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Mixed Home Reaction to Clinton Trip

April 3, 1998

Jim Neyland, a janitor in Los Angeles, followed President Clinton’s African travels with mixed feelings _ hope that increased attention would help the continent overcome its problems, but also a heavy dose of doubt.

``They can’t seem to get themselves together,″ Neyland, 53, said of the Africans, many of whom have suffered decades of poverty, disease, conflict and corrupt regimes. ``It just seems to be constantly turmoil there, but I’m hoping maybe something will come out of this.″

Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton returned to Washington late Thursday after a 12-day, six-nation tour of sub-Saharan Africa, the most extensive ever by a sitting U.S. president. He heralded his visit as opening a new era of U.S.-Africa relations, focusing on trade and democracy instead of aid and disaster.

Some Americans echoed Clinton’s hopes when interviewed by Associated Press reporters around the country. But there also was plenty of cynicism and don’t-want-to-get-involved thinking, with some saying Clinton should focus on home.

``I think they should be taking care of the poverty in this country,″ said Sabrina Kobalaz, 19, a student from Indianola, Iowa. ``It’s a shame that someone can have two jobs and still have to go to the food bank.″

``He needs to be helping people right here in the United States of America,″ agreed Pamela Bokaka, 33, a Los Angeles school worker whose husband is from the Congo, scene of a violent coup last year.

Louis Markine, a 63-year-old retiree eating lunch at Miami’s International Mall, said America ought to mind its own business.

``Every time we become involved in other people’s business, we end up losing,″ he said. U.S. aid and investment in Africa is good only ``if it’s going to help our economy,″ he said.

On the other hand, 37-year-old Jill Chenault, a Detroit attorney, said America should help Africa recover from a colonial past and corrupt governments that had U.S. backing.

``I think it was ignored for too long,″ she said, blaming racism for some reluctance to get involved in Africa’s woes. ``Many people think nothing good can ever come out of Africa.″

Arguing for activism, Ted Jones, 42, of Des Moines, Iowa, said the United States should never again ignore the plight of Africans, such as those killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Clinton said the international community waited too long to react to stop the bloodshed.

``I think looking over our shoulder after a million are dead is a little too late,″ said Jones, a human resource manager.

Some people said they have little time to think about Africa.

``I have a 4-year-old at home, so I don’t get to watch the news much,″ said Diane Lee, 33, of Carlisle, Iowa. Nonetheless, she said she believes in ``good will″ between countries and in a self-determination policy that many Africans would embrace. ``If they want us over there, that’s one thing, but if they don’t want us, then we shouldn’t go.″

The Rev. Eddie Davies, 84, of Des Moines, Iowa, said Clinton’s trip helped Americans learn more about leaders like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, a former political prisoner who battled apartheid and became president. ``They didn’t know ... what Mandela stood for,″ said Davies.

A block from the White House, in an African art store tucked away in a long gray line of brick buildings, owner Yasser Hijazi, a 31-year-old Lebanese from Nigeria, called Africa ``the continent of the 21st century.″

``I have no idea what Mr. Clinton wants with Africa,″ he said. ``But Africa needs attention. If America doesn’t care, who’s going to care?″

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