Physician, Heal Thyself

I heard an interesting story about a wise man recently. This wise man said that when he was younger, he set out to change the world. He strived, toiled, and labored and then came to the realization that the world had too many problems and he didn’t have enough time. So, then he decided to focus on changing his country. He strived, toiled, and labored and again, came to the conclusion that he didn’t have time for that either. Frustrated, he changed his focus to changing his city. Surely this was much more attainable. Again, he strived, toiled, and labored and soon realized that changing his city was an endeavor like the others – it would take several lifetimes.

And then, the epiphany: “I can change myself! If only I had spent my precious time on earth focused on changing myself FIRST…maybe I would have had a shot at changing my city, my country, maybe even the world.”

I am convinced that there is no cause too important or too big to overshadow the need to change oneself. Even the trauma inflicted on us by an outside party, the oppression brought on by another, the pain we are made to feel…all cannot and should not render self-reflection and self-transformation irrelevant.

I was born in a poor country. My family would be considered middle class by our country’s standards at the time. But we experienced enough hardship, pain, and trauma and saw enough oppression and injustice that, growing up, I had an inherent affinity for the downtrodden and marginalized. I grew up with a strong sense of justice and rejection of elitism. A sentiment akin to anti-establishment developed in me as I grew up. As an adult, I have become accustomed to instinctively siding with the smaller guy, the weaker guy, the under-resourced, the marginalized…the one who was hurting.

There is plenty of hurt to go around. ISIS terrorizing innocents in the Middle East and Europe; poor nations claiming economic growth while their poor sink deeper into more despair than ever before; or, closer to home, the enmity between police (white police in particular) and the black community (black men in particular). It would seem we are besieged by trauma.

Warsan Shire (Somali-British poet) writes:

“Late that night I held an atlas in my lap

Ran my fingers across the whole world

And whispered: where does it hurt?

It answered: Everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere.”

The word ‘everywhere’ is interesting. It has been hurting ‘everywhere’…for a very long time. It’s just now more evident since the hurt is in France, in Belgium, in Germany…yes, even in the US.

The bombings, the mass shootings, the abuse of power, the injustice, the hatred, the bitterness, the steady diet of unpleasantness that seems to hang over us like a dark cloud.

“The world is out of control!” say casual observers in the industrialized West.

There is a collective rolling of the eyes in the rest of the world. Things have been ‘out of control’ in the numerous hot spots around the world for decades. Just take a look at the former colonies of the West, be it in Africa or other parts of the developing world. These nations have been evolving through a hurricane of hurt that has felt out of control for a long time, yet outside of the full view of the casual observer.

Through this evolution, there have been countless leaders, change agents, revolutionaries, virtuous men and women who have tried to address the turmoil and heal the hurt. Some have succeeded, some have died trying, many have done so in obscurity. But at the end of it, the world still hurts…everywhere.

Does it continue to hurt because that’s our destiny as a human species?

No. It continues to hurt because there are too many broken people trying to fix a broken world. Their efforts are not to be maligned. After all, they are trying while the rest of us are watching and waiting for things to get better.

Henry David Thoreau nailed it when he wrote in “Civil Disobedience”: “There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.”

Back to my point…

What if we took the wise man’s experience to heart. What would happen if the ones on the front lines, the leaders, the activists, the revolutionaries, even the ‘patrons of virtue’ changed themselves and fixed themselves, first. I’m not talking about letting circumstances and external factors change you. I am talking about a proactive change that can only come after rigorous and uncomfortable self-reflection…and a reliance on the power of God to affect transformation.

This does not imply that there is some checklist on personal growth that has to be marked off. We are always growing and changing. On a practical level, this is about self-awareness. This is about willingness to put aside the hurt in the world for a moment and diagnose oneself.

“Medice, cura te ipsum” / “Physician, heal thyself” – Luke 4:23

A leader who knows himself is a leader who can heal himself. A leader who is healed and whole leads a virtuous struggle. In himself he recognizes a microcosm of the world – an organism in pain that is diagnosed, that undergoes the process of healing, that is then transformed. New ideas, new thinking, new dialogue and new approaches are birthed from leaders who have been transformed. And maybe, these leaders can help our world begin to heal…everywhere.

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Tamba Kpakima: Strength and Honor

Tamba has graduated from university!!!

Some readers may know of Tamba Kpakima, a dear friend I met back in 2010 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. When we met, Tamba had just graduated from high school and was tutoring high school seniors preparing to take graduation exams. His main objective at the time was to attend university and get a degree in Accounting. Except his path to higher education was far from certain.

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Tamba in 2010

Tamba grew up in the small village of Kaliyah in Kono District on the eastern border of the country. During the brutal civil war of the late 1990s, Tamba and his family were chased out of their village by rebel forces. They lost their home, their loved ones, and their crops as they fled on foot to a refugee camp in Guinea (a neighboring country) where they lived for two years. In Guinea, there was not enough food to go around, and they were constantly exposed to the elements since their small, plastic shelter did little to protect them. Needless to say, Tamba’s education took a back seat as basic survival became the primary family focus. Without basic books and supplies, the education gap in Tamba’s life was growing.

