Zimbabweans in the diaspora — he had raised more than $84 000 to buy desperately needed food, blankets and building supplies.

Not all of the money raised by Chari could be used for the immediate emergency response, so he has put the remainder into developing local schools — installing electricity, fixing up the school buildings and buying chairs and desks.

“Together we can complete this journey and transform some lives,” he said on Facebook.

Chari’s efforts have made him a hero in Chimanimani, and a symbol of how one person, harnessing the collective power of thousands, can make a real difference. — Nominated by @TichRay, @jay_maveneka, @KusemaShepard

Wins in the war on poaching

The Niassa National Reserve in northern Mozambique has just celebrated a full year without a single elephant dying at the hands of poachers. The milestone is a remarkable achievement and shows that the war on poaching can be won.

Between 2011 and 2014, the number of elephants in the Niassa reserve decreased from 12 000 to just 4 400 as a result of poaching, according to ANAC, Mozambique’s National Conservation Area Administration.

Something had to change, so the government put together an elite policing unit to help rangers combat the poaching. The tactic worked, with poaching incidents becoming less and less frequent.

“ANAC hopes these celebrations will increase the level of awareness of society in general, and of the communities who live in and around conservation areas in particular, of the importance of protecting biodiversity,” the state conservation agency said. — Nominated by @_mwaa_

Garissa University bounces back

When Garissa University was attacked by al-Shabab militants in 2015, the relatively young tertiary institution had not yet held its first graduation ceremony. On that day, 148 students were killed.

The rest of the student body transferred to nearby Moi University and completed their education there.

Since then, it has been a struggle for Garissa’s management to convince students that it is a safe place to study. That’s why last month’s graduation ceremony — the first in its history — was such an important moment.

“We will not forget what happened. No challenge is too great not to be overcome. Al-Shabab wanted this university closed, but now this is the fruit of our resilience,” said local MP and parliamentary majority leader Aden Duale.

The university’s chancellor, Hellen Sambili, added: “We remember those who lost their lives, and their families. The university will remain strong and it will transform this region.” — Nominated by @Mohamedkorane1