Africare helps Africa. Over the course of its 32 years, Africare has become a leader among private, charitable U.S. organizations assisting Africa. It is the oldest and largest African-American organization in the field. And Africa is Africare's specialty.
While many Americans may not have heard of Africare, it is the oldest and largest African American service organization in the United States. Africare ministers specifically to Africa and its peoples, and has done so quietly and effectively for over three decades. Since its formation in 1970, Africare has delivered almost $400 million in aid to nations both within and around Africa, spearheading HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment, building communities, and providing emergency aid in times of need. Many well-known names in American business and government have been involved with Africare, while its board of directors past and present is a veritable Who's Who list of prominent African Americans.
Exploring Africa: 1961-71
The story of Africare is linked to another well known service organization, the Peace Corps. Though Africare was never a part of the Peace Corps nor a federal program, several former Corps volunteers were Africare's founding members. Key among them were Dr. William Kirker, who originally founded Africare, and C. Payne Lucas, who took the unknown service association and turned it into the leading relief organization it is today. The story of Africare begins with Kirker and Lucas.
When John F. Kennedy entered the White House, Democratic Party supporter C. Payne Lucas sought a government position with the new administration. He was sent to talk to the president's brother-in-law (Robert) Sargent Shriver, who was director of a new volunteer organization called the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps, officially established in March 1961, had first emerged during Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960.
Lucas had little idea of what the Peace Corps was when he went to talk to Shriver. He found out firsthand when he was sent to Africa in 1962. Lucas was headed for Togo, a nation formerly known as French Togoland until its independence from France in 1960. Lucas landed in Lome, Togo's capital, and ended up staying for six years. In 1967 he was awarded the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President Lyndon B. Johnson for his years in Togo. He then headed northeast to the Republic of Niger, which like Togo had gained its independence in 1960 from France. Lucas met and began working with the nation's president, Hamani Diori. Also in Niger was William O. Kirker, M.D., and his wife Barbara Jean, who had come to Niger the year before to work with the Maina-Soroa Hospital in the city of Diffa. Kirker saw an urgent need for what he called a "new breed of assistance organization" in Niger and Africa as a whole. Kirker and President Diori wanted the world to know the plight of Africans, who were too often hungry and ravaged by disease.
Kirker formed his new organization and called it "Africare," which he incorporated in Hawaii in 1970. Kirker then sought donations and aid, but found little interest until Niger and other regions of Africa were devastated by drought and famine. The need was so great that President Diori reached out to Lucas, who had accepted a Peace Corps post back in the United States assisting returning volunteers. Diori urged Lucas to spread the word to African Americans that the country of their ancestors desperately needed their help. Lucas publicized Africa's plight in Washington, D.C., with surprising results--donations began to flow in but not from wealthy D.C. philanthropists or aid organizations, but from area churches attended by many of the city's poorest African Americans.
Over $75,000 in aid was raised for Africare in 1970 and by the following year, in 1971, it was decided to reincorporate the organization in Washington, D.C., with Lucas as its president, Kirker on the new group's board of directors, and President Diori as chairman. Due to the close ties between Kirker, Lucas, and President Diori, Africare was allowed to work out of Niger's embassy in Washington, D.C., at virtually no cost and began with an operating budget of just over $39,000.
Gaining Notice and Funding: 1972-89
While Africare's earliest years were spent combating the horrors of drought in West Africa, the organization expanded into other areas of the continent with agricultural projects, healthcare programs, and environmental initiatives. At the helm of Africare, Lucas was an eyewitness to Africa's evolution and realized the service organization must grow to accommodate the country's changing needs. By 1978 Africare had ventured into South Africa for the first time, and continued to expand throughout Africa. Working around civil wars and apartheid as much as possible, Africare developed irrigation and purification systems for water, planting and harvesting assistance for crops, brought in healthcare professionals to fight diseases, and continually offered emergency assistance to nations in need.
The 1980s brought the plight of Somalian refugees to the world and Africare was there to help. Another devastating drought, like the one a decade earlier which had spurred the formation of Africare, took millions of Ethiopians to the brink of starvation and Africare was there, providing emergency aid, receiving donations from disparate sources such as a Saudi prince, other service organizations, religious groups, multinational companies, federal programs, foreign governments, and the United Nations. For his extraordinary efforts on behalf of Africa, Lucas was given the 1984 U.S. Presidential End Hunger Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement, bestowed by then President Ronald Reagan.
In 1987 Africare began a critical healthcare initiative to combat the epidemic of HIV and AIDS in Africa. Medical professionals from around the world came to the country and both local and national programs were instituted to educate Africans about the spread of HIV/AIDS and the various treatments available at the time. In 1989, Africare began the Career Development Internship (CDI) program in South Africa, placing black South Africans in professional internships in the United States. The internees worked in a host of businesses, gaining immeasurable experience they were unable to receive in South Africa because of apartheid. This same year, Bishop John T. Walker, Washington, D.C.'s first African American Episcopal bishop, who had served as an Africare chairman, died. In his honor, Africare established the Bishop John T. Walker Dinner and Humanitarian Award in 1990.
