Out of Africa: An open letter to all in Africa

‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills’…

africaRecently I had the opportunity to visit the home of Karen Blixen, the author of, ‘Out of Africa’ – an autobiographical book penned in 1937 that was to become a Hollywood blockbuster and Oscar Best Picture winner (1985) staring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The thing that struck me as I heard the story afresh and with the benefit of onsite context was how ‘unremarkable’ her unfolding story might have seemed at the time. Blixen’s life was marked by hardship, privilege, prejudice, love, sorrow, illness and a sense of purpose – all of which she was able to capture through her remarkable ability with both pen and paintbrush preserving it for later scrutiny and engagement.

The passage of time and the benefit of hindsight was what elevated ‘her story’ to one that captured the imagination and hearts of people far removed from Blixen’s reality. I am sure that for every story like hers, there would be countless others that haven’t transcended into the public consciousness due to a mixture of circumstances and coincidences that failed to conspire in such a way as they might have in Blixen’s situation. She lived and captured her story with little, if any idea, of it’s subsequent appeal and impact.

It reminds me a little of the current ‘African reality’ and I wonder if time will look back on this period in the continent’s history and wonder just how ‘we’ could have missed what was about to unfold? Africa is full of promise and opportunity. It has the potential to become the centrepiece of the global economy and the main player seated at the table. Of course ‘potential’ and ‘reality’ don’t always meet and perform in harmony. There exists a ‘gap’ between potential and the realization of that same potential. That gap is what we in Africa currently have to both recognise and contend with if this magnificent continent is to fulfil the promise that many believe it possesses.

It is all too easy to frame our current understanding of Africa with restrictive ‘single stories’. Single stories of despot dictators who think of nothing else but themselves; of horrify and unimaginable genocide and brutal tribal conflict that leave us questioning the very nature of what it means to be ‘human’; of grinding poverty and disease that decimate and disempower, the likes of which leave us feeling helpless and detached; of infrastructure so poor it makes even the most straightforward of tasks a challenge requiring patience and persistence; and of corruption that has become accepted as normal and is met with a shrug of the shoulders whilst simultaneously reaching for the wallet. These are stories we have all heard and can tell. They are often the only stories we tell and in the countless retelling, the ‘single story’ is perpetuated and becomes the ‘truth’ of what Africa is and is not.

However, there is another emerging reality that were we to find the stories to depict this new possibility, we could turn despair into hope and acceptance into the kind of energy that will make a real difference.

You see, shaped and framed another way we can look at Africa and see a different ‘single story’ – a single story that could easily become ‘multiple stories’, ones that reshape and re-orientate our perspective, attitudes and actions. There is a story of Africa that tells of remarkable economic, political and social progress. A story that challenges commonly held beliefs about the ‘Dark Continent’ and a story that needs to be both lived and shared – as was the case with Blixen. It starts with a willingness to re-examine our own perceptions and to challenge our own perspective on how we ‘see Africa’. It starts with a willingness to engage, connect and experience some of the current reality and yet be open to the paradox that is Africa and her people. It is a choice to see the positive, the good, the inspiring and in so doing not turn a blind eye to that which needs to be challenged, changed and confronted. It starts with a belief that Africa can be more than its beautiful landscapes and magnificent wildlife; that its best asset is its people – people who are resilient, friendly, welcoming and inclusive.

Africa as it could be, will be shaped by how we see and understand Africa today. It will take courage, a willingness to learn, humility and determination if we are to build an Africa for the future. But it can be done; it is possible and it is within our grasp. It will mean repeatedly getting up when knocked down and it will require a savvy approach that leverages the best of what we have whilst minimizing the worst of what seeks to pulls us down. It will take leadership in all sectors of society: political leaders who understand their role and create the right environment; corporate leaders who lead for the benefit of all and social and community leaders who are often the translation, the bridge between the ‘policy’ and the ‘play’ – the ones who get dust on their feet as they help turn dreams into reality.

I was intending to provide statistics and ‘evidence’ of an Africa that could be; an Africa within our grasp. But somehow, having got this far, I feel that the addition of such ‘evidence’ wouldn’t be appropriate.

Africa is all of our responsibility and as a South African, I am concerned that South African business leaders are failing to both understand and realize this Africa that both invites and beckons. It might prove to be a failure – a neglect, one that comes back to haunt South Africa and is spoken about by our children and children’s children as a ‘missed opportunity’. ‘How could they not have seen it?’ future generations will wonder as the story of ‘out of Africa’ is told with a sense of awe and emotion.  South Africa is in danger of becoming dislocated from the growth and opportunity that is Africa; often seen as arrogant and patronising, South Africa and those who represent us on the continent need to be less condescending and more open to learning from those with whom we share this Continent. It will require a sobering about-turn but one that if not made, will rob both South Africa and Africa of the opportunity to rewrite ‘out of Africa’.

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