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Ongoing flooding brings further misery to Madagascar

Torrential rains in central Madagascar have killed at least 14 people and forced 24,000 people from their homes, as flood waters continued to surge, breaching a number of dams around the capital, Antananarivo.

As many as 50 houses were swept away in these floods on Friday and into Saturday as those downpours continued on already saturated land.

People have been evacuated from flooded areas as buildings are at a risk of collapsing as a result of the latest spell of severe flooding.

Antananarivo has recorded 219mm of rain in the last seven days, 129mm of which fell on Thursday alone. The average for the entire month of February is 279mm.

Levels of the Ikopa River rose by 70cm in 24 hours in Anosizato, while river levels currently stand at 17cm above flood levels in Bevomanga city in central Madagascar.

The capital was originally built on the rugged higher ground, but the expanding population has turned the low-lying surrounding areas into residential slums.

Authorities have issued red alert warnings in these lowlands around the capital.

It has been an incredibly wet rainy season with heavy showers plaguing both sides of the Mozambique Channel since the end of 2014. The season is expected to continue until the end of March.

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Lesotho heads to polls to resolve political crisis

Polls have opened in a snap election in Lesotho, six months after an attempted coup plunged the small southern African nation into a political crisis.

Voting began at more 2,000 polling stations across the landlocked mountain kingdom, which is landlocked by South Africa.

Delays occurred at some polling stations being inspected by police explosives units and sniffer dogs.

The country has been politically deadlocked since Prime Minister Thomas Thabane suspended parliament in June last year to avoid a motion that would have seen him ousted after his fragile coalition government, in power since 2012, fell apart.

On August 30, soldiers - reputedly loyal to the opposition - attacked police headquarters, looting weapons and killing one officer.

Thabane described the violence as a coup attempt and fled to neighbouring South Africa, though the military denied this.

About 1.2 million people are registered to vote in the poll, which was negotiated by mediators from the regional bloc Southern African Development Community (SADC).

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Zimbabweans reflect on Mugabe’s 91st birthday party

Harare, Zimbabwe - An estimated 20,000 people gathered at the Victoria Falls resort on Saturday to celebrate the 91st birthday of their leader, President Robert Mugabe.

Schoolchildren and Zanu PF youth brigades from the country's 10 provinces were dressed in red scarves and marched in parades at the Elephant Hills Intercontinental Hotel that was festooned with celebratory banners and flags for the day-long celebration - expected to cost about $1 million.

Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924 and his birthday party is an annual event.

Top ruling party and government officials lined up to hand-in presents to Mugabe.

Although Mugabe is now Africa's oldest head of state, age has not yet dented his enthusiasm for office. The Zanu PF leader has already won his party's nomination to contest in upcoming elections in 2018 after more than three decades in power.

Mugabe became Zimbabwe's first prime minister after independence from Britain in 1980.

His lavish celebrations evoke mixed feelings among Zimbabweans.

Some see the annual jamboree as a perverse taunt amid the country's economic hardships, while others view it as a fitting tribute to a hero of the liberation, who defeated colonialism after a protracted bush war.

Amid the controversy, Zimbabweans offered different perspectives on this year's birthday celebrations.



"While we would like to wish Robert Mugabe a happy 91st birthday, we would also like the old man to use his birthday as a moment for serious reflection.

At the very ripe age of 91, Robert Mugabe is certainly way past his prime. No matter what his Zanu PF spin doctors might want to say. Mugabe has seen better days and he is now a big liability to the generality of the people of Zimbabwe for as long as he remains as the county's head of state and chief executive.

It doesn't take rocket science for one to appreciate that a 91-year-old man belongs to an old people's home and not to the state house of a nation."



"The birthday celebrations are being held to honour president Mugabe for empowering Zimbabweans.

This is a birthday celebration by the youths to the president as their liberation icon. It puts into consideration what he has done for them in terms of empowerment, freedom, access to education, health facilities and other resources."



"I think he is very manipulative, seeing how he has both his two vice presidents under his wing and how his wife seems to be elevated above them as evidenced by the last politburo meeting. So if Mugabe is going to be known for anything in his legacy, it is how he has managed always to outfox rivals within his party and outside.

I'm not sure if there is much he can do, even if he were to step down now, the damage is already done."



"President Mugabe is a fascinating, resolute, very mentally sharp, and strong leader.

I wish him well and more resources and will to do accelerated delivery of the pressing needs of the masses of Zimbabwe and Africa at large."



"Happy birthday to [the President]… and many more to come and let those who wish to join him in the celebration do so with or without pomp.

The question should be how those who want to wish him well should mark the occasion and not the other way round as it would be in bad taste."



