Hold On Forever!

tumblr_mc0w6cTzam1ryr9i1o1_500 Earlier this week, I received a letter from one of my Senegalese fans, B. Her letter hit me hard, for its rawness and truth. Although my life is very hectic, I wanted to get back to her rather sooner than later, because we cannot afford to lose any such engaged person to hopelessness and despair.

I also decided to post her letter here and my answer, because I know many go through the same. And I am trying to lift them up through this as well.

Read on, and hope it helps.

B's Letter:

Hi Magatte,

It's 2h30 am in Dakar and I cannot sleep...I have been very troubled these days and my mind constantly keeps going back to you. You know, when discouragement hits me really hard, I listen to the Coran, my beloved Khasidas and I read/watch inspirational talks/quotes. Among them are your youtube videos and blog. You are such an inspiration, machallah! So, I thought I would write to you to share a couple of concerns and hopefully pick your brain and get unstuck.

Magatte, I am very concerned about our country's economic development and I am trying my best to make my little contribution. I know I am still very far and that the road will be a long one. First, because working in a so-called development agency is not the best place where you can effect meaningful change, hence I am considering making a drastic change. Secondly, because I have not identified yet a field, an area and issue that will keep me awake in the middle of the night (like you said at the Global Competitiveness Forum, I loved that). Everything is a priority area for Senegal and Africa and it can be overwhelming to pick and commit to one fight (education, health, citizenship, access to water, people's empowerment etc)! I personally believe that being spread out is not an option, especially if one want to get meaningful results. Magatte, how do you choose one cause to fight for the rest of your life when so many issues move you to tears?

I was just reading your blogpost titled "My biggest fear" and this sentence deeply resonated with me: "Thus if I became famous like some freaks I will not name here or for some BS, I would not be happy, at all." This might sound like an unfair generalization but I have come to realize that our people give precedence to looks, wealth, fame, elegance, over substance, authenticity and hard work. People like to take shortcuts and being famous at any cost is what seems to drive the majority of Senegalese, hence the booming of "top models", wrestlers, actresses, tv presenters, politicians-by-training (and not for genuinely serving the community), people who indulge in multiple TV appearances where they make shallow interventions. I have nothing against people being artistic or into sports and expressing their inner talents through those means. However, the core of the matter is to be seen and "sagn-see ba diek". Even if you are selling BS, people will worship you. Sometimes it saddens me to see that the millions for whom a few are genuinely fighting for do not seem to care about development, about doing what is right, about preserving our values. People lie and take shortcuts to be rich and famous. Girls sell their souls for petty cash. It saddens me that the majority of the Senegalese population gets abused by BS-tellers who manipulate them and seek political power just to just fill up their bank accounts. Magatte, where does one find the energy to keep on fighting when the majority don't give a damn and barely listen? How does one keep on fighting when trying to be genuine+authentic in a general atmosphere where one is looked at like an alien? I am just in tears as I am writing this...

I hope you will have time to read my long message and look forward to your insights. You really give me strength to push through the disappointments.

Love,

B

 

My  Answer:

Hello My Dear B!

Sorry it took me awhile to get back to you. I have been very busy.

I know too well the feelings and realities that you are describing. It is not surprising you feel development agencies are not the proper answer to our situation and needs. Because they simply are not!!! For many reasons, that I am sure you probably understand better than most by now. So I support you getting out of there, because we cannot afford to have the very few youth (and people in general) who have their heart + mind in the right place slowly give into the ranks of the "establishment" because they got beat. So get out before you let your fighting soul die there!

All those problems you are referring to (when you say "education, health, citizenship, access to water, people's empowerment etc") have to do with ONE cause at the end of the day: POVERTY more or less directly!! And poverty is because people have no jobs. And we know jobs are created by entrepreneurs. So in a way, you already do know what keeps you up at night :) And the remedy is a "monomaniacal focus on entrepreneurship". Everything that you do from here on should focus on supporting entrepreneurship. It does not matter if you decide to work from the Education, Government, Private or NGO sector, you need to be laser focused on "How can I support entrepreneurship from my position". So pick what you are most excited/passionate about and operate from there.

