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Archive for Monday, August 23, 1999

FATAL FLIGHT CARRIES DESPERATE PLEA

August 23, 1999

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— The two teen-age Africans died somewhere in flight in the freezing air between Conakry and Brussels. They had sneaked into the landing gear bay of a Sabina airliner ready to risk their lives to escape the turmoil, poverty and uncertainty that has descended across Africa.

We know that Yaguine Koita, 14, and Fode Tounkara, 15, understood the risks because of an anguishing joint letter they carefully shielded beneath the extra sweaters, pants and knit caps they wore to fight temperatures of 55 degrees below zero in an unpressurized compartment at 30,000 feet of altitude.

"Help us," they wrote in French in an appeal addressed to "the excellencies and officials of Europe." It was to be read if they perished and their bodies were found, as they were on Aug. 2 at the Brussels airport.

"We suffer enormously in Africa. Help us. We have problems in Africa. We lack rights as children. We have war and illness, we lack food. ... We have schools, but we lack education. ... We want to study, and we ask you to help us to study so we can be like you, in Africa."

Yaguine and Fode reached in death an audience that eluded them in life. Their poignant words, full of spelling errors but composed with an eloquence born of human need and hope, were reprinted this month in newspapers in Belgium, France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe for officials and citizens to read, and consider.

The youths' words reach across decades as well as continents. The appeal for help and their desire "to study so we can be like you, in Africa" capture the failure of European and African excellencies alike to provide for the ambitions and hopes of Africa's common people.

The letter reminds us that most Africans are caught in conditions at least as bleak and grinding as those that prevailed at the beginning of the century -- if not the millennium. Africans are perhaps unique on the globe in that appalling respect.

They were promised otherwise four decades ago as the era of independence and African socialism replaced colonial rule and European economic monopolies. But many in Africa's new black elite quickly became as greedy, exploitive and tyrannical as the white colonials they replaced in power. They were like the Europeans in Africa -- only more so.

Nothing angered the departing colonials more than being forced to see themselves in the Africans who rejected them. When Charles de Gaulle in 1958 offered French colonies a choice between independence or continued softer domination by France, Guinea's Sekou Toure did exactly what de Gaulle would have done: He seized independence with both hands and made his defiance the greatest political asset of his authoritarian rule.

The infuriated colonials took everything when they left. They ripped out electric wires and pocketed light bulbs and jail cell keys in Conakry, Guinea's capital, rather than turn them over to the new authorities.

It was in Conakry that Yaguine and Fode, too young to have known European rule or values firsthand, sneaked unobserved into the airliner's underbelly where they were nearly certain to freeze to death if the landing gear did not crush them first.

For all the local poverty, mismanagement and repression their letter describes, Guinea is far from Africa's saddest story. Ten percent of its population is composed of refugees from neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, where life has become hell on earth. Across the continent, a "black hole" of anarchy prevails in Somalia, the United Nations candidly declared last week.

The older generations of Africa dreamed that liberation from colonialism would mean liberation from such grim conditions. Yaguine and Fode dreamed a newer retro dream, one of "a grand, efficient organization" created by the European excellencies to help Africa. "If you see that we have sacrificed our lives it is because we need your help to fight against poverty and to end wars," they wrote.

Africa's calamities, rooted in a brutal shift in the terms of global trade as well as political misrule, create a hope and faith born of desperation.

Even though there are no jobs for the graduates Africa's schools do turn out, Yaguine and Fode still saw education as life's great transforming experience. Even though Europe and North America do less and less to help foundering Third World nations, Yaguine and Fode hoped for more and more assistance.

They were naive children. But decency survives in such naivete. Mourn that Yaguine and Fode will not go on to write, to think, to challenge again and again all the world's excellencies -- and those who elect and appoint them -- to do better by their vision of a common humanity.

-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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