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A humanitarian force

By Omar Valdimarsson

The Red Cross plays a vital part in the new dynamic in southern Africa.

The southern Africa region is like no other, be it culturally, politically, environmentally — and, lately, economically. The new dynamic does not go unnoticed by the casual visitor — one gets the feeling that the enormous problems and challenges facing this part of the world are at the same time exciting.

The countries that make up the Southern African Development Community (SADC) account for more than half of the economic output of sub-Saharan Africa with an economy estimated by the World Bank to amount to USD 172 billion. The region’s growth rate is a steady 6%, compared to Africa’s average growth of 5% and the industrialized countries’ 4%.

The fact that South Africa — the region’s “economic locomotive”, to quote Time magazine — has taken charge of its own destiny, under forceful and popular leadership, has undoubtedly given added courage and assurance to its neighbours. Two of these countries are optimistically rising from the ashes of bitter and devastating civil wars, others are carefully treading into new-found freedom and/or independence. Multi-party democracy is taking hold, and the people of southern Africa are taking charge of their destiny. It is a time of transition, of new hope for the region.

It is also a difficult time for southern Africa. Natural and man-made disasters are regular features on the region’s landscape. While the ten countries are diverse in wealth and standard of living, all are in the lower half of the world community as ranked by the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. The average life expectancy in the region is just over 50 years. Malawi has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, Angola and Mozambique among the highest maternal mortality rates. AIDS is widespread with nearly a third of some populations are infected; as a measure of the horrific impact of HIV/AIDS in this region, no fewer than 5% of all Zambian children have been orphaned by the deadly disease.


A force at work

“This is it,” said Annie Mamba, chairperson of the Babani division of the Swaziland Red Cross. “Let us go inside and visit them. They will be happy to have visitors.”
Inside the hut was a room measuring approximately two by three metres. Two rickety beds took up most of the space. In one of the beds, facing the window, two old women lay side by side, covered with a woollen blanket.

The southern African sun was hammering down mercilessly on the corrugated iron roof. It was sweltering hot. “Eee,” exclaimed Annie, “why are you both in the same bed? I already said you should not do it. It’s uncomfortable.”

The women said nothing to this — but they were obviously happy to see Annie. They are mother and daughter. The daughter, Elizabeth, is paralysed from the waist down. She’s been lying in that bed for the past 20 years. Both suffer from arthritis. The mother can no longer take care of herself nor her daughter. They live alone, with no neighbours for miles and miles.

“I am very old and sick,” the older woman smiled weakly. “I am 88 years old. That is very old,” she continued. “She can barely walk around the room,” explained Annie, “so we come every week and cook and clean and take care of them.”

And the daughter — how old is she? “I will be 65 next February,” she said smiling — and then added giggling: “I am not young any more!”

Heading back to Mbabane, Annie Mamba was worried. Her branch did not have the money to carry on the work with the seven neediest cases in the area. None of them had relatives or friends to help.

“When you are helpless and poor the family disappears,” Annie sighed. “No one comes to visit any more except us and even that is getting more and more difficult. I just don’t know where to get the money to continue our work.” There was no easy solution to her problem, but when asked what would happen to mother and daughter if help was no longer available, Annie Mamba shuddered, “What then? What then?” O.V.


Spirit of solidarity

But none of these challenges is insurmountable. The Red Cross Societies in southern Africa, along with the International Federation, are playing an ever increasing role in the tasks at hand, having committed themselves to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.

The National Societies in southern Africa — Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe — form a strong network across the whole region, each Society already in itself a national network of dedicated volunteers and skilled staff. The Federation, represented by its regional delegation in Harare, is the “architect of cooperation”, facilitating the sharing of skills, knowledge and experiences across borders through its regional programmes in health, information technology, disaster management and preparedness, institutional and resource development and water and sanitation. Through its regional set-up in Pretoria and Harare, the ICRC is cooperating actively with most of these National Societies, especially in the fields of emergency preparedness, health and relief as well as dissemination.

Jerry Talbot, Head of the Federation’s regional delegation in Harare, is optimistic and excited about the tasks before him and his team: “Many of the hundreds of Red Cross branches in the region have a large number of trained and experienced volunteers and staff,” he says. “They are the obvious and regular first responders to crises and disasters in their communities. These are people who have worked in the most difficult of circumstances — large scale population movements, armed conflict, droughts, floods, epidemics.”

The Federation’s regional delegation for southern Africa, whose budget for 1998 activities is CHF 1.7 million, was established in the mid-1980’s to increase National Society disaster preparedness in southern Africa. In recent years the delegation became a conduit for National Societies in the region to come together to tackle common challenges, be they ongoing natural disasters, issues of integrity which threaten to compromise the Fundamental Principles or challenges of institutional development and financial self-reliance.

As a reflection of this solidarity the member National Societies have formed the Southern Africa Partnership of Red Cross Societies with a mandate to “strengthen the collaboration, co-operation and self-determination of National Societies in the region in order to achieve a greater level of self-sustainability”.

Omar Valdimarsson
Omar Valdimarsson is a freelance journalist based in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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