cross the river by ferry and stand on the
opposite side, you're looking at the
Congo River. It's the same river, but the
different names are a nationalistic thing."
They traveled from Liberia to Zambia,
Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Zaire, and Kenya,
but visa problems kept the journalists
out of Angola.
S. Braxton Black: When you left, what
did you expect to discover?
Alma Newsom: It was primarily a background trip. None of us, except Tony,
had ever been to black Africa. We wanted
to get firsthand impressions. By talking
to people we got a perspective which we
could apply to our future writings,
reportings and producing duties.
Our information sources out of Africa
are very, very limited. What can you read
about Africa on a day-to-day basis? You
can't read anything unless its some sensational happening. When an Idi Amin is
running amok, there's lots of press about
Uganda. When Amin is ousted and the
country is going through a traumatic
There are different stages of development because of external things rather
than the people themselves. To a large
extent, the level of development depends
on what colonial power existed there and
what institutions or basic systems, if
any, people still use. There are perceptible differences in how people think
which reflect their French or British
The things people have in common are
traditional values—the home. The role of
the female is very traditional. One asks
a man how many sons he has, not how
many daughters. I noticed in some
countries that women are trying to
break out, more so in West Africa and
Liberia than in East Africa.
S.B.B.: Is that because American influence is stronger in West Africa than
A.N.: In Liberia it is because of identification with the United States.
S.B.B.: Can you give specific examples
and low-profile. Now they want to be
known for their efforts. They said they
were struggling for recognition but
pointed out a big difference between
themselves and the feminists in the
United States. They said, "We have no
problem with our identity. We know who
we are and what we can do."
S.B.B.: What about family roles?
A.N.: Most of the countries are still
developing and don't think society
can afford any disruptions in the traditional family, especially in urbanized
areas where families have more economic
pressures. In rural areas, the preservation
of the traditional family and domestic
roles for the woman is automatic; but it'si
hard to maintain traditional roles in the.
city, maybe because both parents have to»
I met a woman who is kind of a contradiction. She is very active, publicly
and professionally, and her family and
husband encourage her. She changed
careers and did many things success-
Typical market scene in Nigeria.
rebuilding period, suddenly the news
stops. We don't have continuous news
coming out of black Africa. Our impressions are distorted and based on limited
As much as possible, we tried to get
out into the villages and markets to see
what people were buying and what their
living conditions were.
S.B.B.: In the countries you visited, what
similarities did you find among the
A.N.: From country to country there are
lots of similarities and great differences.
Language is always a problem. From village to village the dialects can change
dramatically. There are some common
words but frequently people are not able
This is why more and more countries
are trying to get a standard language to
aid business transactions. In Zaire the
official language is French, but the vast
majority of people outside the capital
city don't speak French. They speak
S. Braxton Black is a struggling freelance writer
and a newcomer to Houston from Memphis,
of the "breaking out" you mentioned?
A.N.: We had constant battles trying to
get off official schedules and away from
official people in order to get to the
grassroots. But the time wasn't there.
I did not go to Africa to study women,
but I did meet a group of women journalists returning from a meeting of 300
professional African women. They said
West African women were much more
ready to assert themselves than East
African women whom they saw as willing
to accept the traditional role of being a
These journalists said African women
had no identity problems. The journalists, who had been to school in England
or the United States, told me: "Our
struggle, just starting in Africa, is similar
to the feminist struggle in the United
States. We want to be recognized for
what we are doing. African women are
present in practically every aspect of
society, but there is no fanfare about it."
S.B.B.: Can you give an example?
A.N.: They are educators. The president
of the University of Liberia is female.
There is no hassle about that. Women
hold government posts and judicial
posts. But they have also been low-key
fully. She has several children, but won't
say how many because it is believed
unlucky to count your children. She
endorsed family tradition saying it was
the woman's role to nurture children;
but she turned around and said she
was lucky because her husband was willing to help.
S.B.B.: Who controls African society?
A.N.: Most of black Africa is male dominated. A woman in a roomful of men is
expected to sit quietly or serve the men.
Women are not active in decision-making.
The group of African women journalists
told me they do all the work and get
half the pay of men. They are bitter.
S.B.B.: Do women have any base for
social or political power?
A.N.: The women who sell things in the
markets are the real entrepreneurs in
Africa. They are a social, political and
economic machine, or at least a potential
machine. But they have not recognized
their power. Most of them don't want
it yet. The market women exercise
their power only when someone messes
with their stalls, when a legislator tries
to close markets on a certain day. Then
the market women will react, when their
own narrow interests are threatened.
But they have no grasp of their power
beyond their narrow local concerns.
S.B.B.: What are the political systems in
A.N.: It varies greatly from country to
country, from quasi-democratic to out
and out military dictatorship. But they
wouldn't call it that.
Nigeria fascinates me. It's been
through all kinds of turmoil. For several
years it was under military rule. They
decided some time back to become a
democracy, a constitutional government,
on October 1, 1979. During the intervening years there were all types of military upheavals. Yet, as planned, on October 1, 1979, the military ruler handed
over the government to an elected civilian
government. The country is operating
under a new constitution modeled after
the U.S. Constitution.
They won't admit it's modeled after
the U.S. Constitution, but it is. The
elected Nigerian government is trying
hard to succeed, but democracy is new
to them and you have to expect problems. We have problems making democracy work in this country. In Nigeria
they have a new building for the two
houses of their legislature. They are
making laws and hammering out a system: setting up Boards of Health and a
judicial system, and still writing their
Bill of Rights. We talked with some of
the representatives who are seriously
trying to represent their districts. They
are figuring out where to put public
works projects like television stations
and dams. Representatives from northern
Nigeria are trying to pull development
away from the southern concentrations
of projects in the capital of Lagos. They
have already decided to move the capital
northward to the center of the country.
S.B.B.: Does democracy work in Africa?
A.N.: Nigeria is one attempt at democracy I'll be watching. There is still a great
military presence there. It's something
you don't dismantle overnight. When you
fly in, they tell you not to take pictures
in the airport. That's a carryover from the
military. The civilian government hasn't
gotten around to undoing everything.
Mt. Kilimanjaro, and to take pictures of
Nigeria impressed me with its determination to follow through the democratic experiment. Zimbabwe still has to
be tested. Its constitution mandates a
parliamentary government based on the
British system. They have elected officials who can be unseated. There are some,
built-in controls but the government is
still settling in.
I'm not sure about the other countries. I think many of them have a long
way to go. They may be faced with coups
and violent changes in leadership before
they start to settle down.
S.B.B.: What role does the United States
and the Eastern Bloc, specifically Russia
and Cuba, play in the black African nations?
A.N.: That's an interesting question because it gets to something basic. The
U.S. has not decided what position to
have in Africa. This leads to contradictory behavior. We may want positive
relations with an African country, but we
don't follow through. Our foreign aid to
them is low. They need a mechanized
agriculture but we haven't helped. We
have not helped them defend themselves
against hostile neighbors, especially in
Zimbabwe's conflict with South Africa.
How can you have a positive policy when
you don't know what the hell's going
S.B.B.: What kind of policy do we have?
A.N.: Our policy is mostly reactionary.
We wait to see what happens and then
we react. We must understand where
black Africa is coming from. Say you're
the leader of a country. You have to do
what's in your best interest, not always
in the best interest of someone else.
Take weapons—Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda is widely thought of as