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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Shocked Africans Wonder At Slow Aid After Katrina by Estelle Shirbon

Many Africans, accustomed to humanitarian disasters on their own continent, feel empathy towards Americans suffering in the wake of hurricane Katrina and share their disappointment at the U.S. government's response.

Opinions vary about whether there was an element of racism in why it took days to get basic aid to Katrina's mostly poor, black victims, but there is unanimous solidarity with the bereaved and the homeless of the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"It's disastrous, it's devastating, I feel so sorry for these people," said Abdulwahab Garba, a pump attendant at a filling station in the Nigerian capital Abuja, waving a copy of a newspaper with a front-page picture from the disaster zone.

"If I had money I would have contributed for food and shelter. I don't have money, but my assistance is to pray for them," he said.

Many Liberians, whose country was founded by freed American slaves more than 150 years ago and who still feel close links with the United States, said they felt Washington had not done enough to help those in need.

"I feel very sad about the situation in New Orleans at this time. It looks like a conflict in Africa. The U.S. as a superpower should have done more to solve the situation," said Edith Thompson, a restaurant owner in the capital Monrovia.

In Rwanda, where an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in a 1994 genocide, university lecturer Emmanuel Kamasa saw racism behind the slow response to Katrina.

"I think failure by the U.S. government to respond instantly is related to the fact that the affected area is dominated by the blacks," he said.

The view was echoed by others across the continent, although there were just as many who disagreed. January Makamba, a civil servant in Tanzania, blamed bureaucracy, not prejudice.

"The slow pace in response we have seen after Katrina was due to institutional constraints. I don't buy the racial line. I can liken bureaucracy to asking an elephant to do gymnastics," he said.


Some said they could see why looting would happen in a poor African country but were startled to see people in the world's superpower doing it.

"For them as a great nation, I was surprised by the looting. You expect people to pull together," said George Sempa, a telecoms worker in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

Saida Luguga, a Tanzanian charity worker, said footage from the Gulf Coast showed that Americans and Africans were equal.

"What I see on TV, people carrying their most important belongings and fleeing, it's the same as anywhere in Africa," she said.

Many Africans concluded that wealth and power were simply not enough in the face of a natural catastrophe like Katrina.

"The floods in the U.S. are a natural event that transcends America's power. Despite all their technology and money, they weren't able to do much," said Samba Thiam, a student in the Senegalese capital Dakar where the worst flooding in 20 years have brought chaos in the last few weeks.

Jacki Randindrarison, secretary-general of Madagascar's national emergency council dealing with cyclones and floods that regularly hit the Indian Ocean island, saw lessons to be learnt from Katrina.

"It is not enough to have a warning system. You need to sensitise people to take warnings seriously. Tell them: 'Forget your attachments, you need to get out.'"

(Additional reporting by Helen Nyambura in Dar Es Salaam, Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia, Arthur Asiimwe in Kigali, Daniel Wallis in Kampala, Diadie Ba in Dakar and Tim Cocks in Antananarivo))

Editor's Note: This article first appeared at Reuters in September 2005.

Estelle Shirbon

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

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