As for all the crass-ness and mediocrity surrounding you that you are referring to, I can understand how frustrating it can be. And it is tempting to lift up your hands in the air with a defeated "Why even bother? I give up!". But in times like this , you must remember that you are not alone in this. Somewhere else, 10 feet away from you, or 10,000 miles away from you, someone else is fighting your fight. Your job is to find them and together create little islands of excellence in everything you do and the way you do it (especially having and taking pride in not cutting corners). At some point others will start noticing, and wanting to emulate that for you would have created something very irresistible.

Things will change, I believe that firmly. But things will change because of people like YOU! And every little thing you do counts. Cheikh Amadou Bamba, Mandela, Ghandi, Dr King, and countless others all operated within very hostile environments, and they still managed to win their battles. I am trying to give up on being mad at my fellow contemporaries, but it does not mean that I am happy to say "Oh this is the way it is". Instead, I focus on those beautiful alternatives I am working on creating for them. I know that the day those become real, others will slowly embrace them. And at some point it will become the new norm. Most will resist at first of course, because as humans we are creatures of habit. But there are always going to be those 2-3 first people to join you. And those are the ones who will change everything. But you have to create "IT" first, for them to have something to rally to. At the end of the day, "there is nothing to promote until there is something to sell". So go back to your core, remember your dreams for your country and the world you live in, and get back to work! Be relentless at it and only llisten to that small voice in you, the voice of God. Let that voice and its comfort guide you as you create your "it" and they will come! Criticize by Creating!!! Hope it helps! Much Love.

Magatte

My Book Review of Rwanda Inc.

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"Compared with the embarrassing parade of leaders in Africa since independence, Rwandan President Paul Kagame is clearly intelligent, disciplined, and principled. It is inspiring to read about the economic gains he has brought to the long-suffering people of Rwanda. In light of Kagame's unquestionable achievements, it would have been even more satisfying if Rwanda, Inc. had either shown us Kagame warts and all or definitively exonerated him from the most damaging charges against him. Instead, we are left to wonder: Is Kagame great only with respect to economics? Or might he be a truly great African leader?"

This is excerpt from my book review of Rwanda Inc for Barron's. The Full review is available here (scroll at the bottom of the page)

Must See this weekend: "Elevate" the Movie

Today, I received the most beautiful news about my beloved  SEEDS Academy in Senegal (SEEDS stands for Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal). Michael and I have been good friends of Amadou Gallo Fall (the incredible and wonderful visionary behind SEEDS)and advisers for SEEDS for several years.

Anne Buford, an all time amazing supporter of SEEDS directed a documentary, "Elevate", on SEEDS and how it is allowing athletically and academically skilled young men in Senegal to earn college scholarships in the United States and Europe . The movie has been winning many awards at various prestigious film festivals. And today, the New York Times just gave it a well deserved review.

It is a dignified representation of our country, our boys and our culture of hard work in general. See this video for a quick take on my culture from Anne.

And I could not agree more with the author that my dear friend Amadou  "is the real hero here"!

The movie opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Make sure to go see it!

African Entrepreneurs Taken Seriously

Until now I have never devoted a blog post to an event I will be speaking at. Not sure why, just something I don't think about I guess.

This time is different.  Because this is more than an event. It is a way of thinking AND behaving that I so truly, deeply believe in. Actually it is one of the very few forms of "development" that the proud African woman do-it-first-and-they'll-show-up  I am  can accept and does respect.

Convergence Africa simply states its vision as "where capital meets opportunity". I say "YES! YES! and YES!" (singing). When I see and hear those words of "where Capital meets opportunity" right next to the word "Africa", well it brings tears to my eyes.

Africa's time has come, I'll never say it enough. And the world will be better for it.

So I cannot wait to join this global community of folks who take African entrepreneurship seriously. I can't wait to hug again fellow warriors friends like Claude Grunitzky and Jacqueline Musiitwa and greet other fellow warriors I have not met  yet, but whose work I have been following and cheering for along the sideline like Fred Swaniker and Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu .

It will be refreshing to participate to a convergence where the crowd is made of representatives of a healthy eco-system an entrepreneur needs with topics directly related to the entrepreneur's toolkit (ie. legal framework for a business, execution, securing financing, training of the next generation of leaders and talent, channelling african creativity for new business opportunity, etc).

