In the Bible God asks Lot to check out whether there are enough good people left in Sodom and Gomorrah to warrant saving the two cities. The answer, clearly, was no. Much the same question is now being asked by mortals about Africa. Is Africa in such a state of self-inflicted disaster that it should be left to collapse completely? Is it, as one headline put it recently, "The Hopeless Continent"?
Not quite. There are still signs of hope, and African people both worth saving in their own right and who are intent on saving others. What distinguishes many of them is that they are women.
In post-colonial Africa, greed, corruption and nepotism among tribespeople have had in common one thing: the leaders overseeing these slides into economic and social chaos are exclusively male. To date, only one African country — Liberia — has had a woman at the helm, and that was only a temporary measure. Ruth Perry became head of state there in 1996 after West African governments forced Liberia's warlords to accept a neutral person until elections could be held.
But this situation is changing, partly because African women have had to start learning to save themselves — not just from grinding poverty and civil wars, but from genital mutilation, forced marriages and domestic violence. Their slow but steady progress in these areas has given them the appetite to tackle other issues debilitating the continent. More are entering politics.
In my country, Kenya, several women have risen to positions of power, despite enormous resistance. We now have at least five women judges, plus several women ambassadors and high commissioners, and nine women in Kenya's 224-member parliament. That's still a pathetically small number, but it has to be remembered that elections in Kenya are typically corrupt, and often humiliating. Many female candidates are obliged to present their spouses to prove that they are "decent" women. They also risk being stripped or beaten. The latest such victim was Ednah Sang, the ruling Kanu party candidate who recently stood for election in the Rift Valley. Supporters of her opponent stripped her naked in public and beat her to shame her out of the race. Sang did not back off, but she lost the election.
There are other equally brave women who have become M.P.s. In the last general election, in 1997, Charity Ngilu, head of the Social Democratic Party, stood for the presidency. Though she did not topple President Daniel arap Moi, she made it to parliament. Ngilu has a track record of initiating beneficial projects in her constituency.
Another M.P., Beth Mugo, who has a similarly impressive record, recently tabled a private member's bill that seeks to mandate a minimum number of seats for women and marginalized groups, such as the disabled. What is most impressive is that the bill is being supported by a majority of male M.P.s. That says a great deal about the lobbying skills of the various women's organizations — such as the Kenya Women's Political Caucus and the Federation of International Women Lawyers — and their ability to speak with one voice.
Besides being outspoken about domestic violence and other social ills, Mugo is recognized as one of the few politicians who put theory into practice. She runs a bursary scheme for needy students in her electorate in the capital Nairobi, one that has succeeded through her good management and fund-raising efforts.
Many other African countries are well ahead of Kenya. In neighboring Uganda, 16 of the 53 ministers are women, including Prime Minister Dr. Specioza Kazibwe. In Rwanda, there are 15 M.P.s, including two ministers, while in South Africa, 128 of the 400 M.P.s are women. Seven are ministers. Of course, there is still a long way to go to reach the levels of Sweden, where nearly 44% of the 349 M.P.s are women, with 11 female ministers to nine males.
There is a saying in Kenya that if you educate a woman, you have educated a nation. Many women-led organizations, such as the Forum for Women Educationists, have been working across Africa to increase the number of girls in school and to reduce forced early marriages.
Fights against genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence and other vices are now being led by powerful women, and their efforts are steadily bearing fruit. Besides the affirmative action bill, Kenya's parliament is due to discuss another on domestic violence and rape-defilement of women and girls.
With their approach of better education, collective responsibility and good negotiating skills, Kenyan and other African women will soon be a political force to reckon with. And perhaps that's where the continent's future hopes lie. African women have one great advantage in this struggle: it would be hard for them to make as big a mess as the men.
Wanja N. Githinji, of Kenya's Nation Media Group, is this year's co-winner of the CNN African Journalist of the Year award for her reporting on violence against women in Kenya