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The Future is in our Hands: Pan-African Women’s Leadership in the 21st Century
Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, Ph.D.Professor of Political ScienceWomen’s Studies Coordinator
Brooklyn College, CUNY
Pan-African Women's Philanthropy Summit
St. Paul, Minnesota
December 6, 2006
Inspired by a Yorùbá adage: àtélewó eni l’a fi ntún ìwà eni se (one rehabilitates one’s character with one’s own hands/the solution for one’s problems lie in one’s hands), this paper argues that while there are numerous challenges that militate against the development of a cohesive Pan-African front among women leaders, there are also some positive aspects of African culture, (particularly in the ideals of philanthropy and community-building) that we can build on and accentuate to help us face the challenges of the future, beginning with the 21st century. These ideals include collective self-help, generosity, informal networking and mentorship and a selfless interest in the welfare of others. My presentation would focus on how to draw on these ideals for inspiration in personal and professional life, and how they can facilitate connections with other women of African descent to solve our common problems now and in the future.
ÀTÉLEWÓ ENI L’A FI NTUN ÌWÀ ARA ENI SE/ OWÓ ENI L’A FI NTÚN ÌWÀ ENI SE – IT IS WITH ONE’S HANDS THAT ONE REHABILITATES ONE’S CHARACTER/ WITH HARD WORK, ONE CAN TRANSFORM ADVERSITY INTO GOOD FORTUNE/ SELF-HELP IS CRUCIAL TO SUCCESS.
ÀGBÁJO OWÓ L’A FI NSÒYÀ – UNITY IS CRUCIAL FOR SUCCESS/SELF-REALIZATION
ILÉ L’A TI NK’ÊSÓ R’ÒDE – CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME
OMODÉ GBÓN, ÀGBÀ GBÓN L’A FI KÓ’LÉ IFÈ – ILÉ IFÈ (ancestral birthplace of the Yorùbá people) WAS BUILT BASED UPON THE WISDOM OF BOTH YOUTH AND ELDERS/ELDERS LEARN FROM THE YOUTH JUST AS YOUTH LEARN FROM THE ELDERS/NOT EVEN THE ELDERS
OJÚ ÒRUN T’ÉYEE FÒ LÁÌ F’APÁ GÚN’RA WON. THE SKY IS BIG ENOUGH FOR ALL BIRDS TO FLY WITHOUT HITTING EACH OTHER ON THE WINGS/COLLIDING WITH ONE ANOTHER
My talk today will draw predominantly on five axioms (but talk briefly about others) of the Yorùbá -my people. I am confident that it is not only the Yorùbá that believe that òwe lesin òrò, bí òrò bá sonù, òwe l’a fí nwáa. Proverbs are the horses of words/language. When words are lost, it is with proverbs that we find it. Proverbs illuminate words and reveal the deep, underlying meanings in words. My point is that while I use Yorùbá proverbs, similar sayings exist in all African societies and communities, but Africans have to see them as sources of our people’s philosophical epistemology and a contribution to the world’s pool of knowledge.
As someone who’s guided by African philosophies of philanthropy, these are a few of the factors that inspire me. They have stood me in good stead in my professional and personal life. Through hearkening to these axioms, I have helped others, and by so doing, helped myself even more. I know that there are many others just like me that have done the same, and it is this that gives me hope in such a hostile world that is so eager to dismiss Africa and Africans as marginal.
Let me quickly tell you why these axioms are meaningful to me and why I believe they should be meaningful and relevant to serious engagement with Pan African philanthropy in general and Pan-African women’s philanthropy in particular. Whether or not one takes a cursory or concentrated look at the African continent and its diaspora today, one encounters significant need. Some have chosen to define the need as one for leadership – if there were only good leaders, one hears, there would be a better Africa, a better community, a better state of well-being, a better state of material existence. I don’t have to tell you that most of these analysts don’t necessarily believe that the leaders needed are African women, except in countries devastated by destructive war, genocide, apartheid – Rwanda has women as approximately 47% of its national legislature. South Africa has met the Development Goal (MDG) OF 30%, and Liberia has Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This is sufficient for many to rest on their oars, erroneously believing that the high visibility of such women in positions of power means that there will automatically be better life for all. Women after all are from Venus, men from Mars they’re thrifty and can make something out of nothing, etc. But I know we are too smart to believe these platitudes in an uncomplicated manner.