Leading by Example: 1990s
The new decade found Africare responding to different needs in Africa as many parts of the continent erupted in brutal civil wars. Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Somalia were torn by violent clashes in the 1990s and Africare volunteers, often in danger themselves, rushed in with emergency services for the wounded and displaced. One of the highlights of the decade, however, began with a small effort in Zambia to turn sunflower seeds into cooking oil. Part of southern Africa, Zambia was home to rural farmers who grew particularly hardy sunflowers. Given a small manual press, the villagers were taught how to crush sunflower seeds and make edible cooking oil. Many of the area's farmers, who had lived well below the poverty line for years, were soon successful entrepreneurs. Africare began to supply more presses and a credit program to get more villagers involved. Simple business courses were then made available, and the Zambian program spread to nearby Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
In addition to the cooking oil projects, Africare stepped up literacy programs and health initiatives as HIV and AIDS continued to spread. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was freed after more than two decades of imprisonment, and the binds of apartheid were loosened. Back in the United States, the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award was given to Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1992, followed by Peace Corps legend Sargent Shriver in 1993. The dinner and award ceremony would soon become Africare's major annual fundraiser, growing each year in donations and Washington, D.C. stature.
The year 1994 brought about the extraordinary, as former prisoner Nelson Mandela was elected the first president of South Africa. Africare celebrated Mandela's achievement by awarding him the Bishop Walker award the same year. In 1995, for the first time in its history, Africare was touched by controversy through a sizable donation from Democratic businessman Johnny Chung. Chung said he made a $25,000 donation to Africare at the suggestion of the U.S. Department of Energy's Hazel O'Leary. While O'Leary disputed the donation was anything other than a charitable contribution, Chung said it secured him a meeting with visiting Chinese dignitaries and industrialists with whom Chung wanted to do business. The Department of Justice investigated the alleged money scheme and though the flap eventually blew over, it was the first negative publicity attached to Africare or its operations.
The later 1990s brought in increased funding for Africare and many new initiatives for Africa. Key among them was South Africa's first "digital village," which was established in Soweto in 1997. Bringing technology to the community was a major step towards the future and such a success that other digital villages were slated for other regions. In 1998 Nelson Mandela was named Africare's Honorary chairman of the board, the same year Africare began a new crop initiative in Uganda, growing pest-resistant plants, helping villagers plant small gardens, and building roads to get harvested foods to nearby markets. In 1999 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, founded by Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and his wife, awarded Africare nearly $2 million to combat HIV and AIDS in the southern regions of Africa. The donation was the first in a series of collaborations between the Gates Foundation and Africare.
A New Era: 2000s
The new century found Africare doing just what it had in the previous century: dispensing aid to those in need in Africa, through over two dozen field offices offering a total of some 150 different programs. Agriculture programs had vastly improved the lot of many rural farmers; irrigation systems allowed others to water their crops even in near-drought conditions; well construction pooled clean, safe water for villages; and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment centers were funded in part by a grant from the Magic Johnson Foundation in 2001.
Also in 2001 U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Africa and saw firsthand the efforts put forth by Africare's volunteers. Later in the year he was the keynote speaker at the Bishop Walker dinner and fundraiser, which honored Dr. Louis Sullivan as the recipient of the Bishop Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Award. Sullivan, a cabinet member of former president George Bush, had been a founding member of Morehouse College's School of Medicine, and had served as its president. The dinner, like its predecessors, was well attended and raised more than $1 million for Africare's causes.
In 2002 Africare underwent a changing of the guard when Lucas retired as president after more than three decades of service. His successor was Julius E. Coles, an Africare board member and veteran of the U.S. Agency for Independent Development. Coles had also served as director of the Andrew Young Center for International Affairs at Morehouse College and Howard University's Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center. While Coles officially began his tenure in June, Lucas stayed through July to ensure a smooth transition and remained a member of Africare's board.
In late 2002 Africare's annual fundraiser was awash in controversy when its honoree, Harry Belafonte, made inflammatory remarks about Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice several weeks before the October event. Powell, the keynote speaker the previous year, and Rice, who was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech in 2002, did not respond to Belafonte's comments. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young replaced Rice as the keynote speaker at the last minute, and the dinner was held without further incident. Africare organizers remained mum about Belafonte and his opinions.
In 2003 Africare responded to crises in Ethiopia, suffering from critical shortages in food and water, and launched a $10 million mission in Liberia, torn apart by warring factions and widespread hunger and disease. The organization also continued its battle with HIV and AIDS, which killed about 6,500 people each day in Africa, according to Africare's figures. To this end, the 2003 Bishop Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award was given to Bill and Melinda Gates for their efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa and beyond.
Africare's sole aim continued to be the creation of better living conditions for the peoples of Africa. For several decades the organization's leaders and volunteers had made a remarkable difference in the lives of millions, from HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention and safer food and water programs to education and business partnerships. Leaders near and far had lauded Africare's efforts and many had contributed to its causes, donating their time and money to Africare's more than 2,000 projects throughout the African continent.