GW alumnus Bernard Pollack is collecting stories of hope and innovation in his quest to visit every country in the continent.
By Julia Parmley
In Africa, there is conflict. There is famine. There is an HIV/AIDS epidemic. These were just some of the stories Bernard Pollack, B.A.’02, M.A.’03, would hear about the continent— and none were positive.
“The news tends to be so negative that it desensitizes people from the problems, makes people feel powerless, and even discourages people from visiting Africa beyond for the World Cup or a packaged tour safari,” he says.
Mr. Pollack was determined not to be one of those people. So in October 2009, he and his travel partner, Danielle Nierenberg, set out to visit every country in the continent.
Their goal, says Mr. Pollack, is to discover and profile sustainable projects that work toward alleviating hunger and poverty in the continent. Ms. Nierenberg co-directs Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet Project, which assesses agricultural innovations that can eradicate world hunger, and is conducting research in Africa for a book on world hunger. They both are keeping a blog, Border Jumpers, about their experiences.
Since October 2009, Mr. Pollack and Ms. Nierenberg have visited more than 130 projects in 17 different countries across Africa, including Ethiopia, Madagascar and Ghana.
“In every place, we are listening firsthand to farmers, farmers groups, workers, NGOs, and even governments about what they think is working on the ground,” says Mr. Pollack. “Our goal is to share what we see and learn, in hopes that we can begin to change our readers’ perspectives, and even inspire people to visit themselves.”
So far, Mr. Pollack feels like he is “living a lifetime every day.”
“Africa is totally not what we expected,” he says. “Traveling here is easier than we thought it would be, even on a shoe-string budget, and traveling mainly by road. We couldn’t imagine a more friendly or welcoming place to travel. People treat us like family, literally opening their homes to us, introducing us to their families, sharing their hopes and their dreams.”
Memorable experiences include an elephant charging at their minivan in Zimbabwe, watching lemurs during a hike in a Madagascar rainforest and seeing the remnants of the slave trade firsthand in Cape Coast, Ghana.
But, he says, it’s the people of Africa who are truly extraordinary.
In Uganda, Mr. Pollack and Ms. Nierenberg spent time with Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi, coordinators of the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation project, which teaches school children about food traditions, nutrition and the environment. Mr. Pollack says the men, who have just graduated from a local university, have created gardens in 12 schools outside of Kampala, the country’s capital, to use as teaching aides.
“The kids now know how to grow and prepare food, as well as the nutritional content of what they’re eating. As a result, they are excited about farming and no longer see agriculture as an option of last resort, but rather as a way to make money, help their communities and preserve biodiversity,” says Mr. Pollack. “Eddie and Roger are running this completely in their spare time as volunteers operating largely without any resources yet having tremendous success.
“Every day I hear stories like this of people doing such extraordinary work.”
Mr. Pollack and Ms. Nierenberg are currently in Dakar, Senegal, and their next stop is Bamako, Mali. Mr. Pollack says Dakar is “one of the most vibrant and alive places” they’ve been. “It would be a great place to start a journey to Africa, and put those GW French classes to good use!”
GW had a huge impact on Mr. Pollack, and he encourages students to get active in the city and on campus.
“Having Washington, D.C., as your backyard allows you to pursue any interests through exciting work experiences, internships and volunteering,” he says. “I was very active in campus organizations, including Progressive Student Union and Students for a Free Tibet. I also had terrific professors that took the time to mentor and inspire me to look critically at international issues, as well as challenge conventional wisdom.”
While the oft-publicized issues facing the continent are real, Mr. Pollack says many people just assume the situation is “hopeless” — and miss out on hearing the “good news.”
“There is incredible work being done in Africa, and it needs to be highlighted so that it can get more attention and investment,” says Mr. Pollack. “That’s why everywhere we go we are looking at African-led innovations and sharing stories of hope and success, with the goal of reaching the funding community and policymakers and also of challenging misconceptions that things in Africa are ‘beyond repair.’
“People and their stories from everywhere we’ve been will forever be burned in my memory and heart,” he adds. “I am so deeply humbled and touched by the sheer generosity of strangers who have helped us along our journey.”