I also cannot wait for the Gala dinner at which the  2011 Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship will honor  outstandingly deserving change agents. While the hippos are fattening themselves into a pond that they can't get out of anymore and slowly drowning in it, the cheetahs are creating, innovating and enjoying the run of their lives. We have not given up on our Continent, and we are using entrepreneurship as the Master Tool to create better lives for ourselves, those around us and those to come.

World Biggest Micro-Entrepreneur: the best an African can do, really?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Uz1zkzcmtHQ]  

More here. My point is if we, Africans, want to be taken seriously in this world, we have to step up and speed up, right now. Let's establish our own standards and they better be world-class standards or more, nothing less. And let's leapfrog from there.

I encourage you to check out PovertyCure.org (and make sure to "Watch their promo"), for it is an organization that has a great understanding for sound economics. I also like that is a network of partners and people who truly understand the most basic need of ANY human being for dignity and pride, including the poor people. Then that is no wonder they support entrepreneurship as the best path to escaping poverty with superb dignity.

The newly rich and inventive Africans

"Think of technological change this way. Even if you time-travelled back to 1980 with your modern salary, and found yourself far richer than most people, you still could not find wheeled suitcases, mobile-phone signals, hepatitis C vaccines or decaf mocha lattes on the high street. Likewise, time-travel forward to a prosperous 2040 without a wage increase and you might find yourself relatively poor. But think of the products you could find there, some of them supplied by newly rich and inventive Africans. Other people getting rich means other people working to invent things for you." ~ Matt Ridley from "The Rational Optimist"

You can read more here.

The Difference a Job Can Make

My Beloved just sent me this post called "Where children sleep" from LENS, the photography blog of the NYT blog. Basically it is a slide show of photos taken by  James Mollison picturing different children in their home country around the world and where they sleep.

The whole piece is supposed to serve as a commentary on class and poverty.

My husband emailed it to me with the qualitative adjective "fascinating". It made me furious, because in my personal experience the connotation of that word is necessarily positive. And I see nothing positive about this, on the contrary. What a compilation of degrading stereotypes!

Do you really believe that all American kids are spoiled brats with out of touch parents, all japanese little boys are nerds, while all japanese little girls are  geishas or subdued women to be, that all little african boys are fatherless future child soldiers (and that picture of little Lamine of Senegal truly pisses me off by the way!), and that the fate of all young girls in Brazil is teenage pregnancy? Unless you believe so, then this is nothing  but an extraordinary reinforcement of stereotypes manipulating our deepest empathy instincts, especially when it comes to social injustice and  little ones not having their basic needs for food and shelter covered.

I have no problem with the denouncing of poverty. But I do have a problem with three things when it comes to addressing poverty:

1/ When it reinforces negative stereotypes.

2/ When it crumbles people's spirit and their "can do" attitude by only focusing on the negative. I am not sure for you, but I get tired of the same old stories and photos of poor people around the world. We can still address poverty and galvanize people to fight it, but I would find it a million times more uplifting and efficient if the good news of the progress we are already making was also displayed.  However doom and gloom things may look right now, EVERYWHERE around the world, people are better of than EVER before! Is everything perfect? Of course not! Do we still have a long way to go? You bet! But if the progress of the past can tell us anything, it is that we collectively have what it takes to keep on making things better.

3/ When it puts people up against each other because  we try to make it sound like it is a class problem, almost as if some people should be blamed and feel ashamed of themselves because they have more than others; while leaving some others to feel outrageously entitled. Leave the have-tos alone (especially if they worked hard for it), and let's focus on making sure the have-nots have more. If anything, the American Dream should be the living proof that it is not a class problem. Pay attention to the countries of origin of all the little ones who seem poor to us, and start digging into how easy it would be for potential entrepreneurs to start companies there that would give their parents a job, with a salary that would allow them to provide for their children the way  parents leaving in a rich country do.

