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African First Ladies Tackle Health, Women's Issues at Los Angeles Summit


First ladies from Africa met in Los Angeles where they have been discussing women's health and education, AIDS and others challenges facing their continent. The meeting convened by the groups African Synergy and U.S. Doctors for Africa drew on Hollywood star power to promote its message.

They include the first ladies of Angola, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia. First ladies from 15 nations had planned to attend the health summit, with representatives from another six African countries, including South Africa.

The first lady of California, Maria Shriver, wife of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was there to greet them.

The first ladies have spent two days meeting with representatives of non-governmental organizations, companies that do business in Africa and development groups to discuss health care and issues affecting women.

There were celebrities on hand, including some with some knowledge of Africa. Danny Glover has been there many times in his role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations children's and development programs. Actress Sharon Stone recently went to Uganda to see the drilling of new wells. The wells provide clean water for drinking, sanitation and food preparation, something that is crucial to fight the spread of disease. She spoke at a news conference last week in advance of the meeting.

"The clean water exists right below the surface of the ground," said Sharon Stone. "And we have the opportunity to create it, to drill the well, to give the water, to make the irrigation system so that there is food. We have the opportunity to give the toilets instead of the pit latrine. We have the opportunity to stop the cholera and death and dying."

Television star Joely Fisher is honorary ambassador for the non-profit organization Save the Children, and she visited Mozambique last year. She says the group is working to help girls orphaned by AIDS, who are now in many cases the main support for their families.

"Trying to put in wells of better clean water for them, trying to open up schools all over the country," said Joely Fisher. "And they love the school. They are so excited they sang about their pencils and their books. And to empower them as women so that the same thing doesn't happen to this generation."

The African First Ladies Health Summit was organized by the groups African Synergy and U.S. Doctors for Africa. U.S. Doctors for Africa founder Ted Alemayhu, an immigrant from Ethiopia, says he hopes the meeting will reengage Americans and others in African development and health issues.

"People are not paying too much attention any more because of the global economy, a number of other things," said Ted Alemayhu. "Even with that challenge, we still have to bring the issue of health care that Africa is suffering from on the global scale."

Jean Stephane Biatcha of Cameroon is executive director of the organization African Synergy Against AIDS and Suffering, which was formed by 22 African first ladies. He says they hope to enlist help from Hollywood stars, corporate executives and development specialists in meeting the challenges of their countries.

"I am sure that after these two days of meetings, people will know more about what they do and we will surely see people more interested in one or two projects that they intend to carry out," said Jean Stephane Biatcha. "And maybe they will go back with something concrete."

One Hollywood actress, Amy Brenneman, admits she knows little about Africa but says she hopes to learn.

"I feel like I'm a real student, especially with African issues," said Amy Brenneman. "I work with organizations that are concerned about the well-being of women and girls here in the U.S. and different places, but I am really a student when it comes to Africa, so I'm just really thrilled to be here and learn."

The newly appointed U.S. ambassador at large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer, pledged the support of the Obama administration in combating HIV-AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases, and addressing issues such as maternal health care.

Ted Alemayhu of U.S. Doctors for Africa says he hopes to watch newscasts several years from now without hearing about millions of Africans dying from preventable diseases, as they do now.

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