"He must make a long overdue decision to go home and rest and leave government and Zanu PF to younger generations with fresh ideas about how to take Zimbabwe forward economically on a democratic and rights-respecting path."

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Ebola orphans in Africa do not need saviours

West Africa's Ebola epidemic has produced no shortage of heartrending stories. Recently, a number of these have focused on the so-called "Ebola orphans" - The New York Times' pitiful account of four-year old "Sweetie Sweetie" in Sierra Leone is one striking example - who are presented as the littlest victims of a global public health emergency.

I know a thing or two about orphanhood. I grew up in rural Uganda, and by my 10th birthday, I had lost seven of my immediate family members. My mother died of cancer. My father died of AIDS. And my four siblings all died of preventable diseases, such as measles and malaria. I was transformed from the proud son of a respected farmer and a schoolteacher to a helpless "AIDS orphan" in the eyes of international aid workers and western sympathisers.

The western media's portrayal of Sweetie and her brethren as abandoned waifs reinforces the persistent "Save Africa" narrative of a hopeless continent. These are the type of stories which spur handout contributions, or prompt well-meaning couples to hop on a plane to Sierra Leone in hopes of saving "Sweetie" and her wretched siblings from their West African misery one orphan at a time.

What it means to be an orphan

This type of coverage excels at generating pity for the victim to interest westerners, but gives little dignity to the child and the community in which she has been raised.

It's important to recognise that there is a cultural difference at play when we discuss orphans. More often than not children in Africa are raised by extended families and their village communities, unlike in western societies where it is the sole responsibility of the parents.

I know of two young men who lost both their parents to AIDS in a small impoverished Kenyan village close to the Ugandan border. The village, having been part of these children's upbringing, knew their dreams just as well as their own parents.

The young men had set out to be doctors. After receiving college scholarships from Brown University, they had no money to afford their tickets to the US. The village organised, sold everything from goats, chickens to agricultural produce to send the young men to school.

The "Sons of Lwala," named after their village, have returned after their medical education and built the first medical clinic in their village; a testament of a community raising its own future leaders.

The story of the "Sons of Lwala" is not unique to this village, similar stories exist across Africa.

In my case, it was my extended family and a few local organisations, not aid organisations that served me most powerfully.

I witnessed a flood of well-intentioned, but often misguided western NGOs and volunteers infiltrate the town closest to my village in the 1990s - just as my family began to die off.

At the time, home-grown Ugandan organisations, such as The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO), were the sole reason my father was able to live two years beyond his HIV diagnosis. My mornings were often spent walking miles to TASO headquarters to pick up his anti-retroviral medications and food rations.

But organisations like TASO were few and soon they were overwhelmed by international aid. The organisations quickly surrounded "AIDS orphans" like me, and used us to tell with their own narratives and advance their own agendas.

Instead of supporting local communities and relatives, like my grandmother, to care for orphans like me, international organisations and donors poured resources into orphanages that were often poorly staffed and ill-equipped.

Rethinking how to provide aid

An unintended consequence of this situation - which we see time and again - was a flood of eager and well-intentioned international volunteers who fuelled the rise of the orphanages. This orphanage industry soon became a tourist attraction.

These volunteers often raise the hopes of the orphans, and then after quickly departing, leave the orphans even more vulnerable in the emotional aftermath of abandonment. The children left behind after their counterparts are whisked off by adoption wonder if they were not chosen because there is something inherently wrong with them. Their self-confidence is battered.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child highlights that institutionalised care should never replace home-based care, and studies have shown the promise of child villages instead. In the worst cases, the unregulated orphanage industry has sometimes led to child-trafficking and illegal adoptions. Abundant western aid has actually made these child protection crises profitable for some.

Ironically, too much aid can actually make things worse.

The countries in West Africa that best responded to containing Ebola were those with the least aid.

Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea - the countries that have failed to stop Ebola - receive western aid to the tune of 73 percent of their GDP and house thousands of NGO workers in their capital cities.

This counterintuitive relationship between aid and good healthcare systems and governance is an example of the deeply and troubling wider narrative of aid failures in Africa, where depending heavily on western aid and patronage for sustenance leads to corruption, cronyism, and failed governance structures.

William Easterly, a professor of economics at NYU, has shown that countries that receive copious aid are less likely to be democratic and more likely to nurture autocrats and have weak institutions.

The answer to these crises is home-grown African solutions, with the right, strategic support from the international community to ensure that children are not left waiting for a benevolent, and often elusive, western saviour. Most importantly, this help does not have to uproot the child from their community, or transform them into "victims".

To be sure, no orphan can survive in a place without family, psychological and social support. Without my own grandmother and countless other individuals both at home and abroad who have supported me, I probably wouldn't be where I am today.

