When I took my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa in 1998, it was the longest, most extensive trip there that any American president had ever taken. I traveled to six countries, where I saw people working to turn the tide of AIDS; I saw people in South Africa – both supporters and victims of apartheid – working to make their new democracy benefit all of the people; and I visited villages on the edge of deserts and saw women drilling wells and starting new businesses with micro-credit loans. Everywhere I went, I was struck by how unique each country was, with different races, tribes, religions and languages. Yet underneath, they carried the same hopes, the same dreams, the same values.
I wanted to help Americans see the new Africa with new eyes. I wanted them to ask not what we could do for Africa, but what we could do with Africa to build a better future for us all. The people I saw wanted a hand up, not a hand out. So, as President, I forgave international debts, if countries used their savings to invest in education, health care, and economic growth. I signed into law the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which dropped quotas and tariffs to zero on 6,500 African products. And I convened an unprecedented conference of African ministers and their American counterparts to strengthen their capacity, and ours, to make the most of our emerging partnership.
After leaving the White House, and inspired by my friend Nelson Mandela, my Foundation began its work in Africa focused on turning the tide of HIV/AIDS. In Malawi and Rwanda, we have worked to help farmers increase their incomes and to build health care networks to serve all the people. We’re also working to improve the health systems of several other countries, including a very large effort in Ethiopia. We’re helping big cities, including Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg, South Africa, to become more energy efficient. In South Africa, we also have an AmeriCorps affiliated project in Johannesburg where young Americans and young South Africans work in schools to mentor students. It’s an honor to work there.
On my 11th trip, I’ll be returning to Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa to see the work my Foundation is doing and the people our work is benefiting. I want to know and how we’re doing our jobs. I’m going around Nelson Mandela’s birthday, as I often have since we both left office, and I hope to see him and to support the efforts of his foundation. And I am excited to visit during a time of great energy and celebration as the World Cup continues in South Africa.
Most of all I am looking forward to being back in Africa, where I always feel connected to the sweep of human history. Our first human ancestors rose up on the African savannah roughly 150,000 years ago, and our pre-human ancestors are best embodied by Lucy’s 3.5 million-year-old bones in Ethiopia. But even more thrilling than Africa’s history is its future – full of promise and opportunity. All the good people who work in our programs, who come from the nations where they work, the U.S., and many other nations are committed to that future. They are helping to give the people of Africa the tools they need to make their dreams come true.