July 12, 2002 - Washington Post: C. Payne Lucas Retires From Africare

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C. Payne Lucas Retires From Africare

Read and comment on this story from the Washington Post on C. Payne Lucas shown in the photo above with Bono in a meeting on Hunger in Africa.

C. Payne Lucas is one of the most distinguished Peace Corps Alumni working in NGO's. He served as Country Director in Togo and Niger before becoming Regional Director of the Peace Corps for Africa in 1967. He went on to become the first President of Africare and to spend thrity years at Africare, a Washington-based nonprofit specializing in grass-roots development. He was honored at the Peace Corps 40th plus one with Sargent Shriver as one of the "Peace Corps Giants."

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The Hand That Reached Out to Africa After Three Decades, C. Payne Lucas Retires From Africare *

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The Hand That Reached Out to Africa After Three Decades, C. Payne Lucas Retires From Africare

By Roxanne Roberts Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, July 12, 2002; Page C01

Some people are born idealists. They dream, they scheme, they speak in lofty rhetoric.

C. Payne Lucas is an accidental idealist. He has spent 40 years dedicating his life to the people of Africa. He's passionate, playful and pragmatic as a thick sole on a pair of work books. He's a salesman, a preacher, a teacher. And it all started, he said, with one not-so-lofty ambition: He needed a job.

He found one at the Peace Corps, which was followed by 31 years as co-founder and president of Africare, the largest African American nonprofit specializing in aid to African countries. Last night, Lucas was honored by 500 friends and admirers at his retirement party at Africare's headquarters on R Street NW.

"C. Payne was really a pioneer in all the work with Africa," said Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women. "He had the vision and really set the pace. He was one of the first to call for people to pay attention to Africa -- and gave them a channel to do it."

Height, along with former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, Reps. Charlie Rangel and Don Payne, representatives from the African diplomatic corps, former Peace Corps colleagues and supporters of Africare, gathered on this flawless summer night to bid Lucas a fond farewell. "He's just a regular, ordinary guy who's a lot of fun," said Young. "He only gets serious when he talks about Africa."

His combination of charm and chutzpah has made him the go-to guy among Africa activists. Lucas, 69, has rubbed elbows with Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and other world leaders. He's credited with creating programs to directly aid the neediest on the African continent, and persuading Americans to support those programs.

"He is a great, great guy," said Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for Africa. "He has, in a totally unselfish way, committed himself to the betterment of Africa. He looks at a situation and says: 'What's the problem? How can we fix it? How much does it cost? And where am I going to get the money?' And then he goes out and does it."

But Lucas is the first to admit that he backed into the "vision" that became Africare.

He was born in Spring Hope, N.C., in 1933, the 11th in a family of 14 children. The "C" in his name stands for . . . ("Committed!" he shouted.) Nope. "Cleotha" -- a moniker he deemed so embarrassing it was quickly and forever shortened to one letter.

His father was a sharecropper, his mother barely educated, but Lucas always liked being a student. He graduated from the town's tiny high school in 1951, and headed up to the University of Maryland's Eastern Shore campus, where he quickly landed a scholarship. After his sophomore year, he enrolled in the Air Force for four years and then returned to college with the notion of becoming a schoolteacher. His senior year was pivotal for two reasons: He realized that the classroom -- lesson plans, rigid rules, forced exams -- was not for him, and he met his wife of 38 years, Freddie, with whom he has three grown children.

Lucas's next move was to graduate school at American University with an eye toward a degree in government and an internship at the Democratic National Committee. He fell in love with politics just as John Kennedy swept into the White House. Two years later, he told the head of the DNC that he needed more than an extended internship -- he needed work. Anything, as long as it was a paying job. Lucas was sent to the Peace Corps, where Sargent Shriver gave him a position as Washington desk officer for Togo. "I didn't know where it was," said Lucas with a laugh. "I hadn't given a lot of thought to Africa."

Here the ex-Air Force technician, not-quite-schoolteacher, not-quite-politician found his true calling. Shriver sent him to the small West African country as a field representative, which proved to be a transforming experience: "I'd never been to a country where blacks were in charge," he remembered. "It inspired me to get past the neo-colonialism. We were driven to do everything we could to make the country a success." After Togo, Lucas went to Niger as a country director, then back to Washington as the regional director for all of Africa.

