Not long ago I was in a lobby in a Ghana hotel and overheard a western-sounding white male utter the following assessment to a listener on his phone: “The people in Africa are so simple, I can do whatever I like here. They never challenge me” (paraphrased). Stunned but not surprised at what I had just heard, I remember my body wanting to move in his direction and challenge him at the audacity of what he had just said. “How dare he,” I thought. “What a superiority complex,” I thought. “Someone get this f#*ker off the continent,” I thought. But my body froze, locked in my emotions, and of course I said and did nothing.

I was too caught up in my thoughts, and as I have continued to reflect on that experience some months after, I realise that I as an African have been trapped in two very paralysing emotions with regard to the way the world sees and treats us. Anger and shame. Anger at the fact that we have been oppressed, abused, belittled, patronised, cheated, turned against each other and then blamed for our “savagery” against each other. Anger that we have not been allowed and have not allowed ourselves to reflect publicly on what this has meant for our psyches, both historical and current. Anger at the fact that when we do, at least when I do reflect publicly, there is this ever so polite but defiant dismissal that reminds me that it is not safe to dwell on the injustices of the past, which still affect us today, in case I upset white power/bite the hand that feeds me/upset the network/make people who matter uncomfortable. Anger that I am not allowed to self-actualise. I should remain childlike in form.

The shame comes as a reaction to hearing the same negative stereotypes charged against my people at each turn. I have heard the following — Africans are lazy/they are incapable of governing/they are unevolved/they are unemployable/they take up too many resources to upskill/they require careful monitoring/they cannot be allowed free will/they are too simple — so often that at some point I have to acknowledge that a very subtle and unconscious sense that Africans are a burden to themselves and to the world influenced the way in which I took up space in the world. Actually I should say the way I did not take up space. The unconscious apology that I have given for being what and who I am. And so often I am reminded through racialised and classist commentary that I am not like “the other Africans” because I am smarter, brighter, more capable. And yet when it comes to that boardroom conversation or that team-building exercise where my peculiar viewpoint is once again dismissed (at best) or ignored (at worst), I am reminded that I am not smarter, brighter, more capable. I am token.

When I look at our economics, our politics, I am inclined to think that I may not be the only African who has been affected by this very unconscious sense of apology of being in the world. The way Africans have smiled through injustice that it is common for visitors to the continent to cite that we are “so happy despite our challenges”. The way our politicians allow strangers to just enter our lands and take what they will for pennies. The way we let other people tell our stories for us. The way we sit through insults from people who have long decided that we are inferior to them. When fellow Africans working in various organisations across the globe tell me about yet another occasion in which a conversation was had, a decision was made, a policy was passed, in which African rights were infringed upon or our integrity was compromised or our intelligence was insulted, I am always left with the question: “Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you defend your people, defend yourself? Why didn’t you spend every last ounce of energy disproving that theory or that assertion? Why are we talking about it in our safe spaces instead of saying outright what we think on the platforms where it matters? Why are even the most ‘empowered’ among us not acting? What are we afraid of?”

Anger and shame are very paralysing emotions, even more so when you do not realise you carry them. Anger is particularly deceiving because in that moment of protest or venting we are deceived into thinking we are powerful, we are making a point. We are not. We are merely reacting from a space of powerlessness, a space of internalised oppression.

Our neediness is feeding the saviour complex of people who should by now be our peers. Victoria Beckham on AIDS charity Born Free trip to S. Africa. Photo: Annie Liebowitz photographs
Our neediness is feeding the saviour complex of people who should by now be our peers. Victoria Beckham on AIDS charity Born Free trip to S. Africa. Photo: Annie Liebowitz photographs

At a leadership retreat a few weeks ago I had some time to reflect on what this all means. The fact that many people in the world are feeding off our politeness and benefiting from our docility. That our chaos and lack of unity as a people allows clandestine activity of the highest political and economic order. That our neediness is feeding the saviour complex of people who should by now be our peers. I reflected on the fact that despite the undeniable evidence that systems and strategies were set in place to force us into docility and non-productiveness; despite the fact that we were strategically moulded into subdued forms of our real potential; that we were overtly and covertly programmed into believing that our very embodiment is primitive and that we are the scar in the world’s conscience; people will insist on erasing the woundedness created by this reality and blame us and laugh at us for our current state.

