Angélique Kidjo: Don't Let the Ebola Crisis Dehumanize Africa and Don't Let Hate Consume America

November 03, 2014


Angélique Kidjo

Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter from Benin, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and the author of Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music. Her new op-ed in The New York Times is called "Don’t Let Ebola Dehumanize Africa." She is also the co-founder of the Batonga Foundation for Girls Education. Her latest album, EVE, is dedicated to the women of Africa.

As Ebola cases surge in Sierra Leone and the confirmed overall toll tops 5,000, we discuss West Africa’s growing epidemic and the world’s lackluster response with the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Angélique Kidjo. A native of Benin, Kidjo is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, co-founder of the Batonga Foundation for Girls Education, and author of the memoir "Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music." Her latest album, “EVE,” is dedicated to the women of Africa. Last week, Kidjo wrote a piece in The New York Times headlined "Don’t Let Ebola Dehumanize Africa."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ebola cases are reportedly surging in rural parts of the West African country of Sierra Leone. A new report by the Africa Governance Initiative says cases continue to rise "frighteningly quickly," some nine times faster than two months ago. The report comes as authorities in Sierra Leone have just announced a doctor named Godfrey George had died after contracting Ebola, the fifth doctor to die in Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Liberia, the rate of new Ebola cases appears to have declined. The World Health Organization has said it’s cautiously optimistic, but warned the epidemic is far from over. On Friday, the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, visited a 100-bed Ebola treatment unit in the capital of Monrovia. She said the fight against Ebola is being won thanks to healthcare workers’ bravery.

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Determination on the part of the many Liberians who suffered from this disease, the courage by the many health workers—the doctors, the nurses, the physician assistants and all the other support workers of health teams—that despite the fact that they died, that they took sick, they were able to bounce back.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, the World Health Organization said there had been over 13,500 cases since the outbreak began, with nearly 5,000 confirmed deaths. In other Ebola news, Canada has joined Australia in suspending entry visas for people from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

For more, we’re joined by Angélique Kidjo, the singer and songwriter from the West African nation of Benin. She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, the author of Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music. Last week, she wrote a piece for The New York Times headlined "Don’t Let Ebola Dehumanize Africa."

Angélique Kidjo, welcome to Democracy Now!

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what’s happening in your continent, in Africa, in western Africa, your region.

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Well, Ebola crisis could have been stopped 20 years ago, when we have—we’d seen the first case, but nothing had been done. We are more into emergency and making news about stuff than preventing people’s life to be wasted. And it’s the same thing with climate change. I mean, if we have taken action before, we wouldn’t be here now spending more money to stop it. Ebola is a disease that is not the face of Africa, but today it’s becoming the face of Africa, not only West Africa, where I come from, but the face of Africa, where people are so scared about having Ebola, not thinking and not knowing that Africa is not about Ebola.

AMY GOODMAN: Why wasn’t it stopped before, do you think?

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Well, it was not stopped before because, like malaria, it’s in Africa. If it doesn’t touch the citizens of the Western world, nobody cares. I mean, it has been going on forever. I mean, our life means nothing. As long as it can—people can make business, make money out of Africa, the life of the citizens and the people of Africa, they don’t care at all about it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the media, because of course that’s where so many people learn what’s happening. Let’s turn to a clip from Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor. Last month, host Bill O’Reilly said President Obama should cancel all flights from West Africa and turn away anyone holding a passport from the region.

BILL O’REILLY: Many people frightened and angry that Ebola may spread throughout the U.S.A. So what should the federal government do, since it is Washington’s obligation under the Constitution to provide for the common good? First of all, all flights from West Africa should immediately be discontinued to the U.S.A. And Europe should do the same thing. Now, I feel sorry for the West African nations, but there’s an epidemic of Ebola there. And it will spread, because the incubation period lasts for up to 21 days. Also, U.S. immigration should allow no one—no one—to enter this country holding a passport from any West African nation.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor from Fox. Your response, Angélique Kidjo?

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Well, I’m used to those kind of talks, since I’ve been in America. I mean, I’m an American citizen today, and I don’t watch Fox, because it’s all about fearmongering. And you cannot talk about stopping people from traveling because you’re afraid of having Ebola on your continent. You should help the African people, health system strengthen, for them to take care of it and do business as usual, because America—I mean, the way he’s talking—America have business in Africa. So we can do the same. If we overcome Ebola, we can say, "OK, every company that comes from America, we will do this, and we will do that." And what are they going to do? They’re going to force us to do otherwise? I mean, it’s always the double standard. The Western countries say to the African people, "Don’t do what we do, and do as we say." Why should we take orders today from them? OK, ban West African countries, but don’t come back and do business in West Africa once we get Ebola out of our homes. Don’t come back. Do it somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to your piece in The New York Times, when you talked about posting on Facebook about your concert Wednesday in Carnegie Hall. What happened?

