Africa's Place in the World: Ruminations on a historic dialogue

My husband just returned home from an evening out with a group of West African friends and to my surprise, he was livid after a heated debate about Africa, its history, its people and its place in the world. Apparently the conversation, which had been cool, calm and collected, had taken a turn for the worse after his friend had, with complete confidence, stated that at a conference when asked what Africa had contributed to the world (a question I already find offensive, because it is never asked of other continents), this friend of my husband's had, with the same confidence, stood up as an African and proclaimed to his fellow conference attendees that the continent had not contributed a thing. 

The conversation that followed was full of dismissive remarks about the continent and its peoples' histories, including slavery and systemic oppression under colonial rule. That was all in the past and it is over now. It's time to move on and stop complaining and making excuses. Why can't black people ever stop complaining, this group asked. My husband said he had yelled to the point of losing his voice; for those who do not know him, he is a relatively quiet and calm guy. My husband's friend, to be fair, is a really nice, well-educated person who is a natural-born entrepreneur and has lived in the US for over a decade, without ever once returning home. 

My husband made two major points in this heated argument, yelling over the many voices of the group who debated just as passionately against him:

1. Making the statement that Africa has not contributed and, even worse, has nothing to contribute is the surest evidence you have of Africa's systemic oppression. You who believe this are the system's worst victims and your rejection of history is a rejection of your own heritage. You have to understand, acknowledge this oppression in its varied forms to be able to move forward in any sustainable, healthy way. 

2. The world as we know it has only been made possible due to Africa's many contributions, the majority of which were taken unwillingly and some of which have been freely shared. Europe's industrialization and America's economic force were built on exploited African ingenuity, labor and natural resources. But that is not all Africa has to offer - it offers a diverse set of cultures, with different values and definitions and priorities. It offers us alternative modes of living, relating to each other and relating to our built and natural environments. To deny this is to blindly accept one occidental way of life that has been spoon fed to you and deny yourself and everyone else the possibilities of countless alternatives. 

While upon his return home, my husband was still unsure of whether his points had been enough or  even heard, we continued to discuss the conversation, one I have personally heard before and know is but a continuation of a historic dialogue. There has always been some level of conflict and resentment between African Americans and other black immigrants to the US, who, upon arrival have often openly questioned why blacks in America haven't seized the opportunities of the American Dream and done more with themselves. Tinges of this historic resentment surfaced in the conversation described to me. Why can't they be more entrepreneurial? 

In our post-debate conversation, my husband and I took his argument a step further. Last week I wrote about the universal and fundamental importance of empathy. Well, it is my contention that to truly aspire to be filthy rich in this society, to make this your singular ambition and your source of happiness as so many people have,  you have to be willing to give up a certain level of empathy for others. Climbing to the top, after all, means possible slowing down, putting down, if not crushing, those beneath you. So once this trade-off has been accepted, people anticipating the imagined rewards of the capitalist system, start shedding their empathy right away. With that empathy goes indignation at mass injustice, along with acknowledged historical oppression and recognized continued systemic inequities. To become a winner, one must accept that capitalism creates winners and losers and, against all odds, maintain the winner's mentality, free from all of the baggage and inconvenience of reality. 

Sadly, I fear this is what many entrepreneurial African immigrants, like my husband's friend, do. What is most disturbing though, is that they are right to do so in order to accomplish their stated goal, because our society rewards this behavior. This reminds me of a favorite quote from the interesting historical figure of Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said that "it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." I couldn't have stated it better myself.

One thing that my very wise husband says often in these types of conversations is that we, as humans, like latching onto one part of something that we deem to be true and then accept the whole thing, though perhaps not wholly examined, as truth. This is true with science, technology, capitalism and so forth. Something about it works, so, regardless of its faults and its known inequities and known unknowns, we launch ourselves into it and forget that this seemingly inevitable and hegemonic system hinged, at one point, on a single choice. 

Another telling quote from Krishnamurti, "You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life." Amen.


On Being Happy...