At the age of 14, Tamba had survived a brutal civil war, but he still lacked a basic primary school education. It was then that Tamba was sent to Freetown to live with his uncle. For a boy who had known nothing but village life, relocating to the capital city was quite an adjustment. Eventually, Tamba was given the opportunity to attend a missionary school where he started elementary school as a teenager. While in Freetown, he endured the death of his uncle, difficult living situations, and the challenge of having to play catch-up after so many years without schooling.

After all was said and done, he graduated from high school with a singular dream of getting a university degree…but no money to pay for it. Yet another mountain to climb in his life.Thankfully, the support of friends got him over the hurdle of paying for schooling and Tamba matriculated at the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM).

Getting in to the university was half the battle though…Tamba still had to endure a whole host of challenges – sometimes school would shut down for long periods; money was always an issue; his health began to suffer; in 2014, the Ebola crisis caused the whole city to shut down for months, leaving him with nothing to do; the list goes on.

But in April of 2016, 5 years later, Tamba did it! He endured. He thrived. He achieved his first goal of earning a university degree, BSc Hons. in Applied Accounting.

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Tamba on graduation day, with his beloved mother

Back in 2010, I asked him what he would do if he were not able to go to university. Tamba’s response surprised me: “There is no Plan B.” The reason for this response was due to the strong passion that Tamba has for education.

Here’s to there not being a “Plan B” Tamba! You did it. As your friend, I am proud of you, my brother. You are an inspiration. And I wish more people would know of you … and get to know you.

Why I No Longer Call Out “Racists”

I was born in Africa, immigrated to the US as a refugee, was sponsored by an all-white church in North Carolina, completed junior high and high school in the deep South (Alabama), went to college in one of the most culturally diverse states in the US (California), and became a father to two mixed (half-black/half-white) boys. I cannot escape the topic of race. Race-related issues in the US have been a part of my reality since the day my family stepped foot in North Carolina. So, I try to get a balanced perspective on the issue of race and racism. It’s important to me that I judge rightly and not instinctively. Instincts can lead to errors.

I learned this some years back while backpacking in Belize. I arrived in Belize from Guatemala, a country that reminded me about the concept of white privilege and black disadvantage. So, I was on high alert for racism. I met a white couple that was looking for a restaurant. I pointed them in the direction of one, and later in the afternoon, I saw them at that same restaurant. They thanked me for the recommendation and the man invited me to join them on a road trip in the countryside. I got the impression he made the decision to invite me without consulting his partner. I accepted anyway. They told me they would pick me up in 15 minutes. So, in 15 minutes, I went downstairs to wait. A whole 45 minutes went by and no sign of the couple. My irritation turned to anger. Really, don’t you hate it when someone wastes your time?

During the wait, I came up with an explanation: “The woman doesn’t feel comfortable having me along for the road trip because I am black. That was obvious from the way she reacted earlier. On the way back to their hotel, she told her partner there was no way I would join them and they went without me.”

That was the most believable explanation for why they never showed up. They were racists.

Fuming, I went up to my room. About 30 minutes later, I heard a knock on my door and there’s the same lady. We went on a short road trip and during the car ride, I came to find out that not only were they not racist, they were two super liberal progressively minded siblings from New York City. I was too embarrassed to tell them about my assumptions.

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How could I jump to that type of conclusion from just a few minutes of conversation? Was I simply over-sensitive or just a terrible judge of character? In my defense, I had experienced overt racism in Guatemala…like when a boat captain gave life vests to a well-dressed white couple but refused to give me and a native Indian family similar vests. Sometimes, one experience we have bleeds right into the next, whether we mean for it or not.

That experience taught me to avoid going with the flow or taking a stance on a race issue simply based on optics. It also helped me to develop my own framework for defining racism. Racism is not simple to define, no matter how much we would like it to be.

But here it is:

  • a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
  • prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

You’ll notice that the main point in the definitions for “racism” is this belief that my race is better than your race. My people are smarter and more hard working; or your people are lazy and violent and extremist…so on and so forth. In American society, there is general consensus that these types of claims and beliefs are inappropriate. You express them in any way and you will lose votes, you will lose friends, you will lose endorsements. It’s a wrap. In mainstream society, there is no place for them. Zero tolerance. It would appear that, as a society, we run a pretty tight ship here.

Yet we continue to be engulfed in racial controversies, dramas, and plot lines. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the ensuing and still ongoing protests is a perfect example. We are fixated, oftentimes rightly so, on transgressions that are usually against people of color. But are we using a broad brush to identify these “transgressions” as “racism” or “racist”? Are there nuances that could help us more rightly judge?

To be clear, the facts of the case in Ferguson do not seem to imply any nuance to explain away what happened. Furthermore, the issue goes beyond race to other matters such as police militarization, aggression, and lack of accountability…all of which are beyond the scope of this discussion.

