Mayor Kurt Schmoke and I are standing together in a dimly lighted corridor on the third floor of the Executive Office Building in Washington. It is Sunday afternoon, during a break in the opening program of the two-day White House Conference on Africa.
Vice President Gore is a few yards away, shaking hands. Conference participants -- politicians, junior diplomats and development officers -- stream around us, en route to scheduled workshops.
The Executive Office Building is next door to the White House, and I feel as though I am standing in the corridors of a dying empire. There is an air of Old World elegance about the EOB, regal yet run down: Cracked marble floors, paint peeling from Corinthian columns along the walls. The color scheme in this corridor is mauve and green, but the colors are pale, muted.
Everything about the Executive Office Building on this particular Sunday seems tired -- a strange setting for the energy and hope of the White House Conference on Africa.
President Clinton convened this conference to demonstrate that Africa has become a new priority for his administration. About 150 people were invited, including members of Congress, academics and officials with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. President Clinton and Vice President Gore were scheduled to address the group yesterday.
To my knowledge, the mayor is the only representative of a local government in attendance. And at a session early Sunday, Brian Atwood, administrator of USAID, made a point of singling out Mr. Schmoke as "a real leader."
"I am here," the mayor is saying to me as we stand in the corridor, "to learn everything I can about bilateral trade opportunities between Baltimore and Africa. There is a real desire on the part of business interests in Baltimore to participate in the development of, for instance, South Africa. And the governor has expressed an interest in a trade mission to Africa before he leaves office."
"In Africa?" I ask.
"There is a real interest in Africa," answers the mayor. "People are beginning to see a great deal of potential there. Young people in Baltimore are becoming interested in the foreign policy there. There is a movement in the business community, in the churches, on college campuses, to get involved."
Maybe the mayor's presence at the meeting does make sense. There certainly is a burgeoning interest in Africa, particularly among African Americans. You can see evidence of this in the number of Baltimore stores that have begun to carry African arts and crafts, in the political and cultural interest in South Africa.
But I also see a less-than-subtle link between President Clinton's campaign pledge to develop an "urban policy" and this latest pledge to establish a new African policy. Both policy initiatives cater to African American concerns. Both initiatives are attempts to overturn decades of official neglect.
Says Mr. Schmoke, "Although Baltimore is a city of a lot of strengths, we have to be honest with ourselves. There are areas where the problems more closely resemble those of a Third World country than an advanced democratic state."
At the conference Sunday, people spoke of an Africa ravaged by tribal violence, illiteracy, famine, disease and political corruption and ineptitude. Africa, they said, is the poorest region in the world, and the continent most heavily burdened with conflicts and problems. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse seem to have landed on the continent with all 16 hoofs.
But people also spoke of the growing number of democratically elected leaders in Africa; of the great wealth of natural resources; and of the untapped talent of the African people. In a videotaped message to the group, Nelson Mandela, the newly elected president of South Africa, warned America not to "succumb to the pessimism of the false perception that Africa is on a permanent decline."
"What I heard," notes Mr. Schmoke, "was speakers warning that the problems should not define the entire continent. There are a lot of strengths there, wonderful opportunities. Changing Africa's image is very important, just as it is very important for America's cities."