“We are not going to adjust anymore. We are going to reconnect with the essence of who we are as Africans” – Mrs Graça Machel, August 2017
It is easy to come up with a description about the Africa that Africans want, from those living on the continent to the Africans of the diaspora. There also exists a group of Africans who simply fail to engage with that conversation. For them, it is already too late for Africans to build the Africa that they envision; far too much has transpired, far too many unjust systems continue to serve as undercurrents that undermine any tangible systematic change required for what they may perceive as a prosperous Africa. I was supposed to attend the Women Advancing Africa (WAA) Conference, a first of its kind hosted by the Graca Machel Trust in Dar Es Salaam early August. I was meant to speak on the ‘Africa We Want’ panel with a group of highly intelligent, passionate and accomplished women. Although I could not make it due to unforeseeable circumstances, I had prepared for the panel discussion. I spent a good couple of days dreaming. I allowed myself to run wild with my dreams. What type of Africa would I want to live in, what type of Africa would I want my children to live in. I even typed on the search engine “the Africa we want”, and quickly realised that it could be as basic as “ I want the rest of the world to stop underestimating Africans, to stop undervaluing our humanity.” From the onset, this would be my diaspora response. Followed by, I want early marriage to end, maternal survival to soar and the potential of our youth to be tapped into, nurtured, provided an educational infrastructure that enables their dreams to translate into impact-having reality. That was my initial concrete and yet often over-used response to the question.
I remember a few weeks back, I went to my cousin’s graduation party in London. As I passed a group of men, I overheard them talking about the problems with Sierra Leone (the place we were all from), and what was needed to ‘fix’ the issue. These men were impassioned by rage that emboldened their sure-to-fix the problem solutions. The younger women, gathered in a corner with English-accents giggling about random musings; the older women, our aunties, talked about their children and how good the food was. That already to me was a problem. I gravitated towards the group of men, lurking outside of their formed rectangular, as they continued to debate, borderline fight about leadership, political parties and the backward mentality of our people. They, safely in the cervix of an English town, conjured images of an Africa they’d want to see. I just wished that more of these conversations in informal settings weren’t so gender or generationally divided. We all needed to be thinking and drawing together even if we did not agree.
When I returned to Sierra Leone in 2011, I hadn’t lived there in twenty-years and my mother, the only Sierra Leonean I knew in the country at the time, was my guide. For a year, I saw the country through her eyes – the fascination, the comfort, the pain at being duped, the frustration when she quickly realised how patriarchal every formal system that didn’t work was and yet the immense peace she exuded at being home after 21 years of living abroad. We often visited Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city and the town where my mother and I were born. One afternoon after witnessing my mother settle a bitter neighbour dispute, I turned to her and asked “why do people hate each other so much. People are intentionally mean and angry,” My mother’s reply was simple “ how can they not. They turned each other into rebels during the war. Neighbours that once collectively looked after each other ended up betraying each other in the worse possible kind of way. This is not the street I grew up in”. Tears streaming down her face. For the record, my mother is not a big crier. There are only two ways to elicit tears from her, at the loss of a dear one or as the last guilt tactic to get her children to do something. These tears were a different kind; they were tears of nostalgia. For my mother’s generation, born in the sixties to post-colonial Africa, the Africa they want is an Africa gone. An Africa of their childhood that is imagined, yet eternally the really good Africa to them.
Today, there are organisations like the AWDF, who this year launched their Futures Africa – Trends for Women by 2030. A vision board for an Africa from a feminist and rights based perspective. It is bold and demands that we place women and girls in the centre, the outliers in development space. Futures Africa envisions an Africa that can only bloom when it prioritises the wellbeing of its women. It explicitly asks us to do better by our women and girls. The African Union on the other hand outlines a progressive vision, Agenda 2063, which if not strategically and relentlessly placed at the heart of their work and global negotiations, will be subsumed by the SDGs vision for Africa and the rest of the world. Africa desperately needs to articulate her needs.
The competing nature of the ‘The Africa We Want’ is as liberating as it is overwhelming. It’s not just Africa envisioning and doing the work to create its reality; there is also the rest of the world. More often than not, the rest of the world more forcefully negotiates with Africans about the type of Africa they can have, which is the one that is development index-driven and at the mercy of global trade and aid. Then there are the Africans who work through policy, discourse and community mobilisation to resuscitate and snatch back Africa’s multitude of identities from its colonial past so that we remember from where we come. A fresh young generation re-imagines an Africa through innovation, music, technology and contemporary art. Where in the fight for recognition of identity, place, space and time oscillates between those living on the continent and the Diaspora.
Truth is, there is space for it all. There is space for Africa’s many wants to manifest, as long as everyone actively plays a part to enrich every corner of the continent. However, where does the heartbeat of these movements lie? Who convenes us all, directing our energy for positive impact, soaking up all of these good intensions. Who reminds us that it is not enough to talk about the Africa that we want, but to work towards very much creating an Africa enabled to provide for the needs of her people. Where is the heartbeat that reminds us of her needs for the millions of Africans whose voices don’t hum as loudly, or do not have the instruments to contribute. Who reminds us of her needs, consistently sign-posting how and where we can contribute to shaping her wants. Who gets to convene us regularly to work out the kinks of envisioning an Africa that has her needs met so that fulfilling her wants is the baton the next generation can carry forward. That to me is the question I am interested in. The Women Advancing Africa Conference might be that space to convene African women to move beyond just talking about Africa’s needs and future but also compose strategies towards the realisation of the Africa Africans want.