To me, racism is best understood through a continuum of attitudes to matters of race that begins with the “color-blind” Kumbaya, “we-are-all-the-same” sentiment on the left all the way to the white sheet-wearing hatemongers and neo-Nazis on the right. I like to believe that most normal, sensible people do not have values on either of these extremes.   Instead, the average guy and girl on the street is somewhere in the middle. But what is in the middle?

There are three categories of people that occupy the middle. And, instead of clear demarcations between categories, blurred lines separate the three.

First, starting on the left, we have the racially insensitive. These are people who may make crude remarks and jokes about people of another race, but do so with no malice. They may even feel comfortable making these comments to people of the race they ridicule. E.g. “Bob (a black guy) tends to make off-color jokes about Chinese people from time to time, but he is married to a Chinese and loves Chinese culture.” I confess. I have been racially insensitive from time to time. And I challenge anyone to wag a finger at me…anyone except the Kumbaya color-blind people.   I don’t even think they exist. If you’ve ever assumed the black man in a tux was a waiter, when he was a guest just like you, you’re racially insensitive. If you’ve ever said, “all white people look alike to me”, you’re racially insensitive. Racial insensitivity is not always conscious and typically is not malicious; just a by-product of the extremely diverse and divided America we live in.

Next, we move right on the continuum to racial wariness. This is the first sign of trouble. Because, now, we have people shying away from people, simply based on how they look. In a sense, racial wariness is more a survival tactic based on stereotypes than anything else. As a society, I think we can handle insensitivity, as long as it is contained. When it creeps into wariness, we feel judged by others; we judge ourselves for our fears; distrust sets in. And, once again, I will boldly admit that, from time to time, I exhibit racial wariness. If I am standing in line next to an Arab Muslim with traditional Muslim garb, I will wonder if they sympathize with Al Qaeda or ISIS or Hamas, or any number of terrorist groups; or if they actively fund these groups; or, maybe they are jihadists, in the extremist sense of the word. If the terrorists on 9/11 had been Alaskan Inuits, I would be wary of just about any Inuit I pass on the street. That’s how it works. Again, I challenge anyone to throw rocks at me. If you have driven through a neighborhood looking for a new home and decided against the neighborhood because the kids playing in the streets were black, you’re racially wary.

After the whole Donald Sterling drama unfolded, another NBA owner, Mark Cuban, made some pretty candid comments where he labeled himself as sometimes prejudiced or bigoted. His description of decisions he makes based on race is precisely what I define as racial wariness. Most of us are racially wary and we would be better off accepting that in ourselves, being as self-aware as Cuban, and addressing it instead of denying it.

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And, finally, we get to the ugliest of them all – racial bias. Racial bias is especially ugly when we use it to make decisions that negatively impact another person.  Racial bias is usually a gateway to plain, old-fashioned racism. At this point, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Yosef, it does not pay to over-analyze. This is all semantics.”

Maybe so. But how, then, do we explain seemingly reasonable people (read “not neo-Nazi or KKK”) making negative decisions based on race?

In this video, hidden cameras from the ABC Television show “What Would You Do?” capture people’s reactions to witnessing a white teenager trying to steal a bike versus a black teenager doing the exact same thing. The white teenage boy gets a pass; the black teenage boy does not. Racial bias is about whom we choose to give the benefit of the doubt to and whom we instinctively distrust and accuse. Oftentimes, it is the inner workings of the subconscious. A perfectly “good-hearted” non-racist can exhibit ugly racial bias.

My sister and her husband live in Belgium and France where people are famous for their tolerance and acceptance…except if you are a Congolese and want to rent an apartment in a nice part of Paris or Brussels. Over time, immigrants, typically Congolese and other Central Africans, have drawn attention for not being good tenants. As a result, white French and Belgian landlords, who attend Youssou N’dour and Habibe Koite concerts, protest against American imperialism, dote over Barack Obama, and exhibit every manner of progressive behavior known to man, will systematically deny African renters and select more “acceptable” white clients. Funny enough, my sister and her husband have had a negative experience renting their condo to a Congolese tenant. But they made a decision to not be biased. Instead they have chosen to implement better controls so that the same bad experience does not repeat itself, regardless if it is with a Congolese or a Czech or a Belgian. A racially biased white French landlord could choose to not be biased and instead be smart. A racist white French landlord could not because whatever negative experience they have with Congolese tenants is a confirmation and affirmation of their deep-held belief in the African’s racial inferiority.

So, what’s my point? People are complex and we gain nothing by describing each other with simple loaded words. Of course, if I am negatively impacted by the actions of a racially biased person, it will not matter to me one bit if I can rightly define that person as being racially biased as opposed to racist. The impact is the same. But, what categorization helps to do is open doors for dialogue.   I personally feel that dialogue is neither fruitful nor possible with a full-blown racist. I cannot engage with such a person. Period. However, if I can keep from instinctively labeling someone who is in the middle ground of the continuum as a racist, and rightly judge him or her, then there’s a chance for communication.

