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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

black male

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.

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.


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.

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.


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…

A Surprising Link Between U.S. Military Drone Attacks and Africa’s Unemployed Youth

According to a Stanford-NYU joint report entitled Living Under Drones, the United States military has been using unmanned and remotely controlled aerial vehicles (drones) for targeted killings since 2004.

droneThese drones are a component of the US military’s fight against extremism and terrorism around the world, particularly in terrorist “hot spots” like northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.  Despite objections to their use due to numerous killings of innocent civilians, there is no indication that the US will abandon drones as a strategic weapon against violent radicals around the world…at least not anytime soon.

In January 2012, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) held a conference in Kigali, Rwanda called Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa.  The conference brought together representatives from 11 East African countries as well as the US and the UK to discuss strategies to mitigate the impact of violent extremist organizations in the region.  The region is facing what some politicians have called “a ticking time bomb” in that as high as 60% of the population is under the age of 25 and as much as 75% of these young are unemployed.  That is a significant and troubling statistic to contend with.  Troubling for East Africa’s growth prospects, for sure.  But what about spill over?  27_1_youth_opp_3Many other African nations contend with high youth unemployment, lack of opportunities, and large numbers of educated young people who find their toil in the secondary and tertiary educational systems unrewarded.  According to McKinsey Global Institute, by 2040, Africa will be home to the largest working age population in the world – over 1.1 billion!

Being of “working age” and, yet…not working.  And then we have a continually widening income gap.  The African Development Bank’s Briefing Note on Income Inequality (2012) and a Business Insider article both indicate that the top 6 most unequal countries in the world are in Africa.380_76799682income-inequality

It’s easy to see how there is concern within governments and among external observers that these indicators could lead to widespread discontent among disaffected young Africans who may become targets for terrorist and extremist ideologies proclaimed by organizations known to be hostile to the United States.

And if history is an indication, the brand of terrorism that invites the full might and power of the US military is one with overt anti-American ideologies.  What we might see in the coming decades is a slight shift in counter-terrorism efforts, such as drone strikes, from the well-known hotspots (mentioned earlier) to the African continent.  This has already started to happen in Somalia against groups like Al-Shabab.  Unfortunately, this may translate to terrible collateral damage and an all too familiar cycle:


To be clear, I am not trying to be an alarmist…just laying out logical potential situations based on current events and trends.

But the reality is that the future for Africa does not have to be this morbid.  The large and expanding population of youth should be looked at as an opportunity for a transformation, not an invitation for military conflict.  In fact, this demographic trend could usher in the type of advancement we have seen in Asian countries.


The demographic dividend.  In a later post, I will talk about how African countries are urgently trying to realize the continent’s potential demographic dividend to ensure a better tomorrow.

Pay attention to the bottom line: Developing and providing opportunities for Africa’s human capital, particularly the youth population, is a high stakes affair.  It is on the top of the priority lists of just about every government and external stakeholder…the US included…

My own passion is to contribute in the effort to develop Africa’s “Youth Capital”.

I hope to work with many others of like mind.

How Western Intellectuals Become “Better” Experts On Africa…Than Africans

In a knowledge-based economy like that of the US, the term “thought leader” or “thought leadership” is a pretty big deal.  If one is referred to as a thought leader, then that’s money in the bank, clients in the roster, likes on the Facebook page, and, yes, followers on the blog.  A thought leader is the go-to guy or gal for all things the person thinks and writes about.  A thought leader is an authority on a subject…an expert with answers.  Having spent time diving deep into a topic, this person knows a whole lot about something.  He’s coming up with new ideas in his sleep.


That’s not to say that a thought leader’s ideas and pontifications are greater and more valid than anyone else’s in a similar field.  For the most part, it just means that a thought leader has figured out a way to communicate a topic in a forum and in a way that catches the eye of the masses.  In other words, she has managed to disseminate her ideas, make them go viral, and get rewarded handsomely.  Suffice it to say, thought leadership pays and everyone here seems to be seeking that title!

What about in the developing world?  What about in Africa?  Who are the experts and authorities on African development, African business, African economies, African history, African politics, African conflicts?  Would you expect that among a group of well-known experts and “thought leaders” on Africa, the majority would actually be African?

Here’s my challenge to you: google “experts on Africa” and browse through the first 3 or 4 results; and if you find that the noted “experts” identified on the various pages of organizations are predominantly African thought leaders, leave me a comment at the bottom of this page with the following words: “You missed the mark, Yosef”.

I am an American citizen and love the US, but being originally from Ethiopia, I reserve the right to put on my African hat from time to time.  So let me say this: we Africans, among the many hurdles to overcome, have to address the blatant exclusion and/or absence from leadership in thought regarding matters affecting our Africa.  It is truly a peculiar thing.

Why is it that the well-known scholarly works about African history are written by non-Africans?  Or that the media commentary about African issues tends to be done by non-Africans?  Or that the leadership of Africa-focused NGOs are primarily made up of charismatic, globetrotting non-African millennials?

