Africa UnPlugged for the Future – President Obama in Ghana
There is not only one Africa. There are at least two – one where Africans are confident, and young professionals speak boldly about their ability to contribute to economic growth and then – another Africa where desperate, forgotten people are surviving in the worse possible conditions and human rights violations are part of the ‘givens’ in their lives.
Today, Saturday 11 July 2009, President Barack Obama makes his first official visit to the continent of Africa and selected Ghana to make a stop amongst avid supporters – acknowledging the ties between the USA and this beautiful country that shows the two faces of Africa so clearly. But it is more than a visit to Ghana, his talk will undoubtedly set the tone for the relationship between continents across the Atlantic ocean – North-America and Africa.
The campaign of Obama (with respect) was followed closely by most Africans and many entrepreneurs have made the most of the people’s obvious adoration for the President – before and after election. Products are still sold in African shops and songs are recorded to carry the message of hope beyond the moment. “The Hooray President’ features on fabric and bags and – more importantly – in peoples conversations when they talk with new-found respect about America.
For our organisation, Uthango and our ‘Virtual Africa inSL’ project, today is a red-letter day at many levels, but mostly and significantly! because the White House administration has chosen THIS moment in Africa to add virtual worlds’ to its list of social networking avenues. It effectively recognises the value of virtual worlds as powerful medium to reach and mobilise people. In an indirect way it gives our team new inspiration that virtual worlds have a meaningful role to play in the future and we have not ‘wasted more than two years’ even though we have not yet been able to secure financial support for our bigger metaAfrica (TM) vision. CBS writes,
Since entering the White House in January, the Obama administration has made use of a myriad of social networking and Internet communications tools, such as blogs, the YouTube video service and Twitter, to interact with the public. Come Saturday, you can add a virtual world appearance to the list.
In Second Life, representatives from Uthango Social Investments were invited to join the University of South California Centre for Public Diplomacy to be part of a conversation during the screening of the President’s talk in Ghana, Africa. We have always had the utmost respect for the efforts of universities inSL to use the virtual worlds platform in innovative ways. We hope, in the future, that we will be in a position to assist African-based universities to use Second Life and participate in these initiatives. You can also join the conversation at Interval in METAPLACE (by registering and without downloading any programme). From our side, we feature a SPOTLIGHT ON GHANA event in our Virtual Africa region to share more about the country and its people.
Uthango team members participated in the text message invitation from the USA government to Africans and sent the following question to the President on the 8th of July – “Mr. President, What role could African civil society organisations play to further investment and responsible development?” implying that ‘Africans are responsible for Africa’. A day later, his comments ahead of the Ghana visit were therefore music to our ears:
Ultimately, I’m a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa. I think part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism – I’m not a big believer in excuses.
Ghana understands this philosphy. It was the first African country to gain independence south of Sahara and therefore an iconic gateway to Africa to celebrate democracy. The Ghana Investment Promotion Centre also describes itself as the golden gateway to Africa, but it is the voices of the people talking about their country that actually sells Ghana best:
In his book, AFRICA – Alterted States, Ordinary Miracle, the renowned journalist Richard Dowden makes a powerful statement about the continent with its many facets: “In the past outsiders imposed the wrong things on Africa in the wrong way at the wrong time…” and in another part, “Apart from economic growth, the future of Africa will depend on very different factors: climate change, population growth and identity”. It appears that it is especially through his respect for, and embracing of identity that President Obama has struct a cord with the African people – and with the world. Who am I? And then, who can I become?
In my opinion, ingenuity during adversity and richness of cultures are two of the greatest gifts that Africans could share with the world. Both grow from the nurturing soil of having an identity and dignity. So when someone ran into me in Second Life that Obama now formally recognises as social network and asked, “What do you think will be the key elements of his talk in Ghana on Saturday?” I can speculate with a fair amount of confidence that it will probably be two anchor messages bouncing off the central theme of hope: I respect your indigenous knowledge and solutions. I support you on conditions of democratic process and accountable governance. (And remember, democracy is not alien to Africa – it is however rarely implemented exactly the same as in other western countries and based on the practice of reaching consensus through discussion rather than debate). There may be a surprising other theme in his talk, but my money is on those… and a reference to the beautiful flag of Ghana… and we will be delighted.
Now what this means for the world in practical terms needs to be unpacked – to set the tone for the way development is facilitated and investment is driven in Africa. One can hope that there will be a mindset and operational change towards including Africans an integral part of the DESIGN of a solution – be it in sustainable development, aid, business (base-of-the-pyramid 2.0), educational programmes and yes, virtual worlds and new media solutions as well. One case study of BOP 2.0 implementation that recently won an award from the BOP Learning Lab actually also hails from Ghana, and addresses land titling through an innovative loan scheme. (After all, “In its 2007 and 2008 “Doing Business Report,” World Bank cites Ghana as a “Top Ten Reformer,” demonstrating that the country clearly recognizes the private sector as an engine of growth”).
To use the above analogy, if the private sector is the engine of growth in Africa, and governments the cars, then surely President Obama and this moment is the ‘spark plug‘ providing another spark that is having an electrifying effect throughout Africa and indeed the world. Wikipedia says these little contraptions are some times also referred to as ‘flame ignators‘ and there is not a better description for Mr. Barack Obama and his energising approach at this time in African history.
African leaders realise the importance of leading responsibly. At the recent World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Cape Town, one of our Directors was invited to share a round table with leaders from across the continent. Intention to lead honourably and accountably was evident and leaders take their responsibility serious. At the closure of the forum, the newly-elected President Zuma of South Africa replied: “The challenge comes back to the leadership: Are we able to see those opportunities and are we able to utilize the appropriate structures to take advantage of them”.
Many people question the election of President Zuma with a tainted personal life as the President of one of the leading African countries and time will tell what legacy he will leave. One thing is absolutely clear about him though and that is that he, too, creates a spark of hope to those Africans that known only the one face of Africa – living without shelter, education, clean water, food and survive from day to day. These leaders are needed to harness local intelligence and solutions to local problems. President Zuma understands the importance of spending time with citizens in their huts, at their ceremonies, in their institutions, at funerals and to listen to people via social networks that are so much part of African life – even though they are not always fueled by technology, but mostly by oral traditions and connectedness of communities. The ‘kraal’ (also known as ‘uthango’) is the traditional ceremonial space where important decisions are made and where the chief is respected for his (and in modern days, her) wisdom. We will be streaming live from Ghana radio stations – which have now for days been filled with ‘Obama excitement’ - as these remain the key source of information on the other side of the digital divide.
Today, we have the extraordinary opportunity to be part of a first in virtual worlds and a first in Africa. We are honoured and excited that this opportunity has been seized to place a flashlight on Second Life’s potential and we await the time that the investment in broadband connectivity with initiatives such as SeaCom will kick start access to more Africans to events such as these! For now, we invite you to join us in Second Life in our kraal to celebrate the visit of the first African-American president to the first African country that gained freedom to have its own solutions.
We welcome the President of the United States of America to Africa, and thank the White House administration and USC Centre of Public Diplomacy for making history in virtual worlds. And we anticipate a passionate talk about Africa taking responsibility for Africa with African ingenuity. It will be interesting to see how we are surprised when the spark hits the engine…