Sunday, February 25, 2007

young, educated, energetic, and frustratingly under-utilized

There are two images of Africans: we are either filthy rich elites who have gotten fat off corruption and assorted other evils, or we are starving masses of children covered in flies.

Nobody is seeing the young, well educated, ambitious, dedicated Africans who are coming up across the continent; Me, Betty, Wangui, Mueni and Laila…. A few who happen to be on the Akili Dada board.

I’m watching a televised report of a conversation held at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Don’t ask. Voice of America carries C-Span. Who knew C-Span was so globally ubiquitous that I can watch it sitting in my Nairobi apartment at almost midnight…..

Anyway, there are a bunch of folk from around the world (including Bill Gates, Bono, Mbeki, and my personal hero, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia) sitting around a table discussing the challenges facing Africa.
I can’t help but wonder, in all these conversations, so earnest and keen on improving Africa’s lot, are these people aware of people like my friends and I? Why are they not tapping into us and the limitless energy that we have?

I mean, here I am, I’ve got a really good education, incredible energy to burn, and am willing and ready to work to change the continent. Yet even as hard as I am trying, I cannot find anybody to pay me what I’m worth to work in Kenya. Mind you, not that they are not willing to pay obscene amounts of money to Americans and Brits to do the same kind of work! (I’m working hard not to digress into so many topics including how little sense it makes to hire foreigners to do work that I can do just as well, if not better because of my knowledge of the Kenyan social and cultural context. And how if I applied for a job from Kenya I’d get paid a fraction of what a foreigner would get paid for the same job. Seriously, lets talk about brain drain and how I’m not going to come back home and tolerate getting paid a tenth of what my less educated and lower ranked foreign colleague is getting paid simply because of my nationality!)

There is a huge and horrible double standard out there among external organizations working to solve African problems that African’s are unable to do development work. There is such blindness to the amazing numbers of young people like myself who are actually locked out of opportunities to work towards the continent’s betterment. And I do feel locked out. Excluded from something that I very much want to be part of.

I mean, honestly, I’m busting my hump with very few resources to accomplish the work of Akili Dada yet with the proper kind of investments, a project like Akili Dada could reach so many young women in Kenya and across the region! But the sad reality is that even the moderate amount of success we have had, is directly attributable to the fact that I live in the U.S. and I’m able to meet people and make connections there. If I lived in Kenya, Akili Dada would not exist. And how incredibly sad is that!!!

To me its incredibly frustrating to watch a group of world movers and shakers sit around a table and rue Africa’s lot while I, a young, highly educated young African woman sit at home bubbling with ideas and energy while my resources go untapped. That, I think, is truly Africa’s greatest tragedy.

There is a generation of us dying for space at the policy-making table, ready and willing to do what it takes to turn the continent around, but we have no idea how to get heard. And those at the table are too busy talking to see or even listen to us. Its frustrating. If only they knew the young people I know. If only they were friends with my friends…..I’d like to think that their conversations would sound different.


Isaac said...

Dear Wanjiru,

Your frustrations are vividly expressed, and it pains me to watch as you struggle with these issues. All that I can think to say is: keep at it – change takes time and effort on the part of people such as the folks involved with Akili Dada. Don’t let your energy be drained and exhausted before you break the barrier that anonymous from influential. I imagine that Wangari Mathai (I mean, Maathai!) worked for years before she truly began to see the fruit of her labor (excuse the pun). The key is going to be maintaining your energy and passion through years of what may appear to be slow progress. But this is the only way, I’m afraid. Don’t give up!

Your words are especially important for me to hear, as I consider and ponder the world of intellectually property as it relates to developing countries. You are absolutely right – solutions are best when they come from within, and philanthropists or would-be philanthropists must be careful not to take a “rescuing-the-helpless” mentality as they set up programs in developing countries.

For example, my goal may be summed up by the following: I want to make global intellectual property laws and policies more equitable and fair, such that they truly help developing countries to develop. What can I learn from your writings?

It would be arrogant for me to assume that I understand the needs of developing countries. In fact, it would be virtually impossible for any single individual to understand all such needs, as they undoubtedly are different for each country (and perhaps even different among groups within countries). How can I understand what IP policies would be best for the scientist in a Kenyan company, or for the primary school teacher in a town in western Kenya? I cannot, at least not without going and talking to them – seeing how they live, what they need to do their job, and how current policies prevent them from achieving their goals. I do not think that the average school teacher (or even the average scientist) would be able to determine IP laws that would most benefit their lives and would remain fair to all involved (to the extent that such goals are possible), but they are certainly best positioned to explain their needs and how current systems limit their abilities. So any successful program (regardless of who runs it) must be constantly and consistently connected with the people and organizations that it intends to help. Now do this on a global scale – a daunting proposition…

Bill Gates and the other individuals that you mention have not heard of you (yet) because you have not made enough noise in their direction. Could they do amazing things simply by tapping into the talent that you and your friends possess? Absolutely! But how do they find such talent? Should it be up to Mr. Gates to go find you, or should it be up for you to find Mr. Gates? Perhaps a little of both, I would say. Here is another thing I can learn from your words. There is talent out there to be found – but it takes a little bit of work. What kind of work? That actually kind of challenging, I think – if Mr. Gates were to announce that he’s looking for a talented young woman to run one of his charitable organizations in Kenya, he’d be deluged with offers and would have to choose as best he could. Another daunting task, and risky, too! How many of those offers would be people who really don’t have the drive that is required to see a project through? Maybe 10%, maybe 90% - the point is that he’s taking a risk by asking.

Which brings me to my conclusion (for you, at least). If you want to get noticed, then you have to produce results that are worthy of being noticed. If you want Bill Gates or Oprah to take notice of you and help you help your countrywomen, make Akili Dada as successful as possible so that they see any investment or partnership as less risky. But of course, you know all this…

My conclusion for ME? Whatever direction I choose cannot be based on a perceived need. At the risk of taking too long to start my journey, I need to understand better the actual need. On the other hand, perhaps such understanding would be best achieved by starting the journey, and seeing where it takes me? Hmmmm……


Crazyfinger said...

Wanjiru - Isaac already said a bulk of what I was thinking when I read your post. Nevertheless, I would like to respond with a bit of a twist to your line of thinking-out-loud before it turns into your general thinking itself.

Beneath the frustrations that your post expressed, I read something that's a weebit disconcerting. Since when did all of this turn into all of that about you? Imagine me looking at you with a warm and well-meaning and earnest smile as I ask this question, otherwise this text-only medium of blog-commenting can make my remarks come across as incendiary.

"And those at the table are too busy talking to see or even listen to us"

It is too early for Akili Dada to get so hysterical and so self-conscious. If it helps bring any perspective, this "group of world movers and shakers" who "sit around a table and rue Africa’s lot," they too had once started on their journey, years and years ago, with a penny in their pocket and a world of imagination in their hearts and minds. They too may have been beset with the frustrations such as yours. But don't you believe that what made them who they are, is exactly what you have set out to do yourself, right?

Scale problems, such as those that Akili Dada is wrestling with, do require billionaires and people whose direct actions move industrial-strength supply chains. You know that.

If I were you, I'd instead ask myself: "What can I do with Akili Dada that perks up the imagination of these world-movers and shakers and they come seeking me, curious why Akili Dada is working when their efforts failed, eager to learn if they can take Akili Dada model and scale it up, and ready to even steal some of Akili Dada's thunder?" That would be something, isn't it?