Hope for East Africa--Andrew Ayeni (August 30, 2010)

With all the uproar over the "mosque at Ground Zero," it might have been easy to miss how deeply East Africa is, again, in trouble.  Sudan teeters on another civil war.  In Mogadishu, Somalia on August 24, more than two-dozen died in a paramilitary attack on a hotel just a half-mile from the presidential palace.  And the World Cup bombing in Kampala, Uganda killed over 70. 

These attacks highlight for political and religious leaders the need for immediate, and urgent, responses to protect and to support peace builders and those committed to the rule of law in Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya--and elsewhere.

But the long-term route to peace and prosperity in the region requires dedication to developing leaders with the educational background and commitments to justice, integrity, and peace who might make a difference.  The examples of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the West African nation of Liberia, and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai in Kenya, are good cases in point.  And there are things people here in the U.S. can do--one person at a time--to help support and sustain hope in East Africa. 

Last summer, I traveled to Uganda to speak at an International Dialogue Dinner on Love and Tolerance in Kampala.  The gala banquet--held at the beautiful Serena Hotel--was attended by diplomats, business leaders, and members of Parliament.  It was an evening filled with hope.  Muslims and Christians met together in solidarity.

But earlier that day I had been surprised by an opportunity to speak with the students at Turkish Light Academy--a boys' school on the outskirts of Kampala, at the end of a rutted dirt road (http://www.lightacademy.ac.ug/tla/).  It was there that I really discovered the potential of a future for Uganda and for all of East Africa beyond the threats of terrorism and violence that have now exacted their tragic costs.

Turkish Light Academy is a school built by progressive Muslims from Turkey (there are similar schools in eighty countries now, including several here in the U.S.).  The leaders of the school welcome students from all over the nation, most of whom are Christian.  The school stresses academic excellence in the sciences and humanities.  Students routinely earn the highest scores in the country on the Ugandan national exam (like the SAT, only offered once per year!)  As I spoke to the assembly of about 200 young Ugandans, they listened politely, and then asked excellent questions afterwards.  The most pointed questioner asked me what I had done to practice tolerance, and what I would have them do! 

Then, I toured the beautiful grounds of the school, visited in classrooms, and met with faculty, administrators, and the young men.  I discovered in them an earnest hope.  Repeatedly, they asked me what I thought they could do to make Uganda better.  Repeatedly, they revealed their love for democracy, for learning, and for their nation (they also liked Barack Obama).

Upon returning to the U.S., I've kept in touch with one of the students--Andrew De'Aloi Ayeni (he's on Facebook).  Drew hopes to build what he calls an "Active Youth Forum" in Uganda and other East African nations.  The purpose of this Forum, from a proposal he sent me, is "guided by the vision, hopes and aspirations of improving our community by elevating the young generations to the ranks of humanity--not by obliterating the bad ones."  Drew wants to create youth corps across East Africa that will empower young people across religious traditions to speak out on behalf of justice and peace, and to engage in building civil society through publications, educational opportunities (conferences and workshops--as well as more formal scholarship programs), and employment in public service (he envisions something like an indigenous Peace Corps or Americorps).

Andrew has since graduated from Turkish Light Academy with excellent grades, and very good scores on the national exams.  He has a dream to study at a University in the U.S., and then to return to Uganda as a leader. 

Unfortunately, as one of twelve children from a poor village in Northern Uganda recently beset by violence, he has few economic resources to support his dream.  A recent message to me on Facebook from him read simply:  "poverty is hard."

The long-term path to hope for East Africa is to support the vision of individuals like Andrew De'Aloi Ayeni.  I wish I had the resources, singularly, to bring him to the U.S. to study or to start-up AYF (he's also been accepted at two Ugandan Universities).  I don't.  I'd welcome help.  Andrew would make good of whatever support he received.  For in the realization of his hope--and of the many young people like him--lies the realization of hope for the entire region, beyond the current threats of terrorism, chaos, and poverty.