Happy 4th of July! Now, Let’s Talk Leadership

There never was a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous.   –Benjamin Franklin

Happy4thToday is the 4th of July and Independence Day celebrations will soon be taking place throughout the United States and by Americans living across the world. I could give you a lesson in U.S. history or talk about the founding forefathers. Instead, I’d rather discuss what was important to those who guided their people down a road that lead to independence from one of the world’s strongest nations of the time: freedom.

We could begin a debate here about politics and political parties and go back and forth about voting booths and the like. Or, we could discuss the fact that slavery was still legal and women didn’t yet have the right to vote in that era of American history. But, I’d like to go to the root of what most Americans today hold dear: freedom. How laws are made, what forms of government we have and even the role of women in society… well those are all relevant and important topics. But, it is impossible to get to that point without the first essential step to the process: freedom of expression. Be it George Washington or Patrice Lumumba, all truly great historical leaders understood that dialog matters and that we can build nothing great until tyranny is removed and the freedom to speak one’s ideas is respected.

Whether they are born to be kings or queens, come up through the ranks unexpectedly, are generals of large armies, are destined to take over a multi-billion dollar business empire or are president of their local high school junior class; great leaders have always understood that they must always be people of integrity first.

I spend most mornings brushing up on what is going on in that vast continent most of us hold so dear: Africa. The news seems filled with tales of corruption, mismanagement, short-term planning and the like. I’m sure that these stories are (sadly) true. But, I’m interested in hearing about true African leaders. Not those people we call minister or president or MP.

I am talking about real, everyday people like my aunt who died last week, (May God rest and keep her soul). She was a leader, a peacemaker and a quiet revolutionary. She didn’t call attention to herself and none of you will even know her name. But, she led a struggle quietly to see her son freed from prison in Eritrea. He is most probably in one of that nation’s secret prisons as I write this today. She did all that she could and spoke her truth regardless of the risks. She did what it is unsafe to do: exercise her freedom: freedom to think, to speak, to believe. In her old age, she never shied away from using all that she had, her voice; not to incite people to violence or hatred; but to spark dialog. She understood what all great leaders do: that we can build nothing of substance without discourse. It triggers a process that makes us creative, challenges our views and makes us better, stronger families, communities and nations.

She taught us by example and her words were taken to heart by her phenomenal daughter, Freweini. If one day, I was able to be one-tenth the woman she was, I would call my life a success. For, you see, true leadership isn’t about how much money you earn or how many people have to listen to you and follow your orders. It is instead about how many people want to listen and follow your example.


Photo courtesy of etawau,com

Photo courtesy of etawau,com

I am sure that all of you have examples of true leadership in your families. I would like you to share those examples with us here. Because, my aunt is your aunt. If we both create our family trees and trace them back far enough, we will find that our branches inevitably connect at some point. After all, we all started from the same first people. Whether you, like me, call them Adam and Eve; or you have some other creation story that your culture uses instead… we are all related ultimately. And just as my aunt is your aunt and you have ownership of her greatness; well, we too share in the communal heritage that is your family.

So, take a few minutes away from grilling hot dogs or after the fireworks show is over and honor your ancestors here. Tell us a few lines about what examples of excellent leadership they have shown for you, and for all of us.

Why? Because dialog matters! And thankfully, there are still a few places on earth where freedom of expression and opinions is still respected so that we can do just that: talk.




The Chinese-African Connection

A couple of years ago when I was speaking at Africult in Vienna, Austria, I noticed something: people were asking lots of questions about China. Now, I have known about the ever-increasing influence of Chinese foreign policy, investment and immigration to Africa for a number of years now. But, rarely have I been asked so many questions concerning the “China Effect” as one young Austrian man said.

There were the usual college students, bright and full of animation when they spoke, passionate about their views and beliefs. There were older people who had read a lot and wanted to hear more about the topics being discussed from people who had some level of first-hand experience. And there were others as well.

But, what struck me was how many of those people, this diverse group of people, wanted to discuss Africa’s relationship with China.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I read an article discussing another aspect of Chinese influence in Africa. It struck me then: “Why is it that so many people spend time talking about the evils of American and European colonialism; yet ignore the issue of China?”

We think back and are able to clearly see the problems that were caused by colonization and imperialistic policies in Africa. The loss of our languages, the loss of our natural resources, and subjugation of our people; the list seems endless really…

I’ve often wondered then, why it is that no one is screaming now as Chinese farmers move into cultivate our land when we were so enraged at independence at the idea of white farmers staying on to work on farms we deemed should go to Black African farmers. After all, it was normal to so many that Whites were kicked off of farms in Zimbabwe so that Blacks could take over the properties. At least, that was the talk at the time: Black empowerment, the end of colonialism.

What is the difference between white Englishmen and Asians from China or Korea or India? How is it better if students in Ethiopia are saying the Chinese, Turkish or Indian national anthems instead of that of Ethiopia? How is it different that our African children learn history from the perspective of Asian historians instead of from African historians?

Why is it that when the books are European or American, when the investors are French or German, somehow it is inherently evil; but we don’t panic at the idea that China sees itself in competition with the US in its desire to capture the dreams of our children. While we are complaining about the imperial influence of American companies, ideologies, music and the desire of so many of our children to go live the “American dream”… China is flooding our markets with contaminated plastic products which put our own people out of work (and wreak havoc on the environment). They are buying our natural resources and forming our children’s minds in their schools.

All of this is being done and packaged in the wrapping of “international investment”. Our leaders applaud this investment and call it progress for Africa. Yet, they treat us like children in doing so. After all, we are an intelligent people. We are certainly capable of knowing that there is little difference between European “investors” taking all of our oil in places like Nigeria with very little “trickle down” benefit for the average poor Nigerian woman and her children… and the Chinese supporting large-scale genocide of Christians and blacks in Sudan through their “investment” in oil in Sudan.

We should not accept investment at any cost. We need to maintain our cultures, teach our children their own history and yes, even develop our own concepts of nationalism as opposed to creating imperial fidelity to nations like China, India or Turkey.  Instead of behaving like desperate children, we should stand toe to toe with foreign investors to ensure that the strings attached are not going to strangle our children’s futures.  Let us stand tall again and set the terms of investment.  After all, we are easily one of the richest continents in both natural resources and human potential.  Let us not forget the fact that we were once empire builders ourselves.  We must not continue to allow our corrupt leadership sell us out of house and home in order to ensure their own financial or political gains.  Instead, we must remind them that we are the keepers of our ancestral lands and we intend on guaranteeing that they are used to the benefit of our people, not given away to those who are happy to see us bow in gratitude and learn their cultural values over our own.

Imperialism is imperialism, no matter the source.