togetherI typically don’t post on here during the week, but this particular topic has been tugging at my brain strings over the past month and is, quite honestly, quickly becoming a nuisance. I guess it has to have its day.

 

A few years back I came across this piece of writing on Paulo Coelho’s blog called “Closing Cycles”. The author – apparently not Coelho – talks about the importance of accepting when a phase of one’s life is over and done with, and having the courage to close it and move on. When I first read it, I was quite annoyed – given the circumstance – but after simmering down, I came to accept it for what it was. By then I was conveniently at the too-bad-you-can’t-realize-how-lucky-you-are-to-even-be-in-my-presence phase. Talk about selective association!

 

Anyway, the article ends with the following:

“This may sound so obvious, it may even be difficult, but it is very important.

Closing cycles. Not because of pride, incapacity or arrogance, but simply because that no longer fits your life.”

 

Allow me to put my spin on it for the purposes of this post:

“This may sound so obvious, it may even be difficult, but it is very important.

Open circles. Not because of humility, power or kindness, but simply because there’s room to fit another life in.

 

The past couple of weeks have seen me organizing back to back workshops on cross-cutting, but linked issues. During one such event geared at African youth, we had a conversation during lunch about the challenges youth leaders face in making meaningful impact in their societies. We talked about the usual suspects: “ageism”, the culture of ‘respect’ and seniority that many African societies imbibe, lack of experience and expertise, and so on. It was an interesting conversation, and the bottom line was that no/not enough spaces are created for African youth to contribute to their various societies. No lie there, it’s true. The conversation took me back to an earlier event.

A meeting of over 100 development practitioners, spanning the different age spectra. Everyone agreed that the youth bulge in Africa is very real and could either be a plus or minus for development. Many acknowledged that youth development is an important issue which deserves serious (and strategic) attention and some even professed to wanting their own children to have the very opportunities and platforms they (older generation) never had. Enter youth panel.

 

What happened next was equal portion amusing, sad, and telling.

 

Out of the 130 or so ‘older generation’ participants at the event, very few (25 at best) openly acknowledged that youth might (and do) have the skills to contribute effectively to current development efforts. Fewer encouraged the youth to be engaged, particularly where policy-, decision-making and leadership are concerned. The worst? Many openly declared that “the fact that you have technology, tweets and so on doesn’t mean you can lead.”

 

All this after a very engaging youth panel which highlighted various achievements and insights of the participating youth leaders (some of which drew more results and addressed challenges the ‘older generation’ themselves were facing, for instance, with fundraising).

 

It became clear that an inter-generational discourse is needed in many African countries. The ‘amateurs’ consider the ‘connoisseurs’ archaic, while the ‘connoisseurs’ consider the ‘amateurs’ to be ‘inexperienced’ with nothing to offer. While each group judges the other, they miss out on the potential for complementing each other’s efforts.

 

The proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ that Sheryl Sandberg talks about in her book Lean In is very real and actually non-discriminatory gender-wise where many African countries are concerned. No, it would have everyone – men, women, and especially youth. The current phenomenon in many circles is as follows: Youth leader in [insert industry] fights, huffs, puffs, and successfully gets foot into the door. Few years later, (not-so-young) youth leader plants both feet firming within the room, proceeds to close the door. But only after inviting inequality in.

 

Essentially and eventually, the activist becomes the very thing he/she was fighting against. What’s more, this person’s sense of ‘the real issues’ becomes murky as he or she is no longer as plugged into the grassroots as he/she was before. He or she advocates for things that are not part of his or her reality and as such results in somewhat watered down efforts. Sound too far-fetched? This same thing plays out with our ministers, parliamentarians, presidents who seem to conveniently forget that the water crisis they campaigned and won their mandate on, is still ongoing, albeit behind glass walls and chandeliers.

 

We’re in a digital age, allow me to provide a digital example. While doing research for my grad school dissertation, I came across the concept of digital elitism. Yes, you heard right, digital elitism. Gone are the days when elitism was solely based on how much money you or your family had, what significance your family name had in society, or how much power you have or have access to. The new trend is having access to technology, and more especially the internet.

 

Heard about information being power? We’re just on the fringes of that particular dynasty. Reading this? You are most likely part of that ‘new’ wave of digital elitism. Sure, you might not have super-sonic internet or the latest tablet in town, but if you are able to access google.com at least once a week and do an actual search which leads to actual search results then I think it’s fair to say that you kind of have the world at your finger tips. If you’re online multiple times in a given day, then you dierr, king and queen of the kingdom of digital elitism. The difference having an email address can make is enormous. The question is, what are you going to do with all that information and access? Keep it to yourself or use it to add value to someone other than yourself?

 

I can think of many other instances where we the youth, Africans, or just people in general, can lend a hand and make someone else’s journey a bit smoother than our own, but choose not to: language, education, opportunities for travel and sharing, you name it. I’m also willing to bet that the very reason we have so many ‘African experts’ on the international airwaves and world classrooms – who have little to no experience on the ground or in the field – is precisely because someone who had information on that job opportunity didn’t pass the information along. Are we surprised that the optimism surrounding the  ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is quickly giving way to the realization that inequality is dancing along as well? Yes, Africa is rising, but where to and for who?

 

Allow me to say this: The fact that you struggled to get your foot through the door, doesn’t mean someone else should have to. Why? Well, where once there was nobody, there is now you. I’m willing to bet that those of us who have crossed one threshold or another into seemingly unnavigable waters had some help from the other side. We always do. I’m willing to bet that even the most unfeeling of politicians was once fiery with passion and that all-too ‘contagious’ ‘can-do’ attitude. But fires burn and fires die out.