While we celebrate the achievements of these powerful women, and indeed, of us all, we cannot engage in empty triumphalism, basically because Africa is a continent in crisis, a crisis that developed over many centuries, a crisis that spewed most of us here forth into other hostile lands with only degrees of volition. While from the 17th to 19th centuries, some of our ancestors were frog marched in chains out of the continent, in the 20th and 21st centuries, most of us were hounded out by punitive authoritarian governments and their draconian policies or actual civil wars. Many today, especially the disillusioned youth are still pouring out of the continent by any means necessary, fleeing as much from hunger and economic dead ends as from political upheaval and war. And yet, Africa is richly blessed with natural and human resources, including significant intellectual capacity and technocratic skills and experience. This is where our first axiom comes in – OWÓ ENI L’A FI NTUN ÌWÀ ARA ENI SE. We must use our own hands to rehabilitate our character. Africans have been maligned by the powerful actors in the world’s political economy for much too long. The same actors—predominantly located in Western Europe and North America, are responsible for exploiting Africa and its peoples and the very same are responsible for the rape of Africa, the enslavement of its people and its colonization.
Yesterday’s imperialistic powers are still very much around today, and paradoxically, many African country and African peoples would rather trust them than depend on other Africans who are not from their lineage, clan, ethnic group, country, or from their continent and its old and new Diasporas. One does not have to be a diviner to realize that Africans cannot afford the luxury of the divisions that still militate against our success in this world. Pan Africanism was suggested as a viable solution to the problems of Africa and African peoples wherever they are as a viable solution to the problems of Africa and African peoples wherever they are as a formal concept in the late 19th and early 20th century. Its promise remains unfulfilled and this lack of fulfillment is responsible for our predicament as Africans in the world today. No one else has as much at stake as Africans wherever they may be located in the development of the continent, development, not in the skewed manner that currently exists, but in a manner that extends economic and political well-being to the majority.
A belief in OWÓ ENI L’A FI NTUN ÌWÀ ARA ENI SE means that with the understanding that one would use ones own hand to correct one’s reputation/fate/problems also means tht this is a call for unity in our diversity, for I know that you all know that Africa is the most diverse continent in the world, the diversity of its peoples has also been compounded by the Diasporic experiences of old and the ongoing Diasporization of its peoples. One of the indicators of that diversity is what we all know from the US Census Bureau, which tells us that Minneapolis has the second highest proportion of Africans among its foreign born population (after Columbus, Ohio) at most diverse population of African born immigrants in the United States. Unity in relation to philanthropy means that there should be the formation of both scholarly and popular epistemic communities around the question of philanthropy. Epistemic communities are communities of knowledge. They are commonly believed to be restricted to highly educated, usually male-dominated groups of experts that are drawn together by their common interests in one given subject matter and shared expertise in this area, plus their recognition as experts by governments, think tanks, the media and the like. What makes ordinary people particularly non-expert? The belief by the world’s powerful actors that they are not. However, the contribution of the Non-Governmental Organizations to the world’s knowledge base is that ordinary people can develop an expertise and agitate for positive change in issue areas around which they choose to organize for the purpose of making change.
While actualizing OWÓ ENI L’A FI NTUN ÌWÀ ARA ENI SE, we also remember that ÀGBÁJO OWÓ L’A FI NSÒYÀ – one uses one entire hand when you touch your palm to your chest and assert your name or utter the word: “me”. The underlying meaning of this proverb is that unity is crucial to success. The Yorùbá also say: Enikan kii je awa de. One person cannot possibly be named/assert: “we have arrived.” One person, that is, does not make a community. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to unite in order to challenge, erode and destroy the structures of domination that tell us that Africans cannot be the source of knowledge, particularly the highly specialized knowledge required to solve their own problems. Africans have to use their entire hand, or all the branches of the African peoples that are scattered throughout the Diaspora in the first place, to assert an African identity, and then, in unity, to focus on solving the myriad of problems that we face.