We can change this, more radically than ever before! We just need to focus on the right culprits: the roadblocks to entrepreneurship everywhere, key to decent jobs with enabling salaries. It may not give you the same immediate satisfaction of feeling "hey, I am a hero because I donated for this child to eat today", but I promise you that in the long run, you will have the wonderful reward of witnessing an ocean of happy children who can live normal lives because of your sustained effort on focusing on that too! I already chose my strategy :)

The Pleasure of Introducing an American into My Thiossane

Last spring I had the pleasure of introducing Michael Strong to my home, my origin, my Thiossane.  He wrote this, which expresses beautifully how I feel about my country: FLOW Vision News - May 2009

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

Rumi

Shuffling through the ankle deep sand of the narrow paths that pass for streets in a traditional Senegalese neighborhood at 2 a.m., guided by a Sufi mystic who has been having visions since the age of 13, we come across a crowd watching a wrestling match behind a makeshift canvas enclosure. Peaking through the holes in the canvas, along with the street urchins who cannot afford the 10 cents admissions fee, by flaming torchfire we see a pair of incredibly powerful men wrestling shoulder to shoulder, dripping with sweat and dust, wearing only a simple loincloth as they throw each other to the ground with great fierceness. We then walk along the beach in the dark, past a graveyard of holy men, with the huge waves crashing and crabs running in the moonlight. And amidst all of this indigenous, exotic romanticism, the marabout wants me to help modernize Senegal.

There is a breed of Westerner who hates our civilization, and wants to return to a more indigenous way of life. But most people who do not have our way of life, long for it. I am reminded of climbing a local promontory in Alaska with an orange-robed Tibetan priest and a group of local hippies, who had asked him to bless the mountain for them. In the blessing ceremony that he was performing, he quite innocently and honestly prayed for them that they would find oil under their land, assuming, as do most people from poor countries, that these people would be delighted to have the gift of sudden wealth. Little did he know that this particular group of people would find the thought of discovering oil beneath their land to be a curse rather than a blessing. Their sudden expressions of repugnance were unimaginable to him.

That said, it is also true that many people from other cultures fear the erosion of their own cultures, even as they long for the comfort, convenience, pleasure, and respect that comes from living the life we enjoy in the "developed" world. A majority of people living on less than $1 dollar per day listen to radio, and a majority of those living on less than $2 per day watch television. They are all watching, at least part of the time, American programs which often show the most tawdry aspects of our culture, unbelievable shamelessness and vulgarity along with unbelievable material wealth.

Senegalese culture is an especially warm, kind, and respectful culture for those who experience it from the inside (for a sense of the warmth and diversity of the music, see herehere, and here). Casual tourists are harassed by beggars and street vendors, so if one does not have personal relationships with individual Senegalese one might not experience the real Senegal. But for those who have the opportunity to develop real relationships here, one can feel a culture that is relatively free from anger, hatred, ego, and vanity. There are, of course, good people and bad people everywhere. But the social norms here are, on balance, more modest than in the U.S. One of the projects I am working on here is the SEEDS Academy, a basketball academy founded by Amadou Gallo Fall, the VP for International Relations for the Dallas Mavericks. Although the Senegalese tend to be very tall and exceptionally athletic, one of the concerns at the academy is to train the players to be aggressive rather than respectful so that they can compete in the NCAA and NBA. To take a different kind of example, in watching a video of a Senegalese concert, most of which was the singing of religious songs, the young people at the concert were as enthusiastic as any American concert crowd. But when a Congolese band came on that, instead of religious songs, sang songs with sexually explicit lyrics and quasi-pornographic dancing, the Senegalese young people became suddenly quiet and visibly embarrassed, en masse. This was a spontaneous response and it was not a behavior that one would see in the U.S., where highly sexualized performances at rock concerts are well received.

So the problem that I am currently working on is how to help a country become wealthy while preserving, as much as possible, its cultural integrity. On the wealthy side, the good news is that Senegal is ready to take off and join the world economy as soon as Americans are ready to invest in and purchase from Senegal. I may be exaggerating slightly by putting the burden largely on Americans, but many Senegalese are frustrated with having France as their primary trading partner, because of the various ways in which they EU economy is formally closed and, even more so, because of the ways in which the Europeans are not as culturally adventurous, open, and welcoming as are the Americans. Plus, relative to the French, the Americans have money and spend it. The Senegalese want to do business with Americans.