Still on my post-DNC high (thank you Michelle Obama) I spent Saturday morning canvassing in Virginia for the Obama Campaign. The campaign's 'Weekend of Action' was perfectly orchestrated to preserve the energy and emotions roused by the convention. I was grouped with a driver, a lady about my grandmother's age, and two other team members and sent off on our mission with printed driving instructions for where we would meet a Virginia community team leader for training and further instruction. We covered an entire neighborhood in three hours. Most people were extremely friendly, some even offered a glass of water. Conversations, if anyone answered the door, tended to last about two minutes. But the longest and most interesting conversation by far was with a federal employee, who rambled during a break from his lawn mowing, about how his vote would be based on who would cause the least damaging changes to him directly. His view of direct impact was narrowly focused on his job, which he assessed was secure regardless of who ran the country. Following the guidelines we had been given for such conversations, I tried to relate to his points by acknowledging that most votes are ultimately based on self-interest. But he insisted that his logic was different, admitting, 'It might sound bad, but I don't care about what's good for the country, I just care about what's good for me." We continued chatting politely, but his point had been heard.

Later that day my husband and I watched a documentary, aptly titled Happy, exploring the meaning and substance of happiness. When asked what one wants out of life, almost everyone claims 'to be happy' is the goal. But obviously we have very different visions of what this means and plans for how to achieve it. There were a few incredible stories of people and communities who survived extreme trauma or were materially poor and yet were undeniably happy.  The two key ingredients across the array of diverse examples was a realization that life is a gift and that the most precious part of that gift is our connection to other people. Whether they be lovers, friends, family or strangers, our relationship with others is a huge, if not the most significant, element in our own happiness or unhappiness. 

Photo by Pete Souza - White House
This made me think a little bit more than I had before about the link between empathy and happiness. If human connection is at the core of happiness, then empathy, which is simply a distillation of that connection, is its essence. I had mentioned empathy in my earlier conversation with the federal employee in an attempt to broaden his voting decision criteria; he had all but smirked at the word.

The documentary also provided some examples of communities and countries that proactively seek to create an environment that enables happiness. Sadly the U.S. was not on the list. Scandinavian countries like Denmark provide free quality education through college, universal healthcare, and co-housing opportunities to support inter-generational communal living. Bhutan, a small kingdom in South Eastern Asia, remains the only nation in the world to measure Gross National Happiness and value it more than Gross National Product. While Bhutan has not been as serene as it may seem (the government expelled ethnic Nepali Hindus in the 1990s), they do seem to be onto something. 

As Americans, we pride ourselves in the fact that we have an inalienable right to the 'pursuit of happiness' and yet we have far to go to actually exercise this right as a nation. Young people spend more time in front of screens than interacting with others in person (check out the iphone spoof poking fun of this state of 'connectivity'). We grow out of our passion, idealism, and creativity to work most of our lives in isolation from the people and pursuits we love. We grow old and are managed as burdens rather than treasured for the richness of our experiences and knowledge. Surely sprinkling material wealth on a faulty paradigm does not add up to happiness. 

How refreshing would it be to hear someone speak about our happiness index during a campaign? One of the qualities that makes President Obama so appealing is his empathetic ability. He seems to understand how we are all connected and appreciate the significance of that connection. But he can only change so much by himself. The federal employee I spoke with is the product of something much larger: a value system, a lifestyle, an upbringing that lacks empathy at its root. We need a sociocultural shift, one that prioritizes empathy in addition to hard work, ambition, integrity and all those other basic American middle class values. The American Dream should be more than owning a home and being financially comfortable; it should include having a wealth of empathy to support high quality relationships with friends and family, with enough left over to actually care about the well-being of everyone else.

Photo by Pete Souza - White House


Social Venture in Dakar anyone?

Summer is over and we are back to blogging here at WYHWTM! Being an Africa-oriented business and economic development nerd, I recently checked out The McKinsey Quarterly’s new report, “Africa at Work: Job Creation and Inclusive Growth,” which highlights the immense economic potential in the continent’s resources, especially its human capital.  While McKinsey’s announcement that “African economies are on the move” (pg1) may be old news to many, the report provides a glimpse into the endless entrepreneurial opportunities in Africa. 


