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Building Links Between African & American Communities - 2004-01-26

An American non-profit citizen group, U-S-Africa Sister Cities, is intensifying efforts to build networks between African and American communities. The group has it made its way through Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast.

The president of the Washington-based U-S Africa Sister Cities group, Shirley Rivens Smith, invoked the dreams of Martin Luther King, saying the 1960s civil rights leader had a vision of creating opportunities for everyone. She said her group is doing its part to help people fulfill that dream.

The group held meetings with agricultural lobby groups, youth associations and city council boards to develop ties between African and American communities.

About 100 African cities are twinned with American communities. In Ivory Coast, only Abidjan is linked to San Francisco, and Mrs. Smith says she hopes to expand the program to other cities.

She says the program benefits African-Americans who are more interested in building partnerships with Africa than other Americans.

"What we have done is been able to bring together and build friendships so that one can pick up the phone, put them in contact with an African-American who then gets an opportunity to work with someone in an African country who can build the kind of relationship that is a win. He becomes part of the contract, the African country looks to him to do it rather than having a white company lobby for them or do whatever they have to do."

The group formally launched a U-S-Ivorian committee to decide which cities and towns should be twinned.

A representative of the Ivorian government, Sery Bahi, said President Laurent Gbagbo supports the grassroots initiative, even though Ivory Coast is struggling to recover from a civil war which began in 2002.

"The president is very willing to see the implementation of this project because he believes this is the only way, the primary way, we can build a bridge between our country and the United States of America."

The coordinator of last week's visit, Roger Die, says Ivory Coast has much to offer in the way of natural resources, such as cotton, cocoa, coffee, nuts and rubber. In turn, he says Americans could teach Ivorian producers some valuable lessons.

"They are open-minded, they are straightforward and they are frank. If they cannot do anything they say, 'We cannot do it'. If they can do it they say, 'We can do it,' and they give you a deadline. We were not used to this before."

He says the program could also benefit Ivorians by giving them access to scholarships in American universities of their twin city.

U-S Africa Sister Cities is part of the Sister Cities International group, which began in 1956 under US President Eisenhower as part of what he called a people-to-people power initiative.

The Africa branch started in 1980 when Washington, D.C., twinned itself with Senegal's capital, Dakar.