I have been on the road for the last few days. One conference after the other. And it has been interesting. Okay, sometimes it was interesting. One of the conferences I attended was in DC and was hosted by the sustainability guru John Elkington. John founded… hum, SustainAbility. Catchy phrase nowadays. But it wasn’t when he started it back 20 years ago. John is a good guy. I know him a bit and went to DC to catch up with him and a few other people I knew I would meet up with at the meeting – the usual suspects. Jane Nelson works in the same city as me, but we only see each other at conferences. And, of course, we always promise to get together for a cuppa when back at work. But we never do – just share hugs and kisses when we meet up at the next conference. But us Africans need to stand together – even if it is at conferences. We are generally the only Africans in the room. She’s from Zim and I am from a little further south. Again, I digress. But I had to do a bit of name dropping first.
John and his gang did some research with Globescan on the perceptions people have of the environment. And one of the many findings was that people in developing countries are more hopeful than those on developed countries. Yes, Africans are more hopeful of the future than Americans. And everyone was puzzled about this. How could this be? Americans have everything – big cars, big televisions, big meals and big egos. Well, I was tired by this time as I have been on the road for a few days. And they made the mistake of asking me (and others) to comment and interrupt whenever I felt like it. Yes, now they had an angry and tired African on their hands. So I decided to use the chance and interrupt at every possible occasion. That meant I interrupted on every new slide they showed us. But for now I will focus on this survey result that had them baffled.
Like a good African I scribbled a few thoughts on a piece of paper and offered my infinite wisdom. (You could hear the crowd do a single large sigh – an unbuntu sigh). John humored me though. So why are Africans more hopeful than Americans about the future? Not that difficult. Let me try and give you four reasons. I am sure there are more - so feel free to fill in the gaps. And you might not even agree with me. So throw them my way as well.
1. Lower expectations.
Yep, we have lower expectations than others. We just don’t expect politicians to solve our problems anymore – not after so many years of not getting the results we expected from our elected leader. Many of us live under politicians that won’t solve our problems. And we have become aware of this. We don’t live under the illusion that they will provide running water, electricity, food, healthcare or stop fighting. Okay, Americans and other Westerners have had a few stinkers for leaders as well. But at least a few harmless politicians pop up every now and again. We suffer from political leaders that just won’t do the right thing. Make no mistake – we have some excellent leaders in Africa. But even their hands are tied. Where are they going to find the money to even start solving the problems? And if they try and get money? They have hell to pay through privatization and selling off the crown jewels. And it is not only the politicians – we know we will get even less form those outside Africa. All help will come with strings attached that will only pull us further down. No. We have low expectations because we know that others will not solve our problems.
So how does this translate into more hope? Easy. If your expectations are this low you know that tomorrow can only be better. You expect nothing so hope can’t get any lower. We start off at a low expectation, and there is only one way from there – up. Do you expect tomorrow to be better than today? Of course, because I expected nothing from today and got nothing. Tomorrow won’t be any worse.
2. Nothing to lose.
Of course Africans are hopeful of a better tomorrow because they have nothing to lose. Very similar to the expectations argument. No luxuries like televisions, cars, ample food, health, jobs or safety. You know that tomorrow will be beter, because it can’t be worse than today. You have nothing today. So how can tomorrow be worse?
It’s the problem with having such a strong middle class like in America – too much to lose. Any threat to what they posses – and hope goes out the window. The middle class will feel that tomorrow will be worse because the housing market is down and they could lose their jobs in the unstable economy. But if you don’t have that house and that job? How can tomorrow be worse?
(This relates closely to my argument that any revolution will only be successful if driven by the poor. Because they have nothing to lose but life itself. But so much more to gain – like life itself.)
Of course expectations and nothing to lose are closely tied together in hope. We don’t expect anything and we don’t have anything. But tomorrow can only be better. Because we might actually get that clean water from a tap and not have to walk for miles. And we might get that medicine instead of seeing our people die. Or the rain might come and save our crops. Our politicians and foreigners wanting to help might get it right and actually give us something to fish with. And the school might open for our kids to have a future. That’s the hope – our kids can’t possibly have it any worse than us. Can they?
3. Natural entrepreneurs.
We see it every day. Woman sitting next to the road selling their fruit and veg on the roads in Africa. With a hundred competitors on each side. And feeding a large extended family. Feeling sorry for her? Don’t. See Bill Gates. She is running a successful business with no financial support from anywhere. No business training. Hardly any schooling. She has everything working against her. But she runs that business like Bill can only dream of running his. Cost effective to the last cent. She is Africa. She is an entrepreneur. And entrepreneurs always see a better tomorrow. Always plan for a better tomorrow. Because tomorrow we trade. Without aid.
4. Ubuntu – we care for each other.
We know tomorrow can’t be any worse. Why? Because today wasn’t that bad to start off with. I have my neighbours and my friends. We look after each other. We live and breathe for each other. We hide each other when the warlord comes. And we look after the children of the dead when death comes. We have ubuntu. We are one. That is the greatest hope we have. That when tomorrow comes we will still be standing next to each other. Looking after each other. Sharing the pot with my neighbour. And we will all eat from that pot. Share the last bit. Because I am nothing without them. That is the hope. That being together brings tomorrow. And tomorrow can’t be that bad if we still have each other and can still live and play with each other a bit longer.
And in the West? There they live for themselves. Their closed off properties with the doorbell to ring. And the telephone to warn them we want to come and visit. And their television fence that keeps them indoors and away from others. And their cubicle jails at work. Just them by themselves. They don’t need others. That’s what they believe. But can they live like that and still have hope? Hope for what? Thank God the writer strike is over. Hope might be linked to that pen for them.
See – not rocket science. Africans have more hope than Americans. Easy as pie. We have nothing, but we share with others. Because tomorrow I will have because other will have. And maybe. Just maybe. Someone will get that bloody water to run from that tap they promised. Or the rain will come. And the medicine will arrive. And our leaders will listen to the sound of hope. The sounds of women selling their goods and the children playing in the street.