Between 2010 and 2020 McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that Africa will add 122 million people to its labor force, making it the largest labor force in the world by 2035. Currently many African workers are what McKinsey has delicately termed ‘vulnerably employed’ a concept that includes subsistence living and self-employment in the informal economy without social safety nets. The prescribed solution to this prevalent status is an increase in available ‘stable wage-paying jobs,’ namely from manufacturing, agriculture, and retail & hospitality. MGI’s recommendations to put Africa’s economic growth on a similar trajectory to that of South Korea and other emerging markets include: expansion of large-scale commercial farming on uncultivated land, increase in manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP via either low-cost manufacturing hubs or higher-value-added manufacturing, and modernization and formalization of the retail and hospitality sector (replace informal markets with shopping malls and remove barriers to travel and tourism). While the recommendations provided in the report make perfect sense for a continent on the traditional and seemingly never-ending ‘development path’, they beg the question – what can African countries learn from the shortcomings of the traditional development path and avert in their own evolutions? I personally believe that the possibilities of alternatives paths to alternative states of ‘development’ or well-being are endless. But that is for another day…

Lest we forget, “Africa’s growth needs to be inclusive if it is to improve human welfare and ensure increasing social and political stability.” (pg1) Yes, thank you McKinsey. In order to make this explosive growth inclusive, policymakers, business and entrepreneurs must address the very salient need for work experience opportunities and more hands-on vocational training programs for high-demand skills. ‘Where are the entrepreneurs in this picture?’ one might ask. Interestingly, MGI draws a distinction between ‘opportunity entrepreneurs,’ those who seek to leverage market opportunity and ‘necessity entrepreneurs,’ those, including street hawkers, who are just trying to survive within current market conditions (pg52). ‘Necessity entrepreneurs,’ of which Africa’s share is high compared to other emerging markets, fall under the ‘vulnerable employment’ category. Again, skills-building initiatives are needed to promote ‘necessity entrepreneurs’ to the ‘opportunity entrepreneur’ level.

This is where my restless, creative and entrepreneurial side kicks in and I start thinking of a million potential ventures that could possibly meet these growing needs, particularly in the metropolitan areas of ‘transition economies’ like Ghana, Tanzania and Senegal that have relatively stable sociopolitical contexts and hoards of unemployed energetic and smart young people. There is clearly a need for more homegrown solutions and job creation. Strategic support of local entrepreneurship (the opportunity kind), social innovation and the creative economy are proven methods being used to stimulate transitioning cities within the U.S. (Pittsburgh anyone?), but are rarely at the forefront of US driven economic development efforts elsewhere. (One theory is that this does not support the true agenda of extracting the most value for the U.S. out of the economic development of emerging markets – cheap labor, cheap goods, natural resources, favorable trade terms, low-barrier investments…but I digress). 

So there are at least two needs clearly identified: closing the gap between smart, energetic youth and jobs, and creating new stable jobs in a less foreign-investment-centric way through local entrepreneurship….hmmm. Since this forum is meant to also serve as a platform for sharing unperfected ideas, let’s have a go:

What: A social enterprise based in Dakar, Senegal addressing the two needs stated above

Mission: To engage local young people in local economic development efforts

Two Strategies:
  • Support youth job readiness, training and placement
  • Promote local entrepreneurship in social and creative sectors
 Services for youth clients would include:
  •  Post-graduate internships and job training
  • Career development
  • Vocational and other workshops
  • Entrepreneurship incubator
  • Social innovation support programs
 Services for local and foreign institutional clients would include:
  • Job posting and internship/full-time recruiting
  • Job training/orientation facilitation
  • Venture investment opportunities
  • Consulting (marketing, strategic management, economic development…etc)
 Sustainable Business Model: Simply put, income from the institutional clients (companies and government agencies) and higher-income youth clients would subsidize services to lower-income youth clients and more socially-oriented activities without a direct source of revenue. This model may also require supplementary income generation, which could be accomplished in the form of another social enterprise branch also used for vocational training purposes (boutique, restaurant, temp agency….etc).

What do you all think? Granted, this is a very simplistic description, I would love to hear your initial reactions, questions, thoughts, related interests and suggestions! A hearty and challenging dialogue is key to any ideation process. Thanks in advance for participating!