Apply this framework when thinking about an issue you hear about in the news, or the actions of your co-worker or boss, or the comments of in-laws, or the behavior of the restaurant manager last night. See if it helps you judge rightly. See if it helps you be more understanding without letting go of your principles. See if you can have some meaningful conversations and save yourself mental stress and frustration.

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I look at this world through the lens of a black man. Defining racism according to this continuum is what helps me to not only cope, but also hopefully transcend the built-in bias against the American black male.

Twenty Years Later, One African’s Realistic Hope for Rwanda

Twenty years ago today, I was a junior (11th grade) in high school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA. Having lived in the US for just 6 years by that time, I was still “in between” two worlds. I had my African identity that, even if I wanted to, I could never shake. On the other hand, I had just become a US citizen and was beginning to pay attention to the significance of a new life in the greatest country in the world. Every day, I was reminded that in that small Alabama town, my background was truly uncommon and easily misunderstood by my peers. In the midst of my angst and confusion, I had a conversation with one of my sisters that liberated my teenage mind from the burden of not fitting in. She told me: “Remember. You were born in Ethiopia. You are African by origin.   That fact will never change.”

It’s amazing how freeing it is when you can truly own your facts.

That spring, I confronted my “facts” in an unexpectedly painful manner. From afar, I witnessed the tragic Rwandan genocide unfold.

Having, myself, come from a country in turmoil, I suppose it could have been yet another event in the history of a troubled continent. But, the intensity and pain felt by and inflicted by Rwandans troubled me thousands of miles away. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and there were certainly not many around me who could relate to what I was feeling. I wept for Rwanda and it has had a special place in my heart since.

The Rwandan genocide is a fact. It happened. And today, on the 20th anniversary of its beginning, there is no shortage of stories to commemorate. There are plenty of historical accounts that detail not just the trauma of brother killing brother, but also the tragedy and impotence of an international community to step in.

Two years ago, I made a few trips to Rwanda on business. Not knowing what to expect on my first trip, I truly experienced a sense of realistic hope during my time in Kigali (the capital city). The kind of realistic hope you want to champion and cheer and help make into a reality. The kind of hope you know can be a template for the rest of the continent. The kind of hope that can overshadow the horrible events that started on the night of April 7, 1994.

Of the many hopeful things going on in Rwanda, I want to share these three:

  1. Agaciro Development Fund – this fund was established as the country’s first sovereign wealth fund. Its main purpose is to ensure that Rwanda’s economic development can continue with as much independence from external influence as possible. Citizens of Rwanda, Rwandans living abroad, friends of Rwanda, and corporations are all contributors.   The word “Agaciro” is translated as “dignity”.
    agaciro
    A very fitting word to illustrate the need for Rwanda, and other African nations, to achieve economic growth AND freedom from a complicated foreign aid regime that limps alongside the aspirations of the continent.
  2. Umuganda – on the last Saturday of each month, Rwandans in every city, community, and neighborhood gather for a few hours to do community service. Umuganda means “community service”. Participation in Umuganda is mandatory for all able-bodied citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 and includes activities like street cleaning, care for the vulnerable, and even free medical care for that day.
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    President Paul Kagame participating in Umuganda

    From my time in Rwanda and my conversations with people from all walks of life, Umuganda is regarded as not only a vehicle to implement needed public services but also a way to establish unity among Rwandans. As a result of the culture of Umuganda, the streets of Kigali (and likely other cities) are clean, orderly, and inviting. It’s easy to overlook the psychological relevance but imagine being a little kid growing up in a community where public services function and there is a philosophy of unity, order, and care for your community. How does that impact a generation? How can that help to ensure the future of the country?

  3. World Alliance Against Youth Unemployment (WAYU)– a few months ago, I had a conversation with the CEO of WAYU, Aloys Ntezimana. He is overseeing the development of WAYU to address the serious issue of youth unemployment in Rwanda. Through entrepreneurship training programs and investment mechanisms for student-led businesses, WAYU hopes to transform the future of Rwanda’s economy. Rwanda is a very young country, with the majority of the population now of working age. Compound this with the fact that it has one of the highest population densities on the continent, and you start to see why the work of WAYU is extremely crucial and deserves the attention and partnership of key people and organizations around the world. I look forward to working with WAYU in the near future.

Hope is realistic when juxtaposed next to potential pitfalls. And to be clear, there are many issues that Rwanda has to overcome to realize its potential. But I encourage anyone reading this to explore the facts and truly grasp what is happening. That is the only way to champion realistic hope for the beautiful country of Rwanda.

Rwanda owns its facts along with its future!