Community versus institution

Part of what helped me was having a great and affordable elementary education. What these children need is early childhood education centres with supportive caretakers, nutrition, and stimulation. This can only happen if aid programmes focus on institution building, and structural changes rather than one-time solutions or saving children one at a time.

For every Sweetie, there are countless children left wondering why they weren't plucked away.

I dream of an Africa where all Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora, seek accountability and transparency from our governments, aid agencies and corporations with our votes and our voices. We have already started to unite to work together across ideological and geographical backgrounds to invest our resources, skills, and ideas to drive our own economic and social agenda.

Only then can we ensure that the child survivors of Ebola are born in an Africa where they are not seen as victims or beggars, but as captains of their own fate and the next generation of drivers for our social and economic development.

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and a 2015 Acumen Global Fellow working in Bangalore, India. He is currently working with LabourNet in India to improve livelihoods, and solve poverty challenges that face India's poorest of the poor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Robert Mugabe: A man of contrasts

It's my first trip to Zimbabwe - a country I've heard so much about, including the good, the bad and the ugly... but mostly ugly.

I'm here to cover the birthday party of a man hated and loved almost in equal measure across the world, Robert Mugabe.

And what a party! Most of the roughly 20,000 people have been brought to the famous Victoria Falls from all over the country in buses - and the more elite, in chartered flights.

It's reported that the cost of the feast is roughly $1m - money that, according to Mugabe's critics, would be useful in other ways.

"Even if they say these are donations, why can't they have the donations deployed to the very poor of our society, to the downtrodden who are suffering the most?" Nelson Chamisa, an opponent of the government, asked.

Mugabe's been accused of many things; from presiding over a government whose policies have run the country's economy into the ground, to being a notoriously eccentric dictator who refuses to leave power; a man who is wrong for a country whose potential is just waiting to be harnessed.

Country of surprises

So that's the picture I had in my mind, and in notes I had scribbled from my, frankly, mostly internet research.

I expected to see shabby cities and towns overburdened by an obscene inflation rate with people full of despair.

Our producer, Cyrus Nhara, told me to tear up all my notes, however, and see Zimbabwe for myself. "You'll be surprised."

And I was.

Well, the economy is in disarray, the majority of Zimbabweans are poor and some government policies have led to the country's near collapse.

But on the face of it, the Zimbabwe that greets you is a very pleasant one, with people who refuse to give up.

I met many of them and passed lots of towns enroute to Victoria Falls about 1,000km west of the capital, Harare.

The landscape is amazing, changing seamlessly from green and lush, to Savannah grassland, all dotted with maize, tobacco plantations, wheat farms and then the expansive game reserve with its diverse eco-system.

My first visible sign of Zimbabwe's fledgling economy was Bulawayo, the country's second largest city, which was once a thriving industrial hub that employed thousands of people.

That was about a decade and a half ago.

Many of the factories have since collapsed. Millions of dollars worth of machines are rusting away. Those who remember say that Bulawayo was the place to be back in the day.

"We used to queue for taxis to go to work. Now those taxis queue, waiting for clients, and the clients cannot even afford to pay," Busani Ncube, a resident, said.

Many people I talked to have fond memories of what once was, and are cautiously hopeful of what could be. They have no illusions about the weaknesses of Robert Mugabe and his government, but they also see the good.

Having been a teacher for 20 years, Mugabe is really passionate about education. Zimbabwe is reported to have one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.

He's one of a few leaders who has stood up against the policies of Western countries, or the policies of "imperialism" as many here would say. "[Mugabe] does not hold back. He says it as it is," one man told me.

Failures and achievements

Mugabe has also empowered black Zimbabweans. Perhaps his biggest achievement, and according to some a failure, was a land reform policy that arguably marked the beginning of the downfall of the country.

He and other freedom fighters won independence mainly on a platform of reclaiming land back from the white minority.

The turn of the century unleashed a wave of violent land acquisition by war veterans. Thousands of white farmers were forced out.

Many Zimbabweans agree that the black majority had to somehow take back the land. After all, about 75,000 hectares of productive land was owned by white farmers who make up only 1.5 percent of the population.

How the whole land indigenisation policy was conducted remains deeply dividing. Land, like in many other African countries, is a very emotive subject.

So at Mugabe's 91st belated birthday party, those invited, his fierce loyalists and the youth league that has been organising these parties since 1986, say they choose to focus on the positives of Robert Mugabe: a Pan-African, they say, who has always advocated for African solutions to African problems.

But his critics, and they have rapidly increased over the years, will find it difficult to see the positives in the fog of all the bad news.

"The human brain is peculiar. It remembers today, not yesterday," one person told me.

Many are increasingly saying that Mugabe should have long ago stood on the right side of history, and quit while he was ahead.

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