This goes back to the concept of thought leadership and how one achieves this pinnacle.   As a Westerner, becoming a thought leader on Africa does involve the requisite media savvy-ness but upstream of the self-promotion (term NOT being used in a disparaging way) phase, you are likely to find an individual who has benefited from several key affiliations with African leaders and indigenous experts who in turn have opened up the treasure trove of information necessary for the Western expert to build her reputation as an African expert.  Through years of “collaboration” and publishing, with the Western expert’s name the most visibly displayed, the goal of thought leadership is achieved and the adventurous Westerner who has braved harsh conditions and faced down multiple threats to life and limb “in search of the truth”, is now the go-to expert.  The Africans who were instrumental in this achievement?  Well, their names will be in the “Acknowledgment” section of his best-selling book…maybe even the Introduction.

I realize there is a heavy dose of cynicism in what I am writing…and part of it is to poke fun at the absurdity of the matter.  David Brooks of the New York Times does it better in an Op-ed piece about “thought leadership” were he lays out the development stages of a thought leader.

My characterization of the opportunistic Western Afro-phile will likely anger those who consider themselves true friends of Africa.  And I know plenty of people (some of my best friends are Afrophiles) who are genuine and who do adhere to equitable recognition for effort and contribution when conducting their work in Africa.  But the reality remains that Africans are not telling their own stories; it is being told through the lens of the West.  Regardless of the reasons for this, we have to reverse this trend.

In the two decades since my time at Stanford, I have seen a positive shift with more and more Africans becoming part of the thought leadership paradigm on Africa…across a wide range of topics and fields.  Like other concerns, this is one that will take time to address.

In the meantime, pay attention to the commentary about Africa, understand the source, insist on accuracy, and, by all means, be part of the conversation!  If you are African, chances are you are qualified to speak about Africa.

I would very much like to know your thoughts on this matter.

Is there an absence of African thought leadership on matters affecting Africa?

Do Western experts and Afro-philes have an unfair advantage over Africans in terms of building their reputation as authorities on African issues?

Do you feel the characterization about thought leadership on Africa is inaccurate?

If You’re Not Worried…You’re Not Paying Attention

In the next 10 years, 12 African countries will become major oil producers/exporters.  I wish I could be excited about the prospect of more African countries becoming oil producers.  But I can’t.  And the reason for that is simple: historically speaking, resources on or under African soil have meant distress to the local population and money in the West. Definitely not intuitive but history doesn’t lie. Image

Of course, the dynamics, when examined, tell a very sordid story of nepotism, corruption, backroom deals, and downright treachery…a collaborative making that involves not just Western corporate and government interests but local politicians and leaders of might.  Is this always the case?  Maybe not “always”, but this type of scenario has played out over and over again to the point that we now have a coined term, “resource curse”, when talking about the impact that abundant natural resources have on African economies.

An example that came to light recently involves the tiny West African country of Equatorial Guinea: population 700,000.  (You remember EG…the country made famous during the 2000 Summer Olympics by Eric the Eel – the ridiculously slow swimmer).  EG has Africa’s highest per capita GDP because it is one of the continent’s largest oil producers.  All that oil…all that revenue…yet still one of the lowest ranking nations on the UN’s Human Development Index.  About 75% of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  Where in the world is the money going?

In 2011, it became clear where all that money was going.  Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of EG’s “dictator for life” Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo became the target of a Department of Justice (USA) investigation as his $30M Malibu, California estate, along with a Maserati and 8 Ferraris, and other assets totaling in excess of $70M were targeted for forfeiture.  The excerpts of the official case filed by the DOJ can be found on this site

So, here we have yet another African poster child for the “resource curse” while we find it hard to pinpoint the corrupt neo-imperialists who actively participate.  Sure, we will hear that Exxon Mobil paid bribes to foreign officials, but that’s where it ends.  The public is left with the perception that this is a problem created solely by African greed.  But this is a topic for another time. 

I am worried…I worry for a country like Tanzania.  Stable and peaceful for so many decades post-independence; blessed with tourism assets second only to Brazil; and on the brink of an oil and gas era (as one of the 12 nations) that could further entrench under-development, corruption, and  mis-management.  But it doesn’t have to follow the “resource curse” model. 

A few weeks, it was reported that all Norwegians had become crown millionaires thanks to the country’s highly lucrative sovereign wealth fund buoyed by high oil prices.  Norway is one of the largest oil producers in the world.  In short, Norway has leveraged its resource abundance into a highly developed oil and gas industry and a quality of life benefit for its citizens.  You can’t juxtapose two models that are more starkly opposed than the Norwegian value-adding resource abundance and the African “resource curse.” 

We can philosophize as to why this variance exists and the reasons would be many.  But one critical difference, I believe, is the institutional voids and expertise deficiency that exists in many African, resource-rich nations…a scenario that creates an economic playground for the government and corporate interests of the rich nations and the traitorous government officials. 

So, pay attention to what happens to the newfound wealth under the ground.  Will it actually mean value for the citizens?

If you are inclined, check out an interesting essay that appeared in the September/October 2013 Foreign Affairs Journal by Larry Diamond and Jack Mosbacher – How to Escape the Resource Curse.  In it, the authors propose an “oil-to-cash” plan for the resource blessed African nations – “a direct distribution of a portion of oil revenues to citizens as taxable income.”  This approach is worth a read. 


Again, pay attention!