istine McGrath/The Hoya Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chair of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, talked U.S.-Africa relations Thursday in Riggs Library.
istine McGrath/The Hoya
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chair of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, talked U.S.-Africa relations Thursday in Riggs Library.

Ibrahim Mohamed came to Senator Chris Coons’s (D-Del.) speech on African economic, political and security challenges prepared to grill the senator with questions on American policy response toward the current drought in Somalia.

“I came here to ask angry questions,” Mohamed, an English for Heritage Language Speakers scholar at Georgetown, told Coons after the speech ended. “But I was very surprised by what you said.”

Coons, who was named chair of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs in February, spoke Thursday about the need to improve U.S. relations with Africa.

Although he said he had little relevant experience when appointed to the position, Coons studied abroad at the University of Nairobi in Kenya during his junior year at Amherst College. After graduation, he returned to Kenya as a volunteer relief worker.

Coons said his experiences left him with a lingering disillusionment with the U.S. government’s policy toward Africa as well as with a deep sense of humility.

“I still remember the graciousness and hospitality of people who had nothing to give, who were on the brink of starvation,” he said when describing his time living with the Maasai people.

Coons also recalled a conversation with a young Maasai man, who angrily told him, “All I know about you is that your people make weapons that can fly around the world and destroy everything I have. My cattle and my land are at risk because of the weapons you made. What is wrong with you and your people?”

The overall tone of his speech, however, was optimistic. Coons commended the Bush administration’s efforts against AIDS, noting that the policy improved millions of Africans’ perceptions of the United States. However, he was careful to stress that American aid to Africa needed to be viewed as a partnership, not as an act of charity.

Coons noted that ensuring that lawmaking and government institutions in Africa were fair and transparent is critical for the country’s national resource distribution and living standards.

For Mohamed, the senator’s respect for Africans was impressive.

“There is a Somali proverb, if someone gives you something to eat, you will be ashamed,” he said. “So when the United States gives us food, then tells us to do something, we will do it. Development aid always comes with strings attached. However, if the senator’s ideas are actually implemented, then Africa will be successful.”

Coons wrapped up his speech by calling on the United States to continue supporting African development, despite difficult financial times.

“As the most powerful, most responsible, most morally challenged, most morally challenging people in human history, I hope we can live in harmony with the rest of the world,” he said.

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