The future of Africa

We are the ones we have been waiting for
Quentin Bryce

Minister for Community Services, the Honourable Linda Burney MP, Minister for the Status of Women, the Honourable Tanya Plibersek MP, Chair of the Jessie Street Trust, Ms Jeanette McHugh, original Chair, Ms Mavis Robertson, Ms Faith Bandler AC, members of the Street Family - Sir Laurence, members and supporters of the Trust, my friends. I acknowledge the traditional owners of this magnificent land and I express our debt of gratitude to Linda Burney for her wise words to us today.

Thank you for your warm welcome. I want you to know how truly delighted I am to join you for this special and significant occasion: celebrating twenty years of the Jessie Street Trust; twenty years of earnest and devoted endeavour in memory of our wonderful Australian heroine. It's a lovely occasion for all of us who know the Trust and its fine work, but it's a particularly fond and touching experience for me to be here, as I recall that very first luncheon in 1990 so vividly - as I'm sure many of you present today will too. We were in a Greek restaurant on Pitt Street. We were exhilarated by the promise of the Trust, and, as always, enriched by each other's company.

I was invited to talk about my role as Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. I remember as though it was yesterday how carefully I prepared and thought about my words. I had a wad of palm cards an inch thick. I had just started to speak when I dropped them all on the floor in the semi-darkness. I retrieved them as best I could. To my horror I realised that I hadn't numbered them. I don't know how I managed to get them in any kind of order and give my speech, but I'm now obsessive about always numbering pages.

My friends, we are here today for the same reason we gathered then: to remember Jessie Street, and her extraordinary life and contribution. She accomplished so much for so many - the scope and breadth of her passions were astonishing. They are the legacy that your Trust preserves and perpetuates. I think about her being present as the foundations of modern international co-operation were laid: as the only woman in Australia's delegation to the very first conference in San Francisco, 1945, to establish the United Nations. As we know, she was very largely responsible for including the language of sex equality in the United Nations' Charter - a document that still defines our human rights principles. She later wrote that 'together, 51 nations had framed the new international Charter and opened the way to a new society where each person might be free to contribute gifts and capacities for the good of all humankind.'

These thoughts were very much in my mind last month when, at the request of the government, I was proud to represent Australia in nine African countries. In Mauritius, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Seychelles. And briefly South Africa, where we met Mr Mandela, and Graça Machel Mandela. I felt the freshness of hope and the power of friendship. I was there to deepen and broaden Australia's engagement with the continent and nation states of Africa, to offer our support and aid, and build strong relationships with African leaders and community workers.

I can't tell you how enriching and rewarding my days were. I met with presidents and prime ministers who spoke warmly and eloquently about their countries. I visited many humanitarian and aid programs, nearly all supported by Australian money and goodwill. We had many sobering experiences; we saw deeply etched poverty and disadvantage. I nursed a small boy in a paediatric hospital in Maputo, suffering such severe malnourishment that his skin was falling off his little bones. He was one of Africa's 12 million AIDS orphans, being raised by his grandmother who sat beside me. I looked into her face strained with anxiety and exhaustion. A senior nurse nearby quietly noted that this grandmother had no income at all, and no hope of one, and that the baby was probably being fed on leaves. At the Kawangwa School in Nairobi, I gave the children two spoons of steaming golden peas out of a big pot - their only meal of the day, served at school in a bowl they bring from home. They stand and wait. What would they eat at the weekend? I asked. No one could answer. We also saw unquenchable joy and exuberance - we were met everywhere with singing and dancing, such fabulous rhythm, such smiles. Children waving our flag and theirs - reaching out to touch us. Many kisses on cheeks as I bent to thank them for being there. We saw the promise of a new Africa.

My friends, it has been said that the face of poverty is a woman. What I have learned is that the face of the future leadership of Africa is also a woman. Jessie Street wrote in her autobiography: 'All my experiences made me confident that women who have the chance to develop their abilities and self-confidence can make an indispensible and valuable contribution to building a better life for their whole society.' In Africa, this is profoundly true. Today I thought I would share a few snapshots of some of the inspiring women I met: women who filled me with respect and admiration; women who are the creators and nurturers of a hopeful Africa.

Dr Catherine Hamlin, our beloved Australian. She went to Ethiopia 50 years ago with her husband Dr Reg Hamlin, both obstetricians, to set up a midwifery college. Fifteen years later they established the Fistula Hospital at Addis Ababa in response to the dire need they saw. Reg died in 1993; Catherine has continued the work with the help of many Australian volunteers and supporters. At 81 she still does obstetric fistula surgery and is building the midwife training school she planned 50 years ago, as well as several fistula clinics in rural areas.

Dr Hamlin is tall and thin, now slightly stooped. Every gesture full of grace and kindness - we all felt drawn to her and deeply aware of her inner strength. She and I had dinner together. We talked about the things women talk about: our families, our lives, our growing up, and our growing older - and of course, our grandchildren. The next day I went to her famous hospital. I walked arm-in-arm with her in her garden of bougainvilleas and fuchsias. She told me about the women who come to her - broken and shattered, ostracised by their families - and how they find tenderness, healing, and dignity there. Some stay to be trained and to work in the hospital. When they arrive - after walking many miles - they are given a knitted patchwork blanket, made often by Australian women. This blanket may be the most valuable possession they ever own. It's a symbol of love from women far away. I gave Dr Hamlin gifts my sister had sent with me - needles and threads, embroidery cottons and wools, from her and her friends, who've been supporters of the hospital for 50 years. These gifts - simple in themselves - articulate profound connections, strong ties of kinship and generosity stretching from Australia to Ethiopia, and beyond.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's port city, I met Dr Gertrude Mongella: former Minister of State and High Commissioner, Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Under-Secretary and Special Envoy to the Secretary General of the UN on Women's Issues and Development. Now the President of the Pan-African Parliament. A woman of vitality, openness, wisdom and experience. We sat looking across the glittering bay to the island of Zanzibar. In these historic surroundings, we spoke about the plight of women in her country - the horrific maternal mortality rates. One of the main causes of these is that mothers in labour arrive at hospitals too late to be helped. Another is that they are married and having their first babies at such a young age, their bodies simply aren't ready.