In 1971 Lucas joined forces with doctor William Kirker -- a former Peace Corps volunteer in Niger -- to turn Africare (then just a small health care program) into a Washington-based nonprofit specializing in grass-roots development. Working out of offices in Niger's embassy here, Africare began raising money to help victims of the crippling drought in West Africa.

"The first people to give us money were the poor people of Washington," he said. "They came with their nickels and dimes. That's how we got started." Those tiny contributions were followed by two grants, and Africare went to Niger and five other countries in the Sahara to dig wells, plant trees, establish vegetable gardens.

"He said, 'You've got to stop romanticizing Africa, because we have work to do and it's not romantic,' " Rep. Payne said in his tribute last night.

Lucas, no idealist, was determined to ensure that Africare's programs were practical, administered as honestly as possible, and wanted by the villagers instead of imposed on them. "They've done great work in development," said TransAfrica Vice President Selena Mendy Singleton. "What he's doing is really so beyond grass roots. When I lived in Zimbabwe, I got to know some Africare workers. The kind of work they were doing was so fundamental -- really providing basic needs."

With an annual budget of $35 million, Africare now has 150 programs in 27 nations, focusing on clean water, health, education and training in self-governance. Since its founding, it has poured a total of $400 million into the continent: 60 percent from government agencies, the rest from corporate, foundation and individual donations.

"When I first went to Africa, there was a coup d'etat every six months," said Lucas. "Corruption was understood to be. Now that is changing. There is accountability. Africans now feel they can do the work themselves. They just need encouragement."

The good news: Last month, the G-8 group of industrialized countries introduced its Africa Action Plan to assist economic and political stability. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and rock star Bono drew the world's eyes to Africa on their recent tour, and President Bush announced that he would visit early next year.

The bad news: Lucas says Africans have never demonstrated any real capacity for tolerating diversity. And he's frustrated that African Americans have not banded together to lobby effectively for more foreign aid.

But that pales in light of the AIDS tragedy: Twenty-four of the world's most afflicted countries are in Africa; in seven of them, more than 20 percent of the population is infected with HIV. Life expectancy has dropped from the mid-fifties to below 40 in some sub-Saharan countries; 15,000 people a day are dying from the disease.

"AIDS is not just a compelling moral issue, it is not just a humanitarian issue; it is far more than just a health issue," said Secretary of State Colin Powell last month. "It is a security issue. It is a destroyer of nations. It is a destroyer of societ ies. It has the potential to destabilize regions, perhaps even entire continents."

Africare does not have the resources to supply drugs, but has established an AIDS service corps, which recruits African volunteers to educate men and women in their own villages. The AIDS crisis, Lucas said, is the one place where imposing Western standards is entirely justified.

"All the work to get Africa to this point will be lost," he said. "We can dig all the wells we want, but there won't be anyone to drink the water unless we get on top of this disease."

In his farewell last night, Lucas gave a fire-and-brimstone speech on the subject, imploring everyone present to do more. "This is a continent and a civilization that is dying," he told them. "We have to organize ourselves better to save Africa."

Technically, Lucas retired last month, although he stayed on to make the transition smoother for new president Julius Coles, formerly of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Howard University's Ralph Bunche International Affairs Center and the Andrew Young Center for International Affairs at Morehouse College.

"I don't know why we're here because nothing much is going to change," Young quipped to the audience. "He's going to retire like I retired."

Lucas was presented with a computer system -- printer, laptop, the works -- by the board to write a history of Africare. "Obviously, I'm not running finance anymore, because I don't give away laptops," he joked.

Lucas will still work on Africare's annual fundraiser, named after Bishop John T. Walker, the first African American Episcopal bishop to the Washington Diocese and former chairman of Africare. He wants to encourage more private investment in Africa. He's still going to fight AIDS.

And one more thing: "I'd like to see Africa with my wife," he said. Seems he's been so busy being practical that he's never made a trip just for fun. "I'd like to discover Africa."

Lucky for him, Africare also gave Lucas a digital camera and a trip around the world for two.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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