I must be the only blogger this side of the Atlantic who has managed to blog actively for the past year without a single mention of Obama. That’s because there’s so much to cover – so many fun, interesting, and funny things, relevant things happening in Ghana, that writing about them leave no room for even Obama. But today that Obama is in Ghana, he’s in our territory. The conversation is no longer merely about Obama – for whom I have great admiration but about whom I find little reason to speak on a blog about Ghana – but about his relationship with Ghana. And when the conversation includes Ghana, you’d better believe I’m participating. Today, I’d like to focus on what Obama says is his hope for Africa, a hope I find particularly relevant for Ghana.
In an interview with AllAfrica.com, Obama was asked: what, when you finish your presidency, do you expect your stamp on Africa policy to be? What do you think that will be?
Obama’s response was: I would like, at the end of my term in office, to be able to say that the United States was an effective partner with countries throughout Africa in building the kinds of institutions, political, civil, economic, that allowed for improving standards of living and greater security for the people of Africa; that we moved them on a trajectory in which they are integrating with the global economy; and that a young person growing up in Johannesburg or Lagos or Nairobi or Djibouti can say to themselves: I can stay here in Africa, I can stay in my country and succeed, and through my success, my country and my people will get stronger. That would be a good legacy. I don't expect that we're going to get there in four years or eight years, but I think we can get on that path. And the United States is a critical partner in that process.
A lot of what he said centre around the methods for achieving the end, but he hopes for 3 things for the people of Africa:
1. Improved standards of living and security
2. Integration with global economy
3. That a young person growing up in Accra can say: I can stay here and succeed, and through my success, my country and my people will get stronger.
Now every educated Ghanaian has heard the first two many times before. It is something that we’ve been talking about since before Obama. Sure, they’re good things to have, and I do not wish to diminish their importance and the role that may play in achieving the third hope but I deem the third hope to be the most powerful; the most measurable; and the most important.
Reading this from Obama inspired me personally because I moved back from the US last year with that conviction. A conviction I still hold.
In an email that I sent one of my friends who is still in the US on 7th July and before I had read Obama’s words, I said and I quote
“Omari (name disguised) tells me not to waste my life for Ghana when I have other options. But I don't see it that way. I think you can make money here. It doesn't come like the [wall street] investment banking money but that model is ridiculous and is not a model I’d want to import here anyway. But more important than money, u can make a difference here. You can build a whole industry where none currently exists. I believe that. It's not going to take 5 years. Maybe I’ll wake up in 20 yrs, look back and see how wealthy all my friends [who remained abroad] are and realize I was wrong. But how will I know that unless I try. I know myself. I think I can do this, so I want to try. In 20 yrs when I tell my kids that it can't be done in Ghana, I want it to be because I know it to be so not just because that's what people say. People who have not tried it. Because all we know is people like Patrick Awuah, we think that's the only way to do it. I challenge that. I think u can create wealth in Ghana with Ghana money:)
We don't need abroad money.
So maybe Obama can read this with a smile because there are already young people in Africa who think they can stay here and succeed and that their success will strengthen their people. Case in point myself! And at least I can count 2 more...great friends of mine: Nyoko Muvangua who was in South Africa the last time we spoke and who when I told her about moving to Ghana, told me to go home and lift up my people. At the time we spoke about how no matter how relevant work I did in the US was to Africa, we needed more people on the ground to execute...and that without execution, all money, all policies, all institutions are worthless. And finally, Kimmie Weeks of Liberia, who challenged me more than 5 years ago to do things that, affect my people. So there are believers out here in Africa.
But we’re definitely sorely outnumbered by the unbelievers.
So if I ever get the chance to speak with Mr. Obama, I’d spend my 15 minutes of his time discussing how a whole generation who believe they can succeed in Africa can be raised. For now, I have my own ideas. Based on my own life and experience, I’ll say that the most important thing is a change in attitude, but how that happens is different for many people. Young Africans have bought into the dominant perception that you need education, or money, or experience, or know-how from the West (or anywhere abroad) to succeed. Thankfully, this perception is not truth. It is an erroneous notion, and as such, it can be changed. They’ll need to examples of people who have done it to show them that it’s possible. Unfortunately a lot of the smartest, and hardworking people like Amma who could be proving this to them are abroad. So people think that it is the fact that these people are abroad that have made them successful when the truth is that, regardless of where you go you take with you what you are.
Personally, I was heavily influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His writings and writings of other great thinkers and a lot of self-discovery and introspection, led me to my present beliefs.
Here is what Emerson wrote about the American people at a time when they were idolizing Europe in the same way that young Africans now think of the West:
“It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet. I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things”
And I truly believe that the people who will make Ghana and Africa venerable in the imagination are those who will remain at home to build our countries into ones worth talking about.
So Mr. Obama, I think your most powerful hope for Ghana and all of Africa is one that can be achieved with leaders who inspire. But as I’m sure you know, before you can convince others, it would be good if you’ve walked the walk. Just as America believed in you because you had walked the walk as a consensus builder in America while you served as editor of the Harvard law review, and because you did not go chasing after money but chose a less paying job as a community organiser in America, this job of inspiring young Ghanaians is best done by African people who have shown by example that they don’t just talk the talk.
While in the past, we have accepted leaders who have lived all their lives solving problems in other countries, and have become great leaders of those systems but are ultimately less effective at solving African problems, we can no longer accept these kinds of leaders. Afterall, a Ghanaian who thinks one has to leave the country to be successful really has no inspiring message for the millions who will never get the chance to leave. So it is time to look inward. It is time to trust in ourselves. To believe in Ghana and its possibilities. Which is why, as inspirational as you are to many, this is a job we have to do ourselves. We’re emboldened by the knowledge that you support our efforts. And now will the true believers in Ghana please stand up?!