 

Unless, of course, another log gets burned and another fire lit:

“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle”

Think about it. If we’re being honest, quite the opposite happens, the once dark room turned barely light becomes brighter.

 

I’m not sure who this message is meant for, or if anyone at all. Perhaps it’s just a reminder to self. But the point is this: Open circles. Invite a new name or face to join that panel, share their insights, take some credit, win that award. Can’t make a conference or training? Recommend someone else or ask within your networks for someone who is not in your network; if they fit the profile, nominate them. Instead of squabbling for the titles or the recognition, focus on the impact. That endures, all the other stuff is fluff.

 

Same circles make for stale ideas. Reach out and draw new people into your circles. More importantly, be humble enough to acknowledge when there is someone better suited to an opportunity than yourself – eg. if you have only researched about farming but have a cousin in the village who has actually farmed, let them go in your stead or at the very minimum record their insights (audio, visual, video) and share on their behalf. Acknowledge them, celebrate them.

 

Open circles. The irony of it all is that closing circles is the very thing that might just kill all of us; for lack of oxygen (try living in an air-proof room with the door shut for a day few hours.)Circles, by definition, are created for expansion and embody the balance in what each has to offer.

 

Don’t just ‘lead’, lend a hand, nurture people. Open doors. Remember from whence you came. Once again:

“This may sound so obvious, it may even be difficult, but it is very important.

Open circles. Not because of humility, power or kindness, but simply because there’s room to fit another life in.

 

To those who already do, this post is dedicated to you –  for keeping things ‘fresh’. Thanks for reading.

 

Written by Jemila Abdulai

 

Author

Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.

7 Comments

  1. Jem, well said. You have done what most on both sides couldn’t and still do not bother doing – calling for collaboration and inter-generational discourse. That is the way to go.

    If it was the same forum I know of that you made reference to, I’d say that the Youth were also very guilty in bringing to themselves the negative energy the older participants released. How? By some of the youth referring boldly and unapologetically (not once, but a fair number of times) to the older ones as “You are old, and you should know that you cannot be there forever”. I remember speaking to the Youth group afterwards and telling them that I saw a number of the older ones around me flinch visibly with hurt when that remark was made.

    You see, the problems we face with the older ones now, we are already beginning to see them with the young ones. What does that tell us? – this fear of opening circles to our own colleagues, and this habit of keeping company with only certain people we feel are privileged to share in it.

    The way the young speak to AND about the older ones often holds too little a reason for them to be ushered into the spaces they are fighting for, even when they genuinely do have the capacity. And sadly, more and more of the older ones are unwilling to share because of this spitefulness they harbour for these young, fast-talking, showy, educated “heirs”.

    I think this may be so because in their time, they had to use more strategy and more patience to gain position and opportunity, whereas the youth (with the privileged education these older ones paid for) use their digital elitism and know-how plus modern networking means to just shove their way in where they will, and expect to be taken simply because they can do do, and are willing. No.

    So both sides have a lot of work to do, but having recently admitted that I now have one leg in the older generation and the other leg in the youth, and therefore experiencing a lot from both sides, I see that the youth have more of the obligation to sit and think, strategise, and work ethically to gain the positions they yearn. Why? Because like it or not … everybody has been a youth before, but not everybody has been old before. Like it or not, they do know stuff we WILL benefit from IF they deign to share … and like it or not, it is not by our bullying or our cry and hue that they will share with us. It is by our making them pause, contemplate on their (in)actions, think and change their ways, that they will do this …

    …and this will not happen by our heckling or insulting or demanding any of them. Believe me. Let us sit and realise our best approach to this problem. It is in there that we will find our solution. Pausing, to think. Talking less, listening more. Observing and learning. Approaching and INTEGRATING. And soon, we will see that we have done good to ourselves, and paved the way, in so doing, to the other generations.

    Ase (Blessings).

    Golda.

  2. Indeed, beautiful piece. That’s the challenge in Africa,
    misguided sense of mentorship and a certain mindset of entitlement which equals, I got in there and so I am the boss of you, you go through me now!. Even among youth, some circles are created for the elite at the expense of bridging gaps. Youth are more concerned about where stuff place them in social circles and how do I limit others from accessing same in order to maintain some supposed upper hand. But I like the last point- ” Don’t just ‘lead’, lend a hand, nurture people. Open doors. Remember from whence you
    came.”

    Indeed, How many Youth who claim to have been empowered and left some impoverished places have gone back to hold another’s hand and say climb with me, let’s get you out of here to a better place. Naa, it’s get rich first, show them who is boss. More like, “I told you so, told you I will make it” We will get there, sad but worth sharing.

  3. Clemence Darko Reply

    Very powerful insight. I am challenged to think through the idea of “circles” and widening it – getting in new people, insights and ideas.

  4. You know how I feel about this topic my dear! We were just discussing this. Yes open circles even in our “youth” circles it’s important to make this More of a reality, as you stated open the opportunity to others who may benefit! Good one bravo and thanks for the refreshing authentic reminder.

  5. Juliana Yorke Reply

    Brilliant piece… it nothing but the reality we are faced with today.
    It even terrible in my field of work… Journalism. I personally find it difficult to break into such closed circles… they are too stiff for you to even approach.

    • Agreed, can be especially difficult in journalism where too often it’s a rat race of some sorts. But I think it’s possible, depending on how you approach those circles. How have you been approaching it? In my own experience as a journalist working the DC policy circuit, people like to talk about themselves – it’s more of a question of helping them see the value add in speaking to you. Happy to discuss further.

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