Sauntering into the lobby of the Harare Holiday Inn, looking just a touch out of place in his well-pressed denims and a bit underdressed without his guitar, is America's singing country boy, John Denver.
This is one road stop on a gala Third World concert tour. Hard currency on this drought-wracked continent is about as scarce as rain, and the few Africans who know of John Denver's music can't exactly afford front-row seats.
Instead, the subject is hunger, and Denver's purpose on a 17-day tour of four African countries is to call attention to Africa's plight and to the possibilities for improvement.
Hunger in Africa is not the kind of topic that normally inspires much optimism these days. While food supplies in the rest of the developing world have been steadily increasing in recent years, Africa's have just as steadily been falling -- by nearly 10 percent in the past decade, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
FAO also reports that at least 150 million Africans in 24 countries risk malnutrition due to a crippling drought that is one of the harshest in the continent's history. Bloated bellies and children's corpses are becoming too common a sight in the worst hit countries.
But Denver has a different message. Where some experts see despair, he's preaching faith, hope and a large injection of charity.
He readily admits that "the projections are terrible," but he argues that dwelling on the numbers "all gets to be part of a mind-set throughout the western world that it's hopeless here, that it's always been this way and it's getting worse and there's nothing we can do about it. I don't buy that."
On a brief stopover in Tete province of Mozambique, one of the continent's hardest hit countries, Denver says he saw visible signs of starvation. Otherwise, however, most of what he's seen in rural farming projects in Zimbabwe, Somalia and Bourkina Fasso (formerly Upper Volta) has reinforced his optimism.
"Everything we've seen here has been really incredible and not something that I'd expected to see at all and certainly nothing that I'd read or heard about in the press and the media in the United States," he says. "There are places where things are really getting better. There are some incredible projects going on that are absolutely working.
"I'm totally blown away by the courageous and hard-working people we've seen on this trip. There's an incredible spirit in these people and a real desire to become self-reliant."
Denver, who is 40, was a founder of the Hunger Project, a nonprofit corporation set up in 1977 by Werner Erhard, the entrepreneurial guru of est, one of the self-help programs that shot up like bean sprouts in California during the '70s. The project's goal is to end world hunger by the year 2000, which sounds admirable but which many analysts believe is unrealistic in a world where the number of hungry people actually is increasing.
The project has gotten mixed reviews, with critics charging that it is merely an extension of est and that its approach to hunger is a blend of psychobabble and naive wish fulfillment that has had little impact on Africa's starving masses.
Denver, who says he still counts Erhard as a close friend and an important influence in his life, concedes, "You can't wish hunger away."
But he says the project has helped create a new awareness that the problem is not beyond solution.
His trip here is a curious mix of honest, personal concern and American media hype. The idea is to put together several films that can be shown back in the States: 30- and 60-second bits to be used for advertising by the private relief groups and material for a television special. Denver is in Washington today for World Food Day, and is scheduled to appear at the Presidential World Without Hunger Awards luncheon and tonight's Fifth Annual Interfaith Hunger Service at the Washington Cathedral.
Denver promises his campaign will go on. "I've taken a stand," he says. "I'm doing everything I can to end hunger by the end of this century."