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FOR AFRICA TOMORROW, 'TODAY IS THE DAY' : 'What we would like to do is teach the African people how to be self-sufficient, how to raise their own food--how to feed themselves.'

May 07, 1985|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

Not until ex-puppeteer Paul Winchell explained his method of raising scavenger fish to feed half a million Ethiopians for 10 cents a person per day did Hollywood's latest celebrity-studded "save Africa" extravaganza began to sound different.

"It would cost 10 cents per day for three months," Winchell told about 100 reporters, celebrities, scientists and volunteers gathered Sunday for the inaugural press conference/study session of yet another USA for Africa spinoff called Africa Tomorrow.

There was no overnight super-grouping rendition of "We Are the World" this time, however. Instead of discussing ways to raise money, celebrities and scientists (epitomized by Winchell, who qualifies as both a celebrity and a scientist) assembled to talk about ways to spend it to feed people.

Ways like fish farming.

At the end of three months, Winchell said, the Ethiopians wouldn't even need the daily 10-cent subsidy to farm their fish. They'd be able to perpetuate their Winchell fisheries all by themselves.

How does he know it's true? Because the creator of such widely varied inventions as Knucklehead Smith, Jerry Mahoney and a prototype artificial heart has farmed fish himself at his Saugus fish ranch.

Winchell was one of 15 speakers, chiefly from African studies and/or applied technology (hydrology, engineering, etc.) departments of several Western universities, who gathered to plot specific methods of using Hollywood's current generosity to achieve long-range solutions to African famine.

Water harvesting, windmill technology, millet and sorghum cultivation, solar power and algae agriculture were also on the Africa Tomorrow agenda as future famine eradication methods.

Sunday's inauguration of Africa Tomorrow--the brainchild of Winchell, actor Ed Asner and KTTV Channel 11's "Elementary News" host Arnold Newman--bore all the signs of radical chic or, at very least, limousine liberalism: valet parking, fat strawberries and white wine served up to invited celebrities and media guests in an exotic private glade outside Newman's hillside Sherman Oaks home. . . .

But the similarities ended there.

Such amenities are what Asner called "the routine" of translating Hollywood celebrity into social consciousness. It is an exercise that he and fellow actors Dennis Weaver, Gary Collins, John Ritter and Mary Ann Mobley know by rote.

But they did it all over again on an overcast Cinco de Mayo in an attempt to successfully wed Hollywood's good-intentioned excess to dirt-poor Africa and its 12-year-old famine.

"As fledglings in this type of venture, we may not know exactly what we're doing, but you could have said the same about USA for Africa a few months ago, and they're not looking too shabby right now," Asner said.

The Africa Tomorrow theme seemed to paraphrase the opening lines of "We Are the World" ( There comes a time when you heed a certain call ): There may well come a time when Hollywood heeds a certain call. But Asner's contingent holds that production of a hit charity record is just the beginning of altruism.

The next step, Asner said, is the creation of a think tank of celebrities, scientists, politicians and relief agencies.

"Up until now, the giving of food and the giving of supplies for the temporary expedient is very, very moral and very loving," Winchell said. "But what we would like to do is to teach the African people how to be self-sufficient, how to raise their own food--how to feed themselves, and if we can achieve that, I think that is even more moral and more loving."

Asner referred to the vagaries of timing and mood in Hollywood causes, pointing to the frustrated attempts that Mobley and Collins made at African relief just a year ago. Though the African drought was then in its 11th year, their celebrity efforts had minimal success, he said.

Things have changed so radically in a year's time that Africa Tomorrow founding celebrity John Ritter was encouraged last week to tape a bid for African relief on Merv Griffin's talk show. Ritter's plea airs on Wednesday's "Merv Griffin," seen locally over KTTV.

"If we're seen as jumping on the bandwagon of a popular cause, then we plead guilty, because a year ago we may not have been able to accomplish this," Asner said. "Maybe the cause will be something else a year from now. Perhaps a year from now we'll be protesting another Vietnam, but now is the time (for Africa)."

It took the televised broadcast last fall of dying Ethiopian children and the domino effect of British rock stars' "Do They Know It's Christmas" charity hit single to overcome the national inertia Collins and Mobley encountered.

In the meantime, Cal Poly Pomona Prof. James Kamusikiri said, the Sahara Desert has continued to expand its girth at the rate of several miles per month. The African continent, currently 20% desert, will be 45% desert within 20 years if the natural and man-made effects of the drought that began in 1973 are not reversed, he said.

"Very most assuredly, I'm not an expert on African famine or the victims of that famine. One glance will show you that," Asner said, pointing to his own familiar girth.

"I am frustrated by all the good ideas that never see the light--either for lack of direction, lack of funding or lack of enough steam to push them through. But not this time."

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