Why Western Feminists Should Aspire to African Standards

With the exception of the caveman who holds on to the belief that a woman is an inferior reflection of himself, I think it’s safe to say that we all desire gender equity.   Here in the US, there is a constant drumbeat for addressing a litany of women’s rights issues – pay gaps between men and women (who are doing the same job), the lack of females in leadership positions, the unfair (often implicit) limiting policies that punish women for having children.

equal pay

I am currently consulting with a university to help develop a diversity management course and gender diversity is one of the topics I address.  In the course of my work, I have come to learn quite a bit about this topic. Those who know me well would not necessarily peg me as a feminist; but I firmly hold on to the notion of productive feminism, and believe that every other rationally minded male should as well.

I am a husband to a very talented woman whose skill and expertise in her field is truly top notch (or Top 5%, as I like to say).  She is in a wonderful job and career at the moment and absolutely crushing it.  But we live in an age where it is entirely possible that her achievements would not be rewarded and/or recognized to the same degree that a male peer’s would.  That frustrates me.

Many women in the workplace, “Top 5%” or not, are presented with far fewer opportunities than their male counterparts for promotions and receive comparatively limited access to career-making assignments, not to mention the 77 cents they earn for every dollar their male colleagues make.  The data is out there…this is not just an opinion.  McKinsey came out with a report in 2013 showing that of the Fortune 1000 companies, close to half have one or no women on the leadership top teams.  Put another way, a pathetic 4.2% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women.  This despite the fact that women have long outnumbered men in universities!!

As always, I like to look at things from a global perspective…and particularly consider the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Africa and the rest of the developing world, women’s empowerment needs are far more basic – poverty levels among women are markedly higher than among men, female illiteracy rates are sometimes double that of men, access to basic elementary education for women is severely limited.  Despite these facts (and perhaps because of them), there is a laundry list of NGOs, foundations, and governmental ministries who have gender-specific mandates.  Great.  But believe it or not, in some cases Africa is more progressive than the West when it comes to gender equity.  Some amazing things have already happened and the following are a few examples.

In 2003, a group of women in Liberia directly challenged the warlord-turned-dictator Charles Taylor and managed to bring peace to a country that had been suffering through a terrible civil war.  These women helped to usher in Liberia’s and Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  One of many more we hope.  There is a wonderful documentary about the women who changed Liberia called Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

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On the other side of the continent, in Rwanda, women hold 64% of the seats in the national Parliament.  Did you know Rwanda has the highest percentage of women elected to parliament…in the world! And that 4 of the top 10 countries in terms of female participation in government are African countries?  The US ranks 83rd…right above the United Arab Emirates.  And oh, by the way, Africa now has its second female head of state – Joyce Banda of Malawi.

It is truly exciting to see other African women rise to prominence:

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

  • Aminata Toure, the football-playing “Iron Lady” was recently appointed as the Prime Minister of Senegal.  She was responsible for bringing down the corrupt son of the former president of Senegal.

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  • Acting President Catherine Samba-Panza of the war-torn Central African Republic interestingly finds herself in a similar position to President Johnson-Sirleaf by inheriting a colossal mess and trying to change a nation.

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Just a few examples, albeit all in the public sector but there are many more in other fields that I will write about later.

These women and the progress they represent are not free of skepticism and criticism.  But progress, even messy progress, is progress.  I am a strong believer in the transformative power that women in leadership can have in Africa.  Whether Africa or Asia or the US or anywhere else, the notion (as confirmed by historical and current statistics) that leadership positions should be held by men is totally ridiculous.  In fact, this study published on the Harvard Business Review site states that women are better leaders than men.

Look, it’s silly to argue one point or the other.  Leadership, whether by nature or nurture, is a quality equally likely to be possessed by men and women…we just need to work on making the numbers reflect this…in Rwanda, Senegal, the CAR, the US, all over the world.

Here in the US, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) came up with a “manifesto” to encourage women to compete and thrive in leadership positions by taking a seat at the table.   Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead got a lot of attention when it first came out.sandberg

Then several people started to point to the unrealistic and intensely difficult position Lean In’s encouragements place women.  Articles titled “Why I Won’t Lean In”, “Lean In, Trickle Down: The False Promise of Sheryl Sandberg’s Theory of Change”, or my favorite, “Recline! Why ‘leaning in’ is Killing Us” all seem to point to Sandberg’s tone deafness about the struggles of average women in corporate America.

I would only say this: Sandberg and other prominent Western feminists do not have a monopoly on the “women empowerment” market.  Although you would think they do by the way productive feminism is addressed in mainstream media – always a result of Western progressiveness, available for implementation in less progressive cultures of the world.

This unspoken bias and perception of Africa’s backwardness on gender issues needs some correction.  As mentioned earlier, there are certainly some basic hurdles to women’s rights that countries like the US have long ago navigated while Africa continues to struggle with today.  Nevertheless the truly remarkable achievements made by women throughout the continent can and should be models and inspirations for women right here in the US.  The Ellen Johnson Sirleafs of Africa would politely nod and applaud the “Lean In” movement in the West; but the reality is Western feminism is not entirely applicable within the myriad cultures of Africa.  Influential African women leaders have had to chart a totally new course in a uniquely inhospitable environment.