How can we unite when we have such painful histories in our past and present? The history and legacy of slavery hangs like an albatross around our necks and many of us cannot bear to discuss this painful history, even with those we love, and a discussion is out of the question, particularly with those we have learned to fear and/or distrust and those for whom we have no respect based on the misinformation and mis-education a la Carter Woodson, from the educational systems in both Africa and the diaspora that have colonized African minds according to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan scholar who has been exiled in the United States for many decades,. But all of us know that there will be no significant movement forward if we don’t discuss the enslavement of African peoples, first by other Africans, and then by European business interests that wanted unpaid labor to generate wealth in the new worlds they had “discovered”, whose indigenous people they had well-nigh eliminated through genocidal policies in their imperialistic drive to acquire land, extract natural resources and create new colonies peopled by their own people but worked by others wherever they could be found.
With Native Americans wiped out, Africa, which was known to be rich in human resources, was their next logical “terra nullius”/no man’s land, so defined in order to legitimize its rape and plunder. The most annoying and tragic factor for most people of African descent in the continent’s old Diaspora is the extent of African participation in the slave trade. And while this is a fact, it is not as unproblematic, as historians have demonstrated. However, this neither speaks to the pain, nor acknowledges the sense of betrayal and the despair that those that were ripped away from the bosom of kith and kin and cast out to the vagaries of a cruel world in which they were treated as no more than merchandise and property – chattel slavery. No amount of rationalization and explanation and analysis can assuage the pain of feeling that your own people abandoned you. No explanation of the divisions, competition, use of devious divisive strategies by Europeans can convince a people tossed into the maws of European greed and imperialistic drive to corner the world’s wealth that their own people were complicit in ensuring their dehumanization. It does still hurt, they know, that their own people come from the old continent and succumb so easily to the divide and conquer strategies of racist power structures, and depend for their information, on ignorant but slick media strategies that present African Americans in the worst possible light, forgetting in a display of extreme naivite that the African continent, and by extension, themselves, are painted with the same brush when the pathologized image, conceptualization and analysis of Africa and Africans is trotted out time and again.
There is a need for a coming together to have frank discussions on our problematic, past and nothing concrete and significant can be achieved without this. As the Yorùbá say, if two siblings go into a room to have a frank discussion about a problem and they come out smiling, they’re not being honest with one another. If our discussions with one another are frank, we would not be cordial with one another as we undertake the discussion.
OMODÉ GBÓN, ÀGBÀ GBÓN L’A FI KÓ’LÉ IFÈ is especially relevant because although we have to give experts their due, they may well possess specialized knowledge that it takes many years and big bucks at the world’s most prestigious universities to earn, not to talk of sleepless and restless nights in isolation trying to figure out the big questions. I also want to urge us not to only look to “experts” to solve the problems, not the least because there are also small questions that must be figured out but also because ordinary people can develop enough expertise to give innovative answers to even the big questions, but only to the extent that they are also ready to work night and day, but not to the point of being burnt out. They must learn to ask for help, to network, to build coalitions and institutions. Now, for philanthropy to be meaningful for me, the axiom that ILÉ L’A TI NK’ÊSÓ R’ÒDE is particularly important. Charity begins at home and thus, one must help oneself and those that are closer to you first before venturing abroad to help others. I began by talking about shared material conditions by African peoples. Nothing brings this into sharper focus than New Orleans, where centuries of prejudice against blacks and privilege for whites colluded to produce a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions, the kind that one observes impacting on the lives of internally displaced peoples and survivors of natural disasters, pandemics like HIV-AIDS, political conflict, and war.
How does this work for an organization? OWÓ ENI L’A FI NTUN ÌWÀ ARA ENI SE implies collective self help to create new and positive discourses to replace old negative stereotypes and discourses about Africa and Africans. It is crucial that strong, durable, philanthropic institutions be created to enable Africans engage in collective self-help. This demonstrates to a skeptical world that Africans can help themselves but is not done for the benefit of the outside world. It is done TO HELP AFRICANS. The more the institutions, the better, since the need is so great and the terrain is so huge. OJÚ ÒRUN T’ÉYEE FÒ LÁÌ F’APÁ GÚN’RA WON – the skies are big enough for birds to fly without colliding with one another means that if well designed, each and every organization can coexist and fulfill its mandate without being threatening to others. Each of us can take that area of need that we feel most passionate about and meet those needs without looking over our shoulders, and without considering others as invading our turf. For example, the problem of HIV-AIDS is so huge that all philanthropic organizations represented here at this conference can focus on it without a problem of over-serving those whose health has been assaulted by the disease, those whose family members have been killed prematurely by it, those orphaned, widowed, “widowered”, childless, sister-less, brother-less, family-less as a result of this scourge. Let me hasten to say that there may be problems with geographical or spatial over-concentration of institutions in some areas, and where this occurs, the problem could be easily corrected if there is a spirit of cooperation and collaboration rather than one of destructive competition that is energy-sapping and unedifying.
