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Views Changing on Africa

April 3, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A block from the White House, a bright orange banner screams for attention from a shop hidden among a long gray line of brick buildings: ``African Art _ 50 Percent Off.″

Inside, owner Yasser Hijazi is alone with his wares, 100-year-old Cameroon fertility masks carved from ebony, magical trinkets, wooden chairs for African chieftains made from the hard heart of teak.

``Africa is the continent of the 21st century,″ says Nigerian-born Hijazi, 31, whose family has roots among Lebanese traders.

It is an outlook that reflects President Clinton’s new attention to Africa, but not one shared by all of the Americans interviewed by Associated Press reporters while Clinton was on his 12-day, six-nation African trip.

The president and Hillary Rodham Clinton returned to the White House Thursday night.

Some Americans echo Clinton’s hope for a strong U.S.-African relationship, based on trade rather than aid. But there also is plenty of cynicism and don’t-want-to-get involved thinking, even among some with ties to the continent.

``I don’t know why he would want to go to Africa,″ said Pamela Bokaka, 33, a school worker in Los Angeles whose husband is from the Congo, scene of a violent coup last year. ``He needs to be helping people right here in the United States of America.″

Marc Brown, 30, in Mission Viejo, Calif., took a hands-off approach, too, saying his interest in Africa is ``none, nonentity.″

``We need to deal with our own affairs and let them deal with their own affairs,″ said the computer support specialist, who said he is against U.S. intervention in African conflicts such as Somalia, but supports humanitarian aid. ``We’re obligated to do that.″

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, adding, however, that he would support U.S. aid and investment in Africa. ``If it’s going to help our economy, sure. Otherwise, let them solve their own problems.″

But William Blent, a 43-year-old businessman from Alabama shopping at the Miami mall, said U.S.-Africa trade and closer relations would improve economies on both sides.

``The United States has succeeded in the past with other countries, so why not Africa?″ he asked.

Jill Chenault, a 37-year-old attorney from Detroit, said America should take responsibility by helping 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 American reluctance to get involved in Africa’s problems. ``Many people think nothing good can ever come out of Africa.″

Ted Jones, 42, of Des Moines, Iowa, said the United States never again should be in the position of apologizing for ignoring the plight of others, such as those killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Clinton said the international community waited too long to react.

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

Some people admitted that 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, said the trip helped Americans learn more about black leaders like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, a former political prisoner who battled apartheid to become president.

``They didn’t know . . . what Mandela stood for,″ said Davies. He also liked that an America president went himself rather than sending an envoy. ``What Clinton’s done is what other presidents should have done,″ he said.

In his African Art shop, Hijazi watches for customers _ the half-price sale is aimed at attracting passing White House tourists _ and wonders motivated Clinton to go to Africa in the first place.

``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?″

A potential buyer strolls in, Bennie Bub, in safari hat. The retired doctor, 61, came to America 25 years ago from South Africa. Asked if he thought Clinton’s visit would make a difference, Bub laughed. ``The odds are no. A 12-day visit is barely enough to say hello, goodbye.″

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