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Out of Africa
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A parent’s worst nightmare came out of Africa last week with the news that a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, Cathrine "Kate" Puzey, had been murdered. Formerly of Cumming, Kate received a sociology degree from William and Mary in 2006, joined the Peace Corps and had been teaching English in a small village in Benin since July 2007. Her two-year hitch in West Africa was almost up.

Neither the Peace Corps nor the State Department has been forthcoming with any details of Kate’s murder; related articles on international news services are scarce and incomplete.

That irritates me, the ordinary citizen; it enrages me, the parent of a former Peace Corps volunteer. Kate Puzey’s parents deserve to know how their daughter died.

Today, I seek to honor sacrifices made by Peace Corps volunteers in general, but Kate Puzey in particular. There’s a thin line between that and being misinterpreted as exploiting the death of a young American idealist for political reasons.

So, let me be clear. I have no ulterior motive. This is about the Peace Corps, the work begun in Africa by the 43rd president of the United States, why that work must continue, what the status is two months into the 44th president’s term in office, and why any of this should concern us anyway.

This isn’t about politics. It’s personal.

My daughter, like Kate Puzey, graduated with honors from both high school and college. She spent a summer doing malaria research in Kenya, where she was attacked and mugged a block from her domicile, necessitating knee surgery.

Undeterred, having obtained a Master’s in infectious disease, my daughter enlisted in the Peace Corps, also in 2007. She was one of 42 assigned to work in HIV/AIDS education and prevention in Ethiopia; their two-year tour was to have ended this September.

The Peace Corps withdrew from Ethiopia in 2001 due to safety concerns, thus the 2007 return was marked with great fanfare. But by January 2009, roughly one-third of the volunteers were home prematurely, having encountered insurmountable problems. Regrettably, space doesn’t permit elaboration on those issues. But, for example, Ethiopian society does not honor the opinion of women, or of young people; yet the Peace Corps group was comprised chiefly of young, white women.

Why, you might ask, are we even concerned with Africa?

I’ll make this as succinct as possible.

America is involved in a war against terror. The bad guys are not stupid. They know their history. During the Cold War the USSR made inroads against democracy by infiltrating their propaganda at the grass roots level, worldwide. Today’s terrorists, lacking the formidable armed power of the defunct USSR, but possessing in abundance grass roots level expertise, have squarely taken aim at further destabilizing Africa.

President George W. Bush, in 2003, created PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS/HIV Relief. PEPFAR established positive American presence across Africa, allowing Mr. Bush to designate more foreign aid dollars from 2003-2008, for 12 African nations than had any president in history.

Today, Ethiopia is the only East African government to have exhibited at least a modicum of civility and autonomy. The Peace Corps’ return signaled America’s resolve to support Ethiopian sovereignty as it faces border war with Eritrea to the northeast, Sudan’s transparent attempts at genocide in Darfur to the northwest, Uganda’s warring factions to the southwest, Kenya’s instability to the south, and the reign of overt piracy and terror in Somalia to the east.

If Ethiopia’s government collapses, the entire "horn of Africa" will likely be reduced to a cesspool of horror unlike anything ever seen on "the dark continent," including the 1967 Nigerian genocide of Biafra.

So what is the status, today, of PEPFAR, the Peace Corps and America’s other African programs? A State Department official was murdered in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in late January. The Pentagon’s "Africa Command" has been instructed to supply intelligence to Uganda’s military and has been restricted from interfering – thus could only watch helplessly as a Ugandan raid slaughtered 900 civilians in Rwanda in February. Just a few days ago all Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from Madagascar as that program was suspended.

And now a bright, young, idealistic Georgia Peace Corps volunteer has been murdered in Benin.

All of these malevolencies have transpired on the watch of the 44th president. Some $48 billion has already been designated for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria assistance for 15 focus nations, 12 of them in Africa, groundwork has already been laid and momentum already established, yet our policy toward Africa is seemingly adrift in the doldrums.

The time for firm, focused action from the Oval Office is now. It would constitute anathema for previous progress to go for naught.

Success in Africa is vital in the war against terror. The time is now for the first African-American to hold America’s highest office to show, clearly, that America is not abandoning Africa. The 44th president’s emphatic support for the Peace Corps and decisive administration of previously designated PEPFAR funds will simultaneously constitute a blow against terror while honoring the sacrifices made by Peace Corps volunteers.

And, Cathrine "Kate" Puzey will not have died in vain.

Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.