Dr Mongella gave me the statistics: In most Western countries the risk of dying in childbirth is 1 in 4000; for Australia it's 1 in 13,300. For women in Africa, it's 1 in 13. Each year at least one million babies die in their first year of life; half a million in their first day. The President of Tanzania, Jayaka Kikwete, told me that in his country, a newborn dies every ten minutes. Dr Mongella described her plans to set up what she calls '5-star motels' for women close to hospitals and birth centres, so that they can be well looked after as their labour approaches in preparation for the safe birthing of their babies. She promised to send me her prospectus. I am certain her plans will come to fruition.

Another formidable woman, well-known in Australia, Justice Unity Dow, was Botswana's first female High Court Judge. Again, a woman of great presence. She's known for her role in a famous case. She challenged the constitution of Botswana on behalf of her children with her American husband, and for all women in Botswana denied the rights of citizenship. I first met Justice Dow through my involvement with IWRAW - International Women's Rights Action Watch - an NGO that monitors CEDAW, the expert committee at that time so skilfully chaired by Justice Elizabeth Evatt. In Gabarone last month, our conversation soon moved to violence against women. To the huge cost to women of her continent, the disproportionate burden of their illness, disability and death caused by domestic violence, and by rape used as a weapon of war. I have observed again and again that wherever women meet about our rights and status, the discussion will centre on this grave issue, acknowledged as the most gross violation of human rights.

Next, Graça Machel, known also as Mrs Mandela, whom we were delighted to meet with Madiba at the office of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. On this memorable occasion with the great man, talk was about the work of the Foundation and the Mandela Trust; about the toll of HIV/AIDS and the role of the Global Fund. We focused, too, on maternal mortality and the special needs of the girl child. Graça Machel is one of the many African women deeply concerned with the future of the young girls of Africa, their education and opportunities. She is actively engaged in human rights.

The latest figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union show that of the top twenty countries for women's representation in parliament, five are African. I was privileged to meet some of these women. In each country, a minister of honour was assigned to accompany me. They were my constant companions, so impressive in their traditional dress. We established immediate and easy rapport. I listened to the stories of their lives and families, their achievements and careers. I had a thousand questions for them - so many things I wanted to understand.

In Namibia, Dr Libertina Amalitha MP who studied medicine in Warsaw and London. She was an early freedom fighter, a highly regarded and much loved parliamentarian since Independence - now Deputy Prime Minister. An inspiring woman, in her last term in politics she says, but as passionate as she was a generation ago in her determination to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged, homeless and dispossessed.

Catherine Namugala is Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Tourism in the Zambian Government. Her mother paid for school for her nine children by cutting wood and burning it to make charcoal out in the bush - selling it in sacks on the outskirts of the city. With the first money she earnt, Catherine built a house for her mother.

And in Tanzania, Dr Batilda Burian. Her PhD is in Development and Planning from University College London. She left her home for many years to study, to get the skills her country needs. She brought her four-year-old daughter to meet me in her bright yellow dress, beaded hair - enchanting and engaging. Her mother's struggle for education will give her a sound future - open to so few little girls.

A stark picture that Dr Mongella painted for me of the girl child in Africa is the way they are robbed of their childhood. At three they start work with their mothers, in the house and in the field. They might scrape through some primary education, but often they are married at thirteen, to a man many years their senior, who probably has other wives. Their situation is appalling. But at last, attention is being given to them. Because it is understood now that the education of girls is the key to development of families, villages, communities, countries. Strong women - strong nation. I visited a school in Lusaka where appropriate lavatories and provision of free sanitary towels have increased girls' participation in school by 10 per cent. Where their special needs are considered and supported at school, their lives and their prospects improve dramatically.

I met many children in Africa. They will always remain with me, but in particular, I remember the HIV/AIDS orphans at the Sishemo Foundation school in Zambia. Many of them live in child-run households with no water, no electricity, no floors; the only meals they get provided by the school. And they are the lucky ones. They sang for us about their dreams for their futures. Our whole group - including the experienced police and military personnel - were moved to tears. At this special place, their teachers instill a sense of self-belief and confidence in every child.

Many children touched our hands. They have a capacity to touch your heart like no other. They reach out for hope and opportunity - to the power to make a difference that each of us holds in our hands. That, ultimately, is what I brought back with me: the hearts and faces of women; the hopes and dreams of children; the question of what I can do to help; what each of us can do, as Jessie Street said, to exercise our gifts and capacities, to 'make an indispensible and valuable contribution to building a better life.'

And as I always do I came home with great respect and admiration for what my fellow Australians contribute in so many ways to the wellbeing of a nation that so desperately needs support and care. I want to leave you with the words of African-American poet June Jordan. She wrote this 'Poem for the Women of South Africa,' but its final lines speak to us. About the kinship that crosses oceans; about the power I saw in Africa's women, the power Jessie Street saw in all women:

And the babies cease alarm as mothers
raising arms and heart high
as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force

And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet
company
will sing and sing:

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

My friends, thank you.


This is the text of the address by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia at the 20th anniversary Annual Luncheon of the Jessie Street Trust at Parliament House, Sydney, 17 April 2009.


Suggested citation
Bryce, Quentin, 'The future of Africa', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 2009.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/future-africa.html>