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Well, I opened my Facebook in the morning, as I usually do, to see what is going on, and the first one that arrived is: "We wonder if she’s bringing Ebola to Carnegie Hall." And the second one, somebody said, "Her concert shouldn’t be called 'Mama Africa,' it should be called 'Mama Ebola.'" That is ignorance, for me. I mean, I’ve lived in this country for almost 20 years. I travel around the world. If I’m sick, I’m responsible. I will take care of myself. I don’t need somebody to patronize me and tell me what I have to do, and it’s not the case.

Africa’s culture is more beautiful than any other culture in the world. It has fed all the culture, including the American culture. The music that American people love to listen to, all of them come from Africa. And then, we have to celebrate that beauty. We have to celebrate that positive Africa that I grew up in. People are resilient in Africa. They don’t come—they don’t ask Westerners to come to their rescue. They want Westerners to be partner, helping them dealing with their problem. They don’t want pity. They don’t want patronizing.

And if people start talking like this, it means that this fearmongering politics of the Republicans are hitting people. You cannot use people’s life, people’s health, for political gain. It’s not good. You cannot tie Ebola to Obama administration. He has nothing to do with it. I mean, then, we have to say that then Obama is God, so he has to oversee everybody’s life on the planet. Something happen in China, they’re going to blame Obama for it. Something happen in Europe, they’re going to blame Obama forever for it. We have to deal with this outbreak, that is killing life, by strengthening the health system in Africa. That’s what—the point, for me, is there.

AMY GOODMAN: I just heard about a woman who has fired a home healthcare worker because she was Liberian. And I wanted to turn to, well, the immigrant community of Liberians that live here in New York, mainly in Staten Island. They say they’re being stigmatized in the wake of the Ebola crisis. PBS’s Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke to Oretha Bestman-Yates, the president of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So there’s stigma here in New York?


HARI SREENIVASAN: Because you’re Liberian?

ORETHA BESTMAN-YATES: Because we are Liberians. You know, when you get on an elevator, people get out of the elevator, because they don’t want to be on the elevator with you, because you’re from Africa. Just the accent alone, you know.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Once they figure out you’re from Africa, they’re scared?


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Oretha Bestman-Yates, president of the Staten Island Liberian Community.

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Well, if we are scared because somebody comes from somewhere, then nobody will move nowhere. For me, it’s just so stupid. I don’t understand this fear of people. People are not sick, and yet you fire them. I mean, what does it mean? What does it say by America? That when it comes to Africa, everybody’s scared, and that we don’t use our judgment, our common sense, to make decisions. When somebody says something, we all jump in it. I’m not like that. I would take—I give people the benefits of the doubt. You cannot do that. I mean, if this crisis—when this crisis comes to an end, we’ll have to think, really, about how we deal these kind of problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I think the nurse, Kaci Hickox, who has been battling to be allowed out into public, because she’s tested negative for Ebola, is taking on a case more than her own, but how people are treated. I want to turn to comments by Steve Hyman, the attorney for nurse Kaci Hickox at the center of the national debate over quarantining public health officials returning from West Africa. He criticized the response of state officials, comparing it to the way people reacted to the HIV/AIDS virus when it first emerged.

STEVEN HYMAN: In the AIDS crisis, they were trying to do the same thing. People were supposed to be isolated because of AIDS and the fear that ran through the community. And that proved to be totally wrong. And people were subjected to the same thing that’s happening to Kaci by this hysteria that somehow there’s contagion, because of some myth as to how it’s transmitted.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Steven Hyman. And a judge on Friday ruled against the governor, the tea party governor of Maine, Mayor LePage—Governor LePage, and said that she was free, she would be free to travel and go outside.

ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Well, I’m glad that somebody is talking sense to this, all this nonsense we’re living in. I mean, the question I have is: Did America have becoming a hateful place that you can’t live in? We have Ebola. We have Ferguson. What is going on? The world is watching the biggest democracy in the world, and we are not even able to give to the world a message of compassion, of humanity. We are giving the message of: We are hateful here, and if you’re black and you have a disease, we don’t want you, and if you are immigrant in this country, we don’t like you. I mean, it is not what America stands for. When I came to this country, the first thing that struck me is the generosity of the American people, the welcoming capacity of the American people. And yet, now we are—since 2008, we entered an era of hate, period. We hate people that doesn’t think the same way we think, that have disease, that are different. It’s just like we are coming back to the 16th of 15th century. I mean, we’re just going backward. We need to move forward in this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about Miriam Makeba for a few minutes.


AMY GOODMAN: But we have to break first. We’re speaking with the Grammy Award-winning musician and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Angélique Kidjo. She’s performing at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, honoring Mama Africa, honoring Miriam Makeba. Stay with us.

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