Unfortunately, many Americans are burdened with an enormous set of prejudices regarding Africa. Our image of Africa is that it is a land of poverty, violence, corruption, and disease. While there are many Americans who are eager to pity Africa and send money, fewer Americans are ready to recognize Africa as a legitimate place to vacation, do business, and build friendships. And with leaders such as Robert Mugabe in place and the Congo civil wars periodically re-erupting, unfortunately many of the negative perceptions of Africa have a basis in reality.

But most of those generalizations do not apply to Senegal. Senegal has been a stable, functioning democracy since independence. Although one should take malaria pills here, especially in the rainy season, there are no unusual health risks here; even the AIDS rate in Senegal is comparable to that in the U.S. The climate along the gorgeous coast is more moderate than is that of Texas; typical Dakar daytime temperatures range from cool and breezy 70s in the dry season to the high 80s in the brief rainy season.

After forty years of socialism, President Wade of Senegal has, since his election in 2000, put in place a thoroughly pro-market agenda: he has created a one-stop shop business registration service that makes opening up a business in Senegal straightforward for both foreigners and natives, and he has an entire office devoted to setting up industrial parks and free zones, with a determination to attract American investment in the free zones. Senegal has secure property rights and a strong tradition of rule of law and contract enforcement; thus businesses that invest here need not worry about many of the legitimate fears that prevent them from investing in many developing world nations. Only seven hours away via a direct flight from NYC, D.C. and Atlanta, Senegal is, in effect, open for business.

Poverty is the worst problem facing Senegal, and it is clearly the legacy of forty years of socialism. When Senegal achieved independence in 1960, it had one of the strongest manufacturing sectors of any African nation. Leopold Senghor, the first leader of independent Senegal, was educated by French socialists and therefore believed that government control of the economy was superior to capitalistic competition. Until 1986, a hundred and sixty-one different manufactured items essentially had government-granted monopolies due to the misguided belief that competition was harmful to economic progress. The impact was exactly the reverse; sixteen years of government-enforced monopolies resulted in a shrunken manufacturing sector with poor quality standards that prevented Senegalese industry from competing in the global market. A series of reforms starting in 1986 began to open up the economy, but just as the transition economies of eastern Europe struggled when initially faced with global competition, so too did Senegal's economy. Moreover, the combination of ongoing socialism with more open trade resulted in the collapse of the Senegalese manufacturing sector.

The dominant cultural and religious force in Senegal is Sufi Muslim, with more than 95% of Senegalese being followers. Among the Sufi brotherhoods, the most powerful one is the Mourides, founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a charismatic mystic who is beloved for resisting the French colonial powers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Bamba preached a principled non-violence, decades before Ghandi, and hard work as the path to holiness, and one of his first disciples was a highly successful entrepreneur who added entrepreneurship as one of the paths through which work became holy. As a consequence, the Mourides diaspora around the world tend to be successful entrepreneurs wherever they go. Moreover, because Mouridism is ethical first and foremost, Bamba, in his own way, launched the first generation of Conscious Capitalists(R). Thus in a world in which a common prejudice towards Muslims is the belief that they are terrorists, and a common prejudice towards Africans is that they are lazy, passive, and unethical the Mourides are globally distinguished for being especially peaceful Muslims and especially hard working, ethical, entrepreneurial Africans. I don't want to exaggerate; decades of dependence on NGOs and government have undermined the work ethic in Senegal. But if Wade is able to complete his project of releasing his people from decades of socialism, the future looks bright for Senegal.

Unlike many African leaders, Wade is moving in the right direction. But always and everywhere, economic freedom only results in economic growth if entrepreneurs build successful companies, and African entrepreneurs can only build successful companies if they receive investment capital and if consumers purchase their products and services. But if Senegal's beautiful beaches are over-run by the drunken spring break party crowd from the U.S., and if all of the investment comes from the most short-sighted and calloused businessmen from France, the U.S., China, and the Arab world, Senegal may become wealthier but a land destroyed by drunkenness, corruption, pollution, and prostitution. But if the best and most caring people come to Senegal as tourists and investors, and learn to love and respect the music, the people, and the culture, then perhaps Senegal can develop as the first wealthy nation in black sub-Saharan Africa while also providing a model of how to modernize in a culturally respectful manner.

Peace,

Michael Strong  CEO & Chief Visionary Officer FLOW

P.S.: Be the Solution!