African feminists are not byproducts of Western influence…they are pioneers on a world stage, who in the course of overcoming difficult circumstances, are quietly building the collective confidence of Africa’s daughters.

Can we not expand and say they are helping to inspire women everywhere?

I believe so.

East Africans Overcoming Racial Bias in Hollywood

Last week, the big news in Hollywood revolved around the recent Academy Awards, and particularly, Lupita Nyong’o’s historic Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in her role in the movie 12 Years a Slave.

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In Hollywood, anytime a non-white person wins an award as prestigious as an Oscar, it’s big news.  For all its activism, progressiveness, portrayal of racial harmony, and general liberal façade, Hollywood has historically not been favorable for the image and careers of black people (American or otherwise).  Which is why Lupita’s win is a big deal and she made a point of addressing the racial implications of her recent success in a speech at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence Magazine.   In case you haven’t heard, Lupita is black…and African at that.  Kenyan.

There is inherent racial bias Hollywood.  This is not news and many have pointed to the exclusion, marginalization, and negative typecasting of black actors for a long time.  And the criticism is not exclusive to Hollywood’s impact on black actors.   Movies made about black figures just can’t seem to make it unless they have white characters in the lead roles.   This is a problem that even non-minority fixtures of the industry, like Star Wars director George Lucas, have spoken up about.  Read this article on his struggles to get the all-black cast Red Tails picked up by major Hollywood producers.

So, against this backdrop, a black woman from East Africa wins an Oscar and it’s a huge story because Hollywood doesn’t typically bestow this type of honor on a black actor…let alone one from Africa.

I am very proud of what Lupita has accomplished.

But, there is another East African I am immensely proud of in Hollywood…Barkhad Abdi.

Who?

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Barkhad, another East African, came out of nowhere to star in and get nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Captain Phillips.

The biographies of Barkhad and Lupita could not be more divergent.  Lupita comes from a well-to-do Kenyan family, lived an interesting life around the world, and received a top-notch education at Yale University.  Barkhad was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, fled his country during the turmoil of the ‘90s, and immigrated to the US as a refugee.  It has been reported that despite his movie’s success, Barkhad has been financially struggling and relying on the kindness of friends to get by.

Two lives experienced on opposite tracks.  Yet they are both now tasting the fruits of their thespian labor.

Will we see Lupita or Barkhad as lead roles portraying compelling characters with amazing stories like their own?  Will there come a time in Hollywood when actors of their backgrounds can assume prominent roles in films that do not have any racial or cultural underpinnings?  I hope so.

As an East African, I applaud both of them for their success thus far. As an American, I cheer when doors open and the American dream is realized by anyone with a dream and determination.

I grew up watching movies about real-life black heroes that were told as if their accomplishments were inextricably linked to the generosity of white people.  Think Cry Freedom and the telling of Steve Biko’s life.  Personally, I simply refuse to watch movies like Invictus or The Blind Side.  Even though these types of movies are still getting produced and promoted, I am actually optimistic about change. I think we are inching our way to a Hollywood willing to tell the story of a Lupita or a Barkhad without having to adorn their character with a “White Savior”.

Is the African “Opportunity” for Africans, or for Everyone Else?

Last week, I gave a lecture at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (Atlanta, Georgia) entitled “Miracle or Mirage: Defining the African ‘Opportunity’”.  I spent some time discussing the various economic indicators that speak to the remarkable growth over the past two decades as well as the wonderful opportunities that exist in Africa today.  The main point of the presentation was that, when it comes to Africa, neither the blind optimist nor the doom-and-gloom commentator has correctly defined Africa as we know it today.  Rather, the true meaning of Africa lies somewhere in between these two narratives.

infographic_africa

There is desperation and misery the likes of which most people here in the US have never seen.  But on the other side…optimism and startling affluence abound. The contrast of poverty and wealth, in close proximity, is jarring.  It takes a little getting used to…at first.  But then, it becomes part of the natural landscape.

We observe this dichotomy; it registers in our minds; we pay it homage with our words.  But we are consumed with our daily affairs and it all fades to the background.  I do this.  You do this.  We all do this, day-in and day-out.

Whenever I travel to Africa, the first few days in whatever city I am in are always bitter-sweet.  I enjoy the local fare – nyama choma and ugali in Dar es Salaam or yebeg tibs in Addis Ababa.  The music is everywhere. Youssou N’Dour, Oliver Mtukudzi, Lucky Dube, or Ali Farka Toure sound off from a taxi or hole-in-the-wall joint.  I feel at home. It’s a beautiful thing.  But the fact that it is not all beautiful bothers me.  Sometimes I question the optimism surrounding Africa.  I hear about the African middle class and the continent’s growth spurt, but the reality on the ground draws my attention to the sad irony.

Where is the African middle class?

There is significant confusion regarding its true size, in population numbers.  Nevertheless, consumer spending continues to rise.  Global brands criss-cross the continent to access this consumer market.  But talk to anyone on the ground and they will tell you a variation of this story – one that points at the ever-widening gap in incomes.  They will point to the fact that those who spend discretionary income do so from a perch of vulnerability – desperately trying to buy into (pun intended) the dream of economic prosperity.  Of course, the fact that there are more people who have discretionary income is a sign of progress.  Everything else, one can argue, is the noise that makes the whole matter “messy”.

