“Welcome to the New Africa” by Rinda Hayes
Just before I left, a friend, a well educated man, asked me if the people we worked with in Kenya were fully clothed. Being an age-mate of mine (as they say in Kenya) I’m guessing he was picturing that I was going to the land of Tarzan, Johnny Wisemiller style.
Being in a hurry, I could only smile and say yes, they were most certainly fully clothed. I couldn’t begin to tell him that the teachers we worked with come to school as neatly dressed as you can imagine – the men with sharply ironed shirts and creases in their pants, shoes always polished, the women in their brilliant array of stylishness. Yes, they got ready in mud huts, many of them. They filled their irons with hot coals, in order to emerge freshly pressed. Their stylishness and cleanliness take your breath away.
Somehow the world has not yet gotten the message about the “new Africa”. Still stuck in the colonial stereotype of “us” and “them”, the West has not yet caught on to the fact that much of Africa is thriving. Seven of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. The first mobile banking company in the world, mPesa, was created right here in Kenya – meeting the need to move money quickly between people who didn’t have bank accounts. The standard of living is increasing at a breathtaking pace in many African countries, as the world of technology has helped them burst the borders imposed by their colonial past. They are free in a whole new way.
On this continent where 70% of the population is under 30, (yes, 70%!) this bulge of youth can spell either promise or peril. Yes, the perpetual challenges of poverty and disease are ever present, but technology has become the global passport, touching even the peasant farmer who has learned to use a $30 mobile phone that can follow local market prices.
The incredible genius of “kanju”, or the ability to improvise, flex, create as needed, has launched them into a whole new world. I stand in awe of their agility every time I come. You really can’t imagine how quickly an African can come up with a solution to whatever stands in front of them. Laden with dependence, I feel so cumbersome around them. While I stand and wring my hands when something breaks down, there is sure to be a Kenyan at my side that has already brainstormed a solution, a “go-around”. They are masters of improvisation. Before I know it, whatever was broken, has now been fixed. I’m flashed a bright, white Kenyan smile as I stand there dumbfounded.
The world of technology has freed Africa in ways wars never could. The students in our program are exploding with ideas. But what I love is that they still revere their land of genesis. They seem able to embrace the new world that education opens for them, but they never lose, let alone revile, the roots from which they sprung. They straddle their dual worlds with amazing fluidity. A student, like Ruben Lugogo, can go to university and study IT, but still head home to engage in his alter life herding goats and sitting on the floor for dinner with eight siblings. Never, ever ashamed of their roots, the graduates of Kenya Keys straddle both worlds with such grace.
In countries where corruption runs rampant, the genesis of ideas and economic energy thrive below the surface. That’s where real life happens. That’s why I love to be here. That’s why I love to hear what our students, almost all who come from illiterate parents, are germinating in their heads and among their friends. Help them get some education and they are off; starting new companies, generating ideas for micro enterprises, creating tiny markets where there were none.
It is a wonder. The world seems stuck in the old paradigm about Africa, viewing it as the infant who was never able to grow up. (We won’t mention the centuries of exploitation that interrupted their development in first place). Take another look people. The news will readily report the latest famine or genocide, but look beyond and you will see what is not considered newsworthy – that Africans aren’t wasting time whining and wishing. They are busy creating lives for their children that were never even imagined a decade ago. You’ll see. Before long the world will finally have to pay attention to the new Africa, the one that is singing; charged with life. No chains to hold her down.
The Rift – A New Africa Breaks Free by Alex Perry
The Bright Continent – Breaking Rules and Making Change in The New Africa by Dayo Olopade
Rinda Hayes is the co-founder and Director of Kenya Keys. She has dedicated the last 13 years of her life to developing and growing this amazing organization, changing the lives of hundreds of young Kenyan students, their families, and their communities.