By Gail McCarthy
Dan Connell, a journalist for decades, has traveled to the far corners of Africa, where he has been witness to many attempts to establish democracy amidst the struggles for social justice.
He later settled in Gloucester, where he spearheaded the effort to create the Cape Ann Forum after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to increase public understanding of international issues. The forum is now in its seventh season.
Connell, a lecturer in journalism and African studies at Simmons College in Boston, on Monday will launch his newest effort in helping others understand the human condition. He and a group of students will unveil a book titled "Old Wrongs, New Rights" published by Africa World Press.
The small book contains candid personal essays by Simmons students about the "new South Africa," based on their visits and interviews with a cross-section of South Africans living in the post-apartheid country.
The essays reveal the economic struggles faced by the citizens in their new democracy, where so many lack adequate, if any, housing and access to adequate education. But the students also found beauty, strength and resilience with the people. The chapters contain an array of subject matters, including the fight for women's equality, the struggle to meet basic needs, and dealing with homosexuality.
This was Connell's second trip with students to South Africa to explore the transition.
"After making the second trip with students last May and June to look at the broad issue of human rights, we came back with another batch of what I thought were outstanding pieces of writing — snapshots of daily life and the efforts of ordinary people to realize the dream of equality and freedom. The results are what we published," Connell said.
He also shares his experiences with Gloucester High School students. Working with teacher Rich Francis, who teaches a unit on Africa, Connell spoke to the local students recently about his work.
"The students had some good questions for him," Francis said. "He was able to cover South Africa and some other issues in Africa. He's a local with experience in Africa so he's a good resource for us."
Connell said he was struck by how much interest there was from the local teens.
"Most people think (the teens) couldn't care less about the wider world. This is a wrong perception of this generation as the book demonstrates quite clearly," he said.
At the adult level, the Rev. Wendy Fitting of the Independent Christian Church said Connell has been the spiritual engine behind the Cape Ann Forum.
"He has a tremendous depth of commitment and energy and courage. He's brought to the forum a number of other interested people," she said. "I think all of Cape Ann can be proud that we have this forum, which carries on the tradition of the lyceum."
Connell, the author of several books, has written primarily about Eritrea but has also covered the Sudanese civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and political movements in Nicaragua and the Philippines.
He is the founder and former director of Grassroots International and has consulted for several aid agencies and human rights organizations.
Connell said the value of the newest student book comes from its viewpoint, seen through the eyes of 20-year-old Americans. A book also resulted from the first student trip to South Africa, titled "Women to Women."
The idea for the trips surfaced in an African politics course.
"Students spoke up in class to say how exciting South Africa sounded and why couldn't they go there and see for themselves? Why not, indeed, I asked myself, and then set about making it happen," Connell said. "But I don't want to create experts on South Africa or other countries; rather, I use these courses as laboratories to understand the human condition and what we can do about it when we set our minds to it."
Gail McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com
An excerpt from the book
Student Beth Maclin wrote an essay about Soweto called "Waiting for Housing:"
"At the entrance to the squatter camp sits a bright green chemical toilet, accented with a gray top and door. A narrow lane winds past it to a collapsing building where three young men lean against two pay phone booths with no phones. The door and windows are gone, and the tin roof protects only half the interior.
The path leads into the heart of a cluster of improvised shelters — called an "informal settlement" in South Africa — where poverty confronts a visitor at every turn. From one shack, a young boy around 3 years old wanders into the tiny dirt yard amidst a few freshly sprouting weeds. He walks up to the bent chain-link fence and grabs hold, just inches from a twist of barbed wire. He wears no shoes, despite the fact that it is winter in South Africa."