Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Barbara Watson, a senior State Department official, was huddled in a corner with the ambassador from Botswana. "I have made two trips to South Africa, the last one in 1976," she was saying. "Everyone asked how I felt. And I felt the tensions, I knew it was a powder keg."
The message of the gathering at the Nigerian Embassy Tuesday was ominous. Because of growing troubles in the white-minority-ruled countries of Southern Africa, thousands of blacks are fleeing. And the guests at the embassy plainly stated the Americans, particularly black Americans, have a responsibility to help.
"There should be no difficulty finding a constituency in this country," said Nigerian Ambassador Olujimi Jolaoso to almost 200 people assembled in his basement reception room. Nigeria, which has led the humanitarian effort for refugees on the African continent, sponsored the reception to introduce a Washington-based refugee relief group, the Emergency Fund for Southern Africa.
"Southern Africa to us is a national cause," said Jolaoso."In the wave of publicity following the Soweto uprising, a Nigerian housewife contributed $160 for the victims. The country then established a relief fund. The businessmen have pledged a part of their wages. School children have contributed nickels. And over $15 million was raised by March of this year."
The Emergency Fund for Southern Africa, co-directed by Courtland Cox an Marvin Holloway, two blacks who have channeled thie '60s civil rights activism into foreign affairs, hopes to raise $100,000 over the next year. Africa has an estimated 1.6 million refugees - more than any other continent. The fund plans to supplement private and church relief groups, provide some direct assistance to refugees and create an awareness of the refugee problem in the United States.
Many of the guest had first-hand experience of the conditions causing the refugees to leave their homeland.
"The refugee flow is quite a strain on our economy," said Ambassador Bias Mookodi of Botswana. "We have had to move refugee camps because of attacks. It's very difficult, because you never can predict when to expect people or how many."
In one corner Tyrone Brown, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, recalled the 17 hours he spent with Steve Biko, the murdered South African black consciousness leader. "What stands out now, in relation to the fund, was his saying that people like him need to know we are here and are trying to help. Inside those countries there isn't much help," he said.
Among the guests were Lisle Carter, president of the University of the District of Columbia; commentator Carl Bowan, who recently made a documentary on Rhodesia; M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition; Ruth Sykes of the National Council of Negro Women, which has an education project in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, and Mallard Arnold, director of the Southern Africa project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Ambassador Putteho M. Ngonda of Zambia was enthusiastic that an American group would want to help the countries aiding the refugees. Zambia has 3,000 refugees now, he said.
"We do get assistance from the United Nations and church groups. But we are all struggling under severe economic constraints. There is never enough food, clothing or medicine. What we hope to find is a group that responds to the human needs, like shoes and food."