Transformations versus Retention by Al-Amin Kheraj

by Al-Amin Kheraj. To transform, simply put, is to change significantly. In mathematics for instance, transformation implies that one set of variables in an expression are replaced with another set, or that one space maps onto another space.

To retain, similarly, is to recall experience. In learning for instance, retention implies the capacity to remember and re-use the material that has been learned.

Articles in this issue 55.4 of Development focus on Africa's transformation. They are enthusiastic about the various changes that are being foretold. While foresight of upcoming challenges is crucial for planning and risk mitigation, equally crucial is remembering history. We are who we are because of everything that has happened until the minute before you read this. We do not have the space here to start with Lucy, but even considering some African history since World War II is worthwhile.  

Particularly, three examples since the late 1940s point to the need to consider retaining what Africa has taught us while we are excited about transforming it: The existence of varying leadership, the emergence of new economies and a range of cultural developments. 

Most African states achieved modern sovereignty much later than other states in the world. They are the youngest countries the world has today. As with any new system, some disruptions have been welcomed, others have been eschewed. For example, in the 1960’s, Nyerere attempted to disengage then-Tanganyika from paternalistic agendas of British development, principally with Ujamaa. At around the same time, Nigeria’s Azikiwe endeavored to unify regional political interests in his newborn state. While Tanzania’s socialist policy of collectivization was adhered to through the 1970s, government companies were not able to keep up with growing demands for infrastructure and enterprise. Nyerere eventually stepped down in 1985 and his successor brought wide privatization reforms. It is important to note that people in Tanzania did little to protest this evolution. In Nigeria however, Azikiwe was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 and the state remained under military rule until the mid-70s. Nigeria saw a return to civilian rule towards the end of that decade. Tanzania and Nigeria are only two out of a continent of more than 50 states, but it is easy to see that they were born out of different public interests and reactions. Thus is the philosophical implication of sovereignty; it implies the ability of a state to decide its course based on what it learns from its people.  

Varying leadership styles have been accompanied by varying models of economy. Unfortunately, because the independence movement for most states happened within a span of 40 years, the global impression of their economies was that they were similar and therefore deserved similar modes of investment. During the late 1970s, the Bretton Woods institutions developed elaborate techniques with which to develop African economies and revised these techniques every decade. Since the turn of the current century however, there has been increasing evidence to show that people demand differently across the continent. For instance, in Tunisia to the North, people have consistently demanded measures to reduce corruption and increase employment. Towards the South, in Namibia, land has been a historical economic focus, with efforts still ongoing to afford more arable land to indigenous farmers. 

Tied to economic interests is the belief that technology leapfrogs in developing contexts, especially in Africa. But this belief comes with the assumption that every now and then, new technical artifacts are desired by people who they are marketed to. This is presumptuous. With communication technology for example, most African states continue to prove that radio has been and continues to be a powerful and cost-effective medium for people receive and, more importantly, send messages. The introduction by Mr. Onyango-Obbo mentions that “the Internet [is] providing new channels of distribution and enabling new winners to emerge”, yet emergence only happens after people recognize new knowledge. As prevalent as the Internet is becoming, it also comes with a new mindset, one that is comfortable with breezing through and judging ideas rapidly at face value and risking away deeper engagement with any one. Technology, like economy, has aspects that are taken up in unique ways depending on where these aspects transpire.

Notwithstanding political and economic interventions, Africa’s socio-cultural diversity alone provides a compelling case for considering history and learning from it. The continent is home to over a billion people and speaks more than 2,000 languages. We may only recognize English, Arabic, Swahili and French as some of the widely spoken languages, but this minimal understanding has a cost: As long as political and economic leaders do not literally and figuratively speak their constituents’ language, their constituents are likely to disassociate their own aspirations from leadership. Language influences where people interact, how they encounter the world and why they pursue their goals. 

Coupled with learning about language is learning about religious orientation. Africans are popularly assumed to be either Christian or Muslim. But states like Madagascar and South Sudan show that more than half their people live by traditional faiths, which have been indigenous to their lands long before Christianity or Islam arrived. Retaining the prevailing cultures of states, including language and religion, can help forecast futures. 

Looking ahead is an empowering task. It is intimately mixed with regrets from the past, burdens of the present and hopes for the future. But humans did not arrive in Africa yesterday, and neither did their inner motivation to wake up today to get things done. A deeper retention and consideration of the diversity of political aspirations, economic incentives and social set ups of Africa’s different states will better inform the transformation that is believed to be fast approaching. 

* This is a follow up piece of Development 55.4 'African Strategies for Transformation'

Read also the editorial by Wendy Harcourt and the introduction to the journal by Charles Onyango-Obbo

Al-Amin Kheraj is the founder of VijanaFM, a platform for visual, audio or written content by the youth and for the youth in East Africa. Click here to read the SID Forum interview Blogging Young, Interview with Vijana FM