March 5, 2006 Why So Starry-Eyed? Misery Loves Optimism in Africa By LYDIA POLGREEN GAGA REFUGEE CAMP, Chad AMOUNA MUHAMMAD sat quietly in the shade of her canvas tent, imagining the future of her 3-month-old son, Haider, bundled in her lap. "My son will go to school," she declared, absentmindedly waving away the flies that clustered around his unfocused brown eyes. "He will have doctors and plenty of meat to eat. He will live in peace." Ms. Muhammad has seen little of those things in her 20 years. I met her here, at a refugee camp deep in eastern Chad, just a few days after she arrived from the western Sudanese region of Darfur. There, war has killed at least 200,000 people in the last three years and sent millions like her fleeing their homes. And this was the second time she had been sent packing in those three years. The first time, she fled attacks by Arab militias who thundered through on camels and horseback, guns blazing as they stole cattle, slaughtered men and raped women. She went to a camp just inside Sudan, the land of her birth, which ranks 141st of 177 nations on the United Nations index of human development. Now, with the war spreading and spilling over the border, she has run again — to a camp some 60 miles inside the even more desolate, barren land of Chad, which ranks 173 on that scale. Yet in all this chaos, here was Ms. Muhammad, planning a future of unimaginable goodness for her child. "There are so many bad things in the world," she said. "But I know good things will come for Haider." Where does such relentless optimism in the face of unyielding misery come from? One glance at the statistical profile of the continent's 900 million people will tell you that Africans can expect to live the shortest lives, earn the lowest incomes and suffer some of the worst misrule on the planet. They are more likely than anyone on earth to bury their children before the age of 5, to become infected with H.I.V., to die from malaria and tuberculosis, to require food aid. Yet a recent survey by Gallup International Association of 50,000 people across the world found that Africans are the most optimistic people. Asked whether 2006 would be better than 2005, 57 percent said yes. Asked if they would be more prosperous this year than last, 55 percent said yes. These data bear out what I see all the time as I travel across sub-Saharan Africa as a correspondent: that every single day lived here, each birth, wedding, graduation, sunrise and sunset is, in ways large and small, a daily triumph of hope over experience. Hope, it seems, is Africa's most abundant harvest. "If I put on my academic hat, I would have nothing to tell you to explain this," said Kayode Fayemi, a political scientist in Nigeria and a leading pro-democracy activist there, a man who has every reason to be pessimistic as chaos threatens to engulf his country. "The only thing keeping people going is hope and optimism about the future that is unknown. The hope is the evidence of things not seen. I think that is the only way to explain optimism, because you can't base it on any analysis of our current condition." Experts at Gallup International have grappled with the meaning of the data, which seem counterintuitive, but turn out to be consistent over time and in many places that have suffered through catastrophe. Places like Kosovo and Bosnia, for example, which have emerged from bloody wars to face an uncertain future, score high on the optimism scale. Africa has topped that scale for years, a ranking indifferent to the continent's repeated cycles of hope and despair. Meril James, secretary general of Gallup International, said that Africa's optimism might reflect a reality so grim that nothing could really be worse. "There is a sense that when things can't get worse you've reached rock bottom, so things must improve," Ms. James said. Religion doubtless plays a role. Other Gallup International surveys have found that Africa is the most religious continent. The only region that rivals it on that score is the United States, which is also a very optimistic place. "We have our faith, if nothing else," said the Rev. Joseph Ezeugo, pastor of Immaculate Heart Parish in Onitsha, Nigeria. Not far from the church where he spoke were dozens of charred bodies, the victims of sectarian violence. "We can find hope in faith," he said, "even if there is darkness all around us." But the survey also reveals that Africa's optimism is not simply the optimism of faith. Africans, the data reveal, are painfully aware of the inadequacy of their leaders: 8 out of 10 said "political leaders are dishonest"; three-quarters "deemed them to have too much power and responsibility"; while 7 out of 10 "think politicians behave unethically." Africans expressed a deep faith in democracy in the survey, even if its imperfect practice has brought much pain, and even if some argue that Africa needs strong leaders. In the poll, 87 percent said they believed that democracy was the best form of government for them — the highest percentage in the world to hold that view, tied with North Americans. There is perhaps no more hopeful moment in a nation's life than a successful election. When hundreds of thousands of voters lined up long before dawn to cast their ballots late last year in Liberia's first election since its 14-year civil war ended, few dwelled on the pain of the past or the challenges ahead, choosing instead to imagine the possibilities the future holds. "We are going to have jobs, water, light, food," said Benedict Newon, 19, whom I met in a huge abandoned building on the outskirts of Monrovia where he and hundreds of other former fighters live as squatters in total squalor. He was conscripted into a rebel group as a young boy; war is the only life he has known. Yet he had no trouble imagining a life of peace. "We are never going to see war again," he told me, his liquid eyes shining. "Liberia is going to change." No frustration, however, is greater than what comes at seeing that promise betrayed. In Togo last year, the death of its longtime ruler, Gnassingbe Eyadema, threw wide open a window long sealed shut. But along came his son, Faure Gnassingbe, who took power illegally with the backing of his father's powerful military allies. The window quickly slammed shut again. An election, which Mr. Gnassingbe won, was held in April, but questions about its legitimacy linger, to the frustration of the Togolese people. Indeed, Africans are not unaware of the limits of democracy as practiced here. Just 34 percent of those polled said they felt that their elections were free and fair, and that the governments chosen represented the will of the people. At the heart of this seeming contradiction is a paradox — a surfeit of misery met not with stoicism but with an unshakable faith in an unknown future. This paradox is the African condition, and in my travels along the border in Chad, it was on vivid display never more so than in the home of Hissein Kassar Mostapha of Adé, a border town that has suffered ceaseless attacks. So great was the danger there that he had sent his wives and children to a town farther west. I was in search of a safe place to sleep in a perilous land. Mr. Mostapha, a minor town official, offered me what little hospitality he could: a patch of earth on which to sleep beneath the stars, a communal bowl of stew and porridge shared among all those assembled within his compound, a few cups of hot tea. Grateful for all, the next morning I thanked him for his hospitality. "I only wish you could have been here with my wife and my children," he said, his eyes just as expressive as his words. "Then you would see the happy life we have here. Even when we suffer, we have joy."