But are we trading in real progress for messy progress?  Are we settling for mediocrity?

We congratulate ourselves for the messy progress, often times failing to grapple with the long-term impact of the sustained dichotomy that is African society today.

As consumerism grows and the gap between the rich and poor with it, how will the stability profile of African nations change?  Mass unrest, on the scale of what is going on in Turkey, Brazil, Thailand and other emerging markets, middleclass protestif it were to happen in Africa, would significantly shake some political establishments already tenuous and lead to more chaos.

Or, maybe, the better question is: how can African nations leverage consumer spending power (expected to reach $1 trillion by 2020) to the benefit all of their citizens, and not just the consuming few?  How can African nations, as richly endowed as they are, become price makers and not just price takers?

I believe part of the answer to this is in shifting the narrative about Africa’s “opportunity” away from the perspective of the outside investor to a more internal and sustainable discussion about how the growth of the middle class can have a far-reaching influence on poverty reduction, good governance, and geopolitical stability in Africa.

Make no mistake, Africa is heading in the right direction.  With stronger regional ties, cohesive societies demanding government accountability, and beneficial partnerships between the private and public sectors, we will start to witness the African “opportunity” materializing for Africans.

Are Regional Blocs the Future for Africa’s Relevance in the World Market?

The East African Community (EAC) is made up of 5 member nations – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.  South Sudan has submitted an application to join.  The EAC, like other trading blocs around the world such as MERCOSUR (Latin America), ECOWAS (West Africa), and of course, the well-known European Union (EU), tries to leverage the individual strengths and resources of member countries by creating a united front in global competition while also facilitating member-to-member trade.

Lately, the EAC has been making some meaningful progress in terms of implementing its mandate.  Three of its members, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, have taken the lead in the use of national identity cards, student ID cards, and voters cards as official documents of travel among the member states.  In fact, for a summit being held in Uganda this month, both President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, for the first time, called attention to this progress when they used their national identity cards for travel. This is significant because it paves the way for many other features of the EAC community, some of which may be controversial.

According to the EAC’s Common Market Protocol, the member states aim to develop a regional bloc that, in function, is similar to the EU through the “removal of restrictions on the movement of goods, persons, labour, services and capital, and the rights of establishment and residence.” Tourists and other foreign visitors will only pay for one single visa to travel among the EAC member nations; students will easily enroll in universities outside their country through “learning mobility”; and merchants and business services will access a wider customer base through the free flow of goods.

The provision of the EAC protocol that will be very interesting to watch is the free flow of labor.  As it stands, the Protocol specifically delineates “high skilled” professionals (managers and executives) as the labor category being granted access to work freely within the EAC borders.

But how will this impact the members with a smaller pool of “high skilled” professionals?  As I have written about in previous entries, the economic prospects of East Africa are quite promising and the level of foreign direct investment (FDI) will likely speed up.  Will we see EAC states with weaker pools of talent lose out to those slightly more advanced?  Will the influx of professionals from neighboring countries lead to a public backlash or will it translate to meaningful investment in human capital development in the home country?  Perhaps a member’s disadvantage in human capital will be balanced by the access to better education the Protocol affords its citizens.

If the EAC can put aside political motivations, it could become a strong negotiating power to counter the influence of foreign and corporate interests…thereby delivering maximum benefits for the citizens of its member countries.

If It Happens In The US Then It Happens In Africa

On January 9, 2014, a potentially dangerous chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane (MCHM) (MCHM is used in processing coal) spilled out of 17 storage tanks into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (USA), just under 2 miles from the city’s only fresh water intake.

 elkriver

An estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM leaked into the river causing 300,000 residents of the area to go without water for over a month.  President Obama declared this a federal emergency and US National Guard troops delivered bottled water to residents to sustain them through the rest of the clean up.

Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent account of the event along with the background of corporate negligence and lack of regulatory oversight that contributed to yet another environmental disaster.

Although chemical spills happen every day (literally…last year we had 3,885 self-reported spills from 76 different publicly traded companies in the US), when one of this magnitude happens, I can’t help but think about what may be happening outside the public’s view in places less accustomed to 24-7 media and accountability.

I make the connection to the energy sector in Africa.

The oil & gas industry is heavily dependent on chemicals through all stages, using and processing compounds that aid in drilling, cementing, completion, and production.  An article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a federally funded research foundation) notes that “the occupational hazards of exposure to [oil & gas chemicals] has received little attention.”

This is in the US where we have a well-developed environmental protection and public health research framework.  It is no revelation that environmental regulation in resource rich African nations is often unable to match the political clout and professional credibility of the energy industry.  This translates to double standards and unhindered negligent (sometimes criminal) behavior on the part of companies.