OMODÉ GBÓN, ÀGBÀ GBÓN L’A FI KÓ’LÉ IFÈ – no one is all-wise. No one has all the answers, no one can solve all the problems. Shared knowledge and a belief that one can learn from both young and old, both women and men, from our friends and those we do not necessarily like so much means that we take seriously the business of our own empowerment and we are generous enough to validate others who may be younger, poorer, not as well connected as ourselves, by consulting with them, inviting them to deliberate with us, bringing them to the table, listening to them, and being open to learning from them and being inspired by them just as we hope that they’ll be inspired by us when we share our gems of wisdom.
ÀGBÁJO OWÓ L’A FI NSÒYÀ implies that we should build coalitions and unite to better face adversity and solve common problems. The experience of imperialism and the enslavement and colonization that it brought with it has left Africans scattered and divided. The hope that pan-Africanism presents is that such division need not be forever. Africa for Africans means that people of African descent must consciously cross and break down many of the barriers to our unity and work collaboratively to solve our problems both here and there. Note that here in this case is the United States of America, and there is Africa and its Diaspora, which means that I am not excluding the African Diaspora here in the U.S. from the ranks of Africans that might need help, and or philanthropy. If we can in good faith, call upon multinational corporations to practice socially conscious investment in the African continent, we can also in good faith call upon the new African Diaspora to give back in their communities of settlement, beginning with their kinfolk— African Americans, African Caribbean peoples, African Latino peoples. Mutual and collective self-help enriches and edifies us all.
ILÉ L’A TI NK’ÊSÓ R’ÒDE implies a focus on the local first, and the global thereafter. If one does not help one’s needy kinfolk to gain self-sufficiency, how can one in good faith, help others? Remember that when I talk about kinfolk, I believe, and encourage you to join me in the belief that all peoples of African descent are related and must take the approach that we must engage in mutual and collective self-reliance for the massive problems that we confront to be solved. Also, this is a process, and since our problems did not develop in a brief period of time, they will not be solved in one fell-swoop.
OMODÉ GBÓN, ÀGBÀ GBÓN L’A FI KÓ’LÉ IFÈ exhorts us not to be dismissive of anyone’s contributions and reminds us that we all have the capacity for wisdom. Finally, the Yorùbá have a concept of orí, which literally translates into the head, but really means the essence of a human being. The orí is a powerful force that affects and shapes human fate. Orí l’a fi nmú eran l’âwo, tí a kò fi nmú egungun. It is one’s head that influences one’s success or failure or literally, it is the head that motivates one to pick the meat, rather than the bone from a plate of food. This can be translated to mean that there is a fatalistic belief in predestination, and so, why try? But remember that these same Yorùbá tell us that ÀTÉLEWÓ ENI L’A FI NTUN IWA ARA ENI SE, and words have multiple, layered meanings that can be peeled as with an onion. The wiser one becomes the better one can discern the hidden meaning in words. The orí also gives us our imagination, our creativity, our special characteristics – those things that make us unique and special. Thus, the orí can be worked upon with the owó to produce a transformation from catastrophe to well-being, provided one seeks help when it’s necessary, provided one is willing to keep an open mind and be willing to learn from others, and provided that one is not averse to the challenge of doing the heavy lifting required to make positive change. My sisters, I daresay that our history has literally thrown down the gauntlet. The catastrophes that we behold are a challenge, and with unity, openness to learning from both young and old, with a commitment to unearthing and rehabilitating our history, a burning desire to form both popular and scholarly epistemic communities, and to use the communities to increase the knowledge pool in the world, particularly with the intention of solving African problems first and the world’s problems next, Africa will emerge from the margins and take a central position in world affairs. Africa will soar like a phoenix and shine like the sun. It will glow like a star-studded sky. We are all in the struggle. Let’s neither rest on our oars nor be discouraged, and victory will be ours.
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