Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Future is African


My favorite librarian used this short excerpt from novelist Chimamanda Adichie's very popular TED Talk as part of a presentation she was giving on religious literacy. In it, she describes the narrow lens of pity through which many -- including middle-class Africans -- view the continent and its people.

We both recommend Adichie's full talk: the medium is truly the message in this case, in that she has much more to teach us than the avoidance of stereotypes about Africa. Millions of viewers seem to agree.

We also recommend her novel Americanah, especially the audio version.

But her story about stereotypes of Africa is timely, as the Washington Post has recently published an essay on the topic by Salih Booker and Ari Rickman of the Center for International Policy. In The future is African — and the United States is not prepared, they describe demographic and economic trends that will surprise many readers.

Africa is often described as though it were a single country -- although it comprises 55 countries, depending on exactly which island countries are counted -- with 1,216,000,000 people at last count. One of every six people on the planet lives in Africa -- compared to 1 of 23 in the United States -- and the share in Africa will continue to grow grow for the rest of the lives of everyone reading this post. Not only does Africa exist in the North American imagination as a single, pitiable country, but that country is often portrayed as the land of a single tree.

To the extent that the United States government is prepared to interact with the continent's 55 countries at all, it is primarily through an infrastructure that is overwhelmingly military. Opportunities for diplomatic and commercial connections pale in comparison, creating a gap that China has been more than content to fill.

The diplomatic presence in Africa is indeed insufficient, but it is not completely absent. One very positive initiative is the Mandela/YALI Washington Fellowship program, established in 2014. Each summer since 2016, my university has participated, hosting 25 young professionals from more than a dozen countries of Africa for a six-week institute. I have enjoyed meeting the 50 previous BSU-based Fellows, many of whom I count among my friends. I look forward to visiting Fellows in a few different countries during my 2019 sabbatical!

Ethiopia

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was problematic, gutting many embassies and driving scores of career diplomats into early retirement. He was much more humane than his successor, though, and he spent his final hours in the job (before being ousted for something he did right) enjoying the role of top diplomat during a visit to Ethiopia.
Secretary Tillerson enjoying coffee in Ethiopia. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/AP Images
His visit, naturally, included ritual tastings of what is perhaps Ethiopia's greatest gift to the world: coffee. What Linnaeus dubbed "Arabica" should have, in fact, been called "Ethiopica" and Secretary Tillerson enjoyed some in a ceremony that goes back centuries.
Quinnipiac students from Ethiopia shared coffee and coffee knowledge at the fourth annual
Celebration of Coffee in Worcester, held for the first time at the
Worcester Public Library.
I had a similar privilege last October, when students from Ethiopia proudly shared their heritage at the fourth annual Celebration of Coffee in Worcester, Massachusetts. I enjoyed learning more about the coffee ceremony and drinking coffee from a cup identical to that used by Secretary Tillerson.

I am not certain which countries of Africa I will visit next year, but Ethiopia will certainly be one of them, in part because it is the origin of coffee as both a plant and a beverage and because one of the Mandela Fellows with whom I have maintained contact is an Ethiopian diplomat who can acquaint me with many other aspects of the country.



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