Most Americans don't spend time giving much thought to Africa. But from my recent trip to Africa, I think they should.
Twenty years ago, the venerable Economist magazine called it the "Hopeless Continent." Even today, stories of poverty, disease, dictatorial states, and corruption often engender feelings of fatalism or exasperation.
Here is what many people are missing. Information technology - especially mobile phones - is connecting African farmers and producers to new markets, and the continent is now a major buyer of consumer goods from around the world. Better health outcomes mean that Africa's share of the world's population is projected to grow from 16 percent in 2015 to 25 percent in 2050 and 39 percent by 2100. We cannot ignore the fact that most of the world's new labor force will be African in the future.
China and Russia are dramatically expanding their influence in Africa and, according to National Security Adviser John Bolton, their efforts to lock down strategic minerals and forge military ties with weak governments "pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests." An astounding 39 of 54 African nations have signed on to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative - a trillion-dollar plan that would make China a dominant economic player on the continent. An estimated 25 percent of China's total oil imports currently come from Africa.
I recently visited several African countries, ranging from Zambia to Zimbabwe to Ethiopia, and can attest that the humanitarian work being done there is not only important on a heartfelt personal level. It's also making more Africans self-sufficient and less likely to once again fall prey to foreign powers.
Take Zambia, where Family Legacy, a Dallas-based Christian ministry, runs an amazing network of schools along with an orphan-care facility. It has 26 schools in and around the capital city of Lusaka, educating 15,000 children. It also runs the Tree of Life Children's Village, which has 64 purpose-built houses that provide 800 orphans with their own beds, three meals a day, and a safe place to grow up.
Orphans are a heart-wrenching reminder of Africa's challenges. Close to a quarter of African youths are considered orphaned, in many cases because of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the continent. In Zambia, AIDS killed an entire generation of parents, leaving the country with half of its population under the age of 18. Even today, 1.2 million Zambians have HIV, out of a population of just 17 million.
The orphans of Zambia mostly eke out a living in shantytowns where they fend for themselves, sleeping in rudimentary shacks or under plastic tarps. Walking through Boroko Market, a shantytown in Lusaka, I met Tafika, a charming albeit shy twelve-year-old. "I want to go to school, I plan to have a future," she told me. She knows she will have to work hard for a new life, but she is determined to seek it. For some dramatic pictures of Tafika's shantytown, see this article by David Martosko of the Daily Mail, who accompanied me on part of my trip.
One of the reasons that Family Legacy has so much support from overseas is that it brings hundreds of volunteers, many from North Texas, to Lusaka every summer to help run Camp Life. Each U.S. volunteer is responsible for the well-being and spiritual guidance of ten orphans. Their tasks can range from helping a girl paint her fingernails for the first time to holding a child's hand as he visits the doctor to introducing a kid to children's books.
Andrew White is the son of a former Texas governor and a successful businessman in his own right. He brought his family to Zambia this summer in part to show them that their faith is more than something you "do" on a Sunday morning. "We get to see God work miracles in the lives of both kids and the Americans who come here," he told me. "The people here are preparing these kids for life, and that's quite a gift to give them."
Zambia discourages foreigners from adopting its orphans, fearing that a large exodus would mean a brain drain. That strikes me as wise. I met many children who could grow up to be the country's teachers, traders, lawyers, and doctors. The future of Zambia - and all of Africa - depends on allowing its human talent to reach its full potential.
Holly Scurry is a native Texan who has lived in Zambia for years working as Family Legacy's senior vice president. She embodies the biblical call in the Book of James for people of faith to "visit the widows and the orphans in their distress." Watching her energetically lead an auditorium full of excited children in song and dance is to understand just how much doing good works can make one feel full of purpose. "It's amazing what many of these kids can accomplish if we provide the building blocks," she told me. "We light the spark, they carry it forward."
Family Legacy's mission is to assist orphans one on one. I'll be writing more about that work in a second column. But Family Legacy and similar charities in other African nations also serve a larger purpose: making sure that Africa's next generation is healthy and productive and ready for the bigger role that the continent will play in the world someday soon.