November 16, 2007

Speaker: Africa Needs Researchers

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Sub-Saharan Africa does not need any more dollars in aid from the U.S. or other countries in order to alleviate malnutrition, poverty and starvation — Africa needs researchers, according to former Vice-President of Uganda Dr. Speciosa Wandira.
On Wednesday night, Wandira spoke about the politics surrounding her country’s food systems in a lecture entitled, “Achieving Freedom from Hunger, Poverty, and Poor Health in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
“There are countries in Africa with no war that still have huge food security issues. So what’s the real problem? You have the answers — that’s why we’re here at Cornell University,” Wandira said.
Elected as vice-president and minister of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries in 1994 in Uganda, Wandira focused on modernizing the agricultural production in her country to eliminate hunger. She said that although Uganda has all the necessary resources to feed its people, the country needs better internal organization and research on food systems and agriculture in order to bring the resources to the population — an initiative which requires the explicit help of international research power-houses like Cornell.
“When you get to Sub-Saharan Africa, you find many politicians saying Africa is a very fertile continent. On the contrary, the soil is weathered and devoid of all forms of fertility,” Wandira said. She emphasized the need for politicians to have an accurate perspective on their food production systems and the state of public health.
“It’s not enough to say ‘we have reduced hunger by 50 percent’ because whose child would you leave to suffer? It’s not enough,” Wandira said in an interview.
In her lecture, Wandira criticized the Ministries of Health in Uganda for being too preoccupied with curing serious diseases like HIV/AIDS and Malaria, leaving little money and energy for the creation of a nutrition program that could eliminate the hunger problem. She was also skeptical about the capabilities of many of the young people in Uganda who graduate with degrees in community development or public health.
“The young people trained as extension agents were not prepared to go into these villages; the young people trained as veterinarians did not want to touch the animals and get cow dung on their ties,” Wandira said. She insisted that researchers must swallow their pride, and those committed to development must prepare themselves for a life of selfless service, “a life like that of the Dalai Lama.”
Before entering the realm of politics in her country, Wandira earned a degree in medicine and surgery at Makerere University in Uganda. She said that her experience as a physician opened her eyes to the inner suffering of her countrymen.
“Even if I was a wonderful physician, and somebody’s leg was shot off, I could not put it back on. Being a physician in my country made me a very conscientious politician. I saw what conflict was all about. I saw that with bad governance, whatever you hide you really have to meet up with eventually,” Wandira said.
Along with her medical experience, Wandira said that her role as a mother influenced her agenda as a politician. In a country with a high rate of domestic violence and limited rights for women, Wandira was the first woman to be elected as a vice-president in Africa.
“Being a mother puts me in a position to look at everybody as my child; everyone calls me ‘mami.’ Culturally, I’m like a mother to everybody because I’m the mother of twins. In Africa they say that if God gives you twins, he has given you authority over all other people’s children. You are to be the repository of all the medicines, the wisdom and advice,” Wandira said. She explained that women have played a large role in the peace process of her country because they are the traditional peace-makers in African culture.
Wandira’s lecture focused on the need to bring research and better organization to Uganda in order to apply resources efficiently. Her comments, however, inspired mixed reactions from the audience.
“A lot of what you are saying here could be contested … Uganda is not a poor country. I’m from Uganda. There is a lot of waste and misuse of resources in our country … When are you going to stand on the side of those who say, ‘enough is enough?’” Dan Lumonya grad asked during the question and answer session.
Wandira responded to Lumonya’s comment by saying that she agreed with him — the time has come for the country to create wealth rather than fighting over “the small pieces of cake on the table.”
Lumonya, however, was not satisfied. He said he was disappointed by Wandira’s lecture because it did not address the real issues behind poverty and hunger in Uganda.
“I’m deeply involved as well in political debates in Uganda, because it is my country too. For me, I think that the big problem is a lack of democracy. There is no space for ordinary people to decide the direction that they want to go in … our president has been in power for 21 years and is doing everything to perpetuate his stay — and she was with him,” Lumonya said.
Others in the audience said they found Wandira’s lecture compelling and agreed with her program. Yuri Sylvester, ’08, said he appreciated the fact that Wandira is trying to equip herself with the technical skills to help Uganda by studying nutrition at Harvard.
“I really like the fact that she left politics to become better prepared so she could come back to her country as a well rounded politician. You hear about the corruption and the lack of aid, but in the end it’s politics — there are enough resources, it’s all about organization,” Sylvester said.