And that’s OK. That’s good. Let that mockery stir us from our slumber so that we can re-engage our power as individuals and as a collective. We are our own saviours. We are in fact on our own. Time for us to start taking up space as a people; start acting on our own ability to self-determine; start self-actualising by practising showing people where to get off (on all fronts — economic, social, political, cultural); start practising rather than protesting. Re-engage. Never let a moment pass without realising that there are many people out there who are benefiting from the state of Africa’s current powerlessness, people like that dude in the lobby in Ghana who are laughing their way to the bank. In my experience those people are in a majority although they would never admit it.

If we do not look at our condition and address it strategically: that we are indeed plagued by an inferiority complex and a sense of second-classness and need scaled interventions in our schools and organisations to deal with this mindset; that our broader educational systems are doing too little to empower our children to engage as equals on a global scale and that we need to revisit our curricula as a matter of emergency; that our policies give more power to external forces than they give to our own people and that we are indeed going through a re-colonisation as we speak (most partnerships are not what they seem); that our poverty feeds and enables an entire industry of research, aid and donor-advantage and that without it many people would be out of a job and out of perceived purpose; that there are people, including some of our own leaders, who want for Africa to remain chaotic because it works well for them. If we do not take a critical look at this we will never come to a place where we actually own what is rightfully ours — our sovereignty. It’s a terrifying thought!

During the retreat this poem came to me and kindled a fierce fire within me to start again, to go forth in the world speaking and living my truth and determining my agenda without fear that some powerful force somewhere will smite me with some unbearable consequence. I was reminded that we are a great people who were disrupted and continue to be disrupted albeit more subtly now (and watch how someone will come in here and insist that we were pitiful before we were saved by colonisation. I beg you sit down). I was reminded that my purpose through my leadership practice is to work with emerging leaders across the continent to make sure they understand firstly what they are up against (in their own leadership impediments and in the external powers they will have to confront) and to empower them secondly with the leadership tools that will allow their own transformation and therefore that of the people they lead. I hope that whatever industry you find yourself in, you are inspired to re-engage the real issues again and help bring the continent to its ultimate potential.

I am an African
Which means I am beginning

I am source
I am life
My beginnings made way for other beginnings
Gave birth to great nations
Who left me to form their own and then despised me, and then
Returned to destroy me

I am an African
And I am now what is needed to bring humanity to greatness
My land, my resources, my culture, my being
In the tradition of my forefathers and foremothers
Who saw unity amongst all things
Who lived the truth of community and oneness
Who knew before they were made to unknow
Who were seekers before they were made to unseek
Made
Defined
Labelled
Assertions, assessments, stereotypes
Lies

I am reminded now that I am an African
A being emerged from a richness of culture and wisdom and heritage
That culture which was perceived too primitive
That wisdom which was perceived too simple
That heritage which was deemed too unprofound
Yet now the world returns there
In their meditations, storytelling and leadership philosophies
They return to womanism, reciprocity, intuition, ancestral recognition, Ubuntu
Emotional Intelligence that allows one to say ‘I am well only if you are well’
They return to our truths
Those which they initially persecuted us for
Because these truths would not justify bleeding the world dry of its resources and of its humanity
They call us, to this day, lazy, simple, obsequious
Humanity only destroys that which it does not understand

Yet I remain an African
Even in all of my translations: African American, Caribbean, British African
Dark skin
I am an African
And the world shall now remember (acknowledge)
Why they feared us so
We are source, life, beginning
Even our economics now tell us that it is Africa that will be the final reckoning
And so African do not be caught drowning in their assessments which were grounded in their fears of that which was simple and true
Remember who you are and rise to the occasion
Do not allow inferiority complex, stereotype threat, second-classness, to once again determine how they will (once again) deliberate and decide over your landscape
The new scramble, the Berlin-turned-world conference
What shall they do with us now?
The simple Africans who occupy the richest landmass on this planet
Remember African
You are the core, the beauty, the wisdom, the profoundness, the power
The beginning
Being African is not shame, it is origin; it has always been, we just forgot

I am an African