Some years ago, I worked as an environmental consultant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I remember talking with a manager of the Environmental Protection Authority who was frustrated by the lack of capacity within his organization.  He told me it was like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind his back.  This is a tough fight no matter whom you face; but particularly when dealing with the well-resourced energy sector.

East Africa is the next big focus for the oil and gas industry.  Significant deposits have been discovered in countries like Tanzania and Uganda.  The concern of the “resource curse” notwithstanding, many people believe that this industry will pay off for the region.  And I agree; I believe it SHOULD pay off!  But, as highlighted, there are characteristics of this industry that can have a negative bearing on the population.

Oil & gas and other resource extraction industries are by no means the only sources of environmental concern. But their contribution to the issue points to a desperate need that countries have to develop their environmental regulation capacities to proactively guide the sustainable development of the extractive industries.

This is the reason I feel very strongly about human capital development on the African continent.  It is the most critical component of Africa’s development process.  Of course, a competitive and well-developed labor pool is central for economic development.  But in the context of sustainability and resource protection, it will help ensure that there is capacity, in organizations like Ethiopia’s EPA, to guard against intended and unintended impacts of an ineffectively regulated private sector.

How Coca-Cola’s Controversial Super Bowl Ad Affected Me

When my family came to the US as refugees back in the late 1980’s, we were one of several families sponsored by a small Episcopalian church in Durham, North Carolina.  In hindsight, it is quite remarkable that that small church with about 50 members was able to support multiple families like ours.  They provided places to live, cars for families to commute to and from work, assistance with enrollment of government programs like food stamps, and many other refugee relocation services, all through the efforts of the members of the church.

After we were settled and my siblings and I were enrolled in our respective schools and we all began to get acclimated to the culture, a family “controversy” erupted.  There were different opinions regarding whether or not we should continue to attend the Episcopal church on Sundays…the same church that sponsored us.  We were brought up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition and the Episcopal tradition was new to us.  Those in the family who were proposing NOT continuing attendance made their argument by pointing to examples of other refugee families who were sponsored like we were but had long ago stopped attending the church.

In reality, there was no real “controversy” as there was one person who made ALL decisions in the household – our father.  Our father made it very clear from the moment the question came up that we would all continue to attend the church.  That was the edict and there was no appeal granted.  I remember his argument vividly because it has helped to shape my own personal principles: The members of the church were incredibly generous and kind in what they did for our family.  How could we not show gratitude for their sacrifice by at least accepting their invitation to fellowship with them?

In my experience, this type of gratitude and appreciation is a common sentiment among the vast majority of refugee families and other immigrants to the US.  For many, America represents an opportunity to restart; a respite from turmoil; a protection from injustice.  What starts out as a sentiment of relief transforms to love, appreciation, and pride at being part of the American story.  And then comes the ultimate goal: an invitation to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and become a United States citizen.  That invitation is not only a privilege, but also an obligation.  An obligation that starts with a simple act but translates to a long-term and meaningful engagement as part of a family.  Much in the same way that our attendance at the Episcopal church led to the development of true friendships and bonds that lasted way beyond our time in Durham, North Carolina.

So when I heard about the controversy surrounding the now infamous Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl, it surprised me.  Coca-Cola ran a one-minute commercial where the patriotic “America The Beautiful” was sung in 7 different languages.  The singing of the song in any language other than English has apparently upset a lot of people who feel it devalues our American culture and takes away from the true definition of what being an American is all about.

In my opinion, the commercial in itself was not too remarkable.  But since a critical mass of people have decided otherwise, I add my commentary into the mix only because this is a topic that directly relates to my story as an African immigrant to the US.

The commercial was a simple display of unity; not an affront to American-ness.  To those who feel that the definition of “America” has been bastardized, I would simply say that the multi-lingual singing of “America The Beautiful” is not symbolic of the disappearance of American culture.  It is a confirmation of its makeup. 

There was nothing sinister or threatening in the message behind the message.  Every year during the Super Bowl, the spirit of American-ness is predictably teased out and Coca-Cola tried to tap into it to sell some Coke.  I imagine the marketing folks at Coca-Cola are quite pleased with the attention their work has received.  Everyone else, on both sides of this surprising debate, feels pretty bad about this.  I know I do.

I don’t know what to call it.  Is it racism?  Is it xenophobia?  Is it a misunderstanding?  Whatever it is, I get the impression that my story as an African immigrant is a source of derision for some and it makes me wonder what our dear friends at the Episcopal church in Durham would think about all this.  Our successful resettlement in the US became their mission and we repaid their devotion by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and, most importantly, taking up our responsibility as American citizens.

As far as I am concerned, that is how we “pay it forward”.  That and turning around and helping the next family that comes in looking for refuge.

And if someone recites America The Beautiful in their mother tongue…in a consumer product commercial!…it is not a sign of disrespect or subversion or the beginning of the end for the “American way”.  It’s just gratitude communicated by people like me for the countless good people of this country who supported us during a difficult transition period.

Keep Calm…