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A Call to Solidarity with Africa to be delivered

Meghan Martin | Friday, September 19, 2003

Two years ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document entitled “A Call to Solidarity with Africa” at its annual fall meeting. The document, which proposed that the rest of the world sharpen their focus on addressing Africa’s promise and problems, was left largely untouched by the international community after its publication, said Notre Dame theology professor and Institute for Church Life director John Cavadini.

Beginning Sunday, the work of Cavadini and a number of scholars, students and religious from around the world to bring Africa into global conversation will come to fruition in the “Call to Solidarity with Africa” conference, the group’s response to the USCCB’s 2001 document.

“The intent was to uplift the document that they had put out,” Cavadini said. “The idea was to lift this up to more visible attention.”

The conference, which bears the subtitle “Americans and Africans in Dialogue About Africa’s Promise, Needs and Image,” is expected to build understanding between western and African nations through panel discussions, paper presentations and informal forums conducted on Notre Dame’s campus from Sunday to Wednesday.

“Exploring what the idea of solidarity is part of this conference,” Cavadini said. “You can’t think about Africa as simply a people with problems and us as a people who can solve them – that doesn’t seem to work.”

The first of a two-part program, the second of which will be held in Nigeria in January, the Notre Dame conference will open with a keynote address from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in the Joyce Center.

“It’s a wonderful thing, having the president of Nigeria here,” said student body president Pat Hallahan, who served on the steering committee for the event. “Not a lot of universities get this opportunity for students to get the opportunity to see this. It’s a wonderful thing, and I hope a lot of people take advantage of it.”

The conference will also host hundreds of scholars, students, relief workers, clergy and missionaries who have dealt closely with the people and issues of Africa today. A large number of conference participants and presenters hail from across the continent itself, representing such nations as Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria.

“The intent here is not to replace the voice of Africa with ours, but to make theirs more visible,” Cavadini said. “Because it’s Africa, it’s all invisible to the rest of the world … There’s a kind of total indifference on the part of [the West].”

Cavadini said that one of the problems westerners face when dealing with issues affecting Africa is the idea that most of us are not even able to see the African issues from the African perspective, a problem Cavadini said he and his colleagues intend to address at the conference.

“One of the ideas is that we don’t know them – we just don’t now them as a people,” he said. “We have no links with them – there isn’t any solidarity.”

Solidarity will be a particularly prominent theme throughout the conference, Cavadini said, but by no means the only issue organizers plan to address.

“There are two sides to it,” said Father Paulinus Odozor, a theology professor and conference coordinator. “The first is focused on re-imaging Africa, and there’s also the other side that stresses solidarity with Africa.

We simply want to help people get beyond the prevalent pessimism about Africa by bringing scholars from around the world together to discuss the issues … There are a lot of positive things going on in Africa.”

Odozor, a native Nigerian and Catholic priest who has been teaching at the University since 1999, said the committee has invited people committed to improving Africa and western relations with the continent to serve as presenters and panelists at next week’s conference in order to begin a dialogue between the two worlds.

“We are going to have people from all different areas – we have a panel that is going to look at foreign assistance to Africa and U.S. foreign assistance to other countries; we have a panel that will look at trade and finance … we have a panel that will look at the church and its role in solidarity and its role in reinventing Africa,” he said.

Topics of discussion will range from public health care to economics to political conflict, facilitated by experts and practitioners from Notre Dame and around the world.

“You try to think of people who are significant in their fields, and you try to get them to come to this conference,” Cavadini said. “We’ve also invited a number of people just to listen. Students and administrators from African universities, they are coming just to listen and not necessarily to present.”

It is with undergraduates such as these that the conference aims to create real waves, said Odozor. Two or three Nigerian students, depending on the status of their difficult-to-obtain visas, will be visiting Notre Dame as a part of the conference, to watch, listen, learn and share their experiences with their American counterparts.

“This is quite important,” he said. “I don’t know how many people among those from Nigeria will be able to make it because of visa problems … but it almost doesn’t matter if two or if three are able to come; the significance is important. These are the way of the future; these are the people who will continue this discussion on solidarity … and on friendships that they have made. They will interact with each other and make friendships – and decide what kind of world it is they want to live in.”

As a part of the second phase of the conference that will be held in Nigeria in January, six to eight Notre Dame students will travel to the country to present papers and facilitate a two-hour panel discussion with Nigerian undergraduates.

“One of the coolest things about this is that students have been involved in the planning since May,” Cavadini said. “This is a collaborative venture between the academic community and the students.”

Notre Dame’s Student Government worked closely with Cavadini, Odozor and the rest of the conference’s steering committee to make this component of the program possible. The group will host an informal forum in LaFortune’s ballroom Tuesday evening to give the visiting African students a chance to talk to and learn from Notre Dame students, and vice versa.

Hallahan said that he believes the conference has a particular resonance among students that should not be ignored.

“It’s an issue that’s bigger than just our campus, and it’s an issue that students at Notre Dame should pay attention to,” he said. “It’s really making a difference in the world if students go to this conference and take from it what they learn there.”

Early in the year, Hallahan and student body vice president Jeremy Lao asked administrators and faculty members to recommend individual students whom they believed would best benefit from participating in the Nigerian end of the conference. From that group, thirty students have applied to be a part of the Notre Dame contingent in January, and the steering committee is slated to make its final decisions by next week. Selected participants will serve as representatives of the Notre Dame community to the western African nation.

“I think it’s important for a Catholic university to be concerned about these issues that Africa is now addressing,” Cavadini said. “To be concerned about a continent where Catholicism is growing at such a rate as it is in Africa, and to bring our own responsibility to light, as well as the benefits of what we can learn from talking with Africans, I think it’s a benefit to the University, too.”

Part of the significance of the bishops’ document and the conference itself, Cavadini said, was the fact that it pointed to the crucial role Africa has already begun and will continue to play in the spread of Catholicism throughout the world.

“It is the place where Catholicism is growing the fastest in the world,” he said. “The shape of Catholicism in the next one hundred years will probably be formed by Africa – it’s a very vibrant growth.”

While the goals of the conference, whose primary sponsor is the University’s Institute for Church Life, are partially religious in nature, Odozor said there are many facets of the issues which face Africa today that will be addressed in great detail.

“We don’t know yet where this will lead, but our interest is simply to get people to start talking to each other,” he said. “We are all going to keep our eyes and our ears very open; and our hearts, as well, to see what the Spirit is saying to us in this context and what the Spirit is inviting us to do.”