of you here, I am engaged in a quest to help drive a renaissance
question of transformation in Africa is a question of
leadership. The problems confronting Africa can only be solved
by enlightened Africans; and it is my contention that the manner
in which we educate our people has a lot to do with forming such
illustrate my point by sharing some stories with you.
experience shapes our perception of Africa’s Leaders
year, an American friend of mind served as a volunteer nurse in
Ghana over a period of three months and came to a conclusion
about the impact of leadership in Africa that I had taken more
than a decade to reach.
friend was involved in surgeries, when the hospital lost power.
Emergency generators did not start on either occasion. There
was not a flashlight, not a lantern, not a candle available.
Pitch black. Twice. The first time, it was a C- Section.
Thankfully, baby was out before the power failed. Mother and
child survived. The second time, it was a procedure with local
anaesthetic. Anaesthetic wears off. Patient feels pain. He is
screaming, he is crying, he is praying. Not a flashlight, not a
candle. The hospital could certainly afford to purchase
flashlights, but it didn’t do so. On another occasion my friend
watched in horror as nurses sat by and watched a woman die
because they did not want to administer the oxygen they had.
before my friend’s return to the United States, nurses in Accra
started a strike. Her recommendation to a senior nurse who
asked for advice: “Take this opportunity to fire everyone and
start all over again.”
Because she believed that Ghanaian nurses were doing far too
little with the resources that they had; that they did not care
about their patients; that their character was not sufficient to
this have to do with leadership? You see, the folks at the
Ministry of Health, the hospital administrators, doctors and
nurses in Ghana are among only 5 percent of their peers who get
the benefit of post secondary education. They are part of the
elite. They are among our leaders. Their decisions and actions
matter a lot to the citizens of Ghana; and when they fall short,
a nation literally suffers.
Experience with Leadership
first pointed and memorable experience with leadership occurred
when I was sixteen, shortly after a military coup in Ghana.
Soldiers were a pervasive presence in our lives.
One day I
went to meet my father at the airport. As I walked up a grassy
slope from the car park to the terminal building, I was stopped
by two soldiers armed with AK-47 assault rifles. They asked me
to run up and down the embankment, along with a crowd of people
who were already trudging up and down the rather steep slope.
“Why?” It turns out that the path I had taken was off limits;
but there were no signs indicating this fact.
teenager, I was horrified by the taunts I might face in school
if any of my colleagues observed this event. I was especially
concerned about what the girls would think. So I set about
arguing with these two men. I was a bit reckless, really. I
end, I got lucky. As I stalled and tried to argue my way out of
this mess, a Ghana Airways pilot stumbled into the same pickle
as the rest of us. Because of his uniform, the soldiers spoke
with him differently. They explained that they were just
following orders. So he got their radio, spoke directly with
their commanding officer, and through his intervention, got us
lessons would you take from this event?
several lessons from my experience. One was leadership
matters. Those men were acting on the orders of a superior
officer. I learned something about courage. It was important
not to focus on those guns. I also learned that it can
sometimes be helpful to think about girls.
years after this event, I left Ghana to pursue a college
education in the United States. At Swarthmore College, where I
went, I experienced a completely different model of education
than anything I had encountered before. Our professors wanted
to know what we thought, and they very decidedly did not
subscribe to the teaching method of memorizing and repeating
information that I was familiar with in Ghana. It was a breadth
of fresh air.
And in my
Economics classes I began to understand why Ghana’s economy was
in such disarray. My professors gave me high marks for my
understanding of economic theory; but I learned something far
more profound than basic Economics, and it was this: that the
leaders –the managers– of Ghana’s economy were making
breathtakingly bad decisions that had brought my country to the
brink of economic collapse and deepened poverty.
was that lesson again: Leadership matters.
of properly educated leaders
understanding of my transformation at Swarthmore, however, did
not come until after I had graduated and gone to work at
Microsoft, I was part of what I called a thinking learning
company. We spent a lot of time learning about advances in our
field, designing solutions to complex problems and creating new
software. This ability to confront complex problems and the
create, is the most empowering thing that can happen to anyone.
time at Microsoft, that company’s revenue grew larger than the
GDP of Ghana. Today, that gap has widened. It is staggering,
if you think about it … that a relatively small group of men and
women could create an economy larger than the Republic of Ghana.
already spoken about one of the reasons for this phenomenon: the
people at Microsoft who were passionate and persistent about
their jobs, and who were able to confront complex problems.
phenomenon was also a result of several external factors such as
free markets, the rule of law, and good infrastructure. These
things were provided by institutions run by people that I call
leaders. And those people did not emerge spontaneously; they
were shaped by their education.
Re-engaging with Ghana and Africa
became a parent in 1995 and for the first time in my life, I
started to think about what the world meant for my children.
And it occurred to me that Africa’s condition would matter a
great deal to my children.
As I went
through what I now call my pre-midlife crisis, things didn’t
look so good in Africa. Somalia had disintegrated into anarchy,
and Rwanda was in the throes of a genocidal war. Africa did not
represent the kind of world I would want my children to inherit.
started to re-engage with Africa, in the country I knew best:
approach to deciding what to do was to return to Ghana, to
observe and to listen to what Ghanaians felt about the situation
in the country. Three things kept coming up as the root causes
of many of the problems we see on the continent today:
corruption, weak institutions and poor leadership.
the Right Leaders
course leads to the question, “How are Africa’s leaders formed,
and how can it be improved?” Our educational system is heavily
committed to rote learning. From Kindergarten through graduate
school, students are trained to memorize facts and repeat those
facts to their teachers.
in which we have educated our people in Africa, has had an
impact on the kinds of leaders we have. There have been other
reasons, of course, but education has played a very big role.
What do I mean by this?
at its best, should seek to develop skills and
enlightenment. By skills, I mean a toolset of cognitive,
learning and problem solving skills, as well as knowledge that
can be productively applied in society. And by enlightenment, I
mean that our schools should instill in students a deep and
enduring commitment to integrity, concern for society, and the
drive to live more excellent lives. The didactic approach to
teaching that is currently so pervasive in our educational
system does neither of these.
project that I am currently working on is a committed effort to
bring my Swarthmore experience to Africa. I wish every African
country had a strong liberal arts college. We must have the
confidence that if we involve students in their education and
encourage them to ask the right questions and be creative, magic
that some days I wake up and think that this is Mission
Impossible, but I am encouraged by the results we are getting.
month into our first year, a student sent me an email that read:
“I’m thinking now.” Such a simple statement, but I was moved
almost to tears, because I understood how he felt. It is an
awesome feeling to know that I have played a part in empowering
that young man.
we invited our students to consider crafting an honor code for
themselves. There is a very vigorous debate going on campus
about whether this is necessary. One of our students asked a
question that I found especially heartwarming. She asked, “Can
we build a perfect society?” Her understanding that a
student-created honor code constituted a drive towards
perfection is absolutely great. They cannot create a perfect
society, but by reaching for it they can achieve excellence. I
don’t know what decisions our students will eventually make, but
it is delightful to hear debate what their good society
should look like.
I am very
excited by the fact that all of our students do community
service before graduation and that so many of them have found
the experience life changing. These future leaders are not just
thinking for the sake of it, but are applying their skills to
solve problems in their community. Best of all, they are
beginning to understand the real business of leadership –the
real privilege of leadership– which it to serve humanity.
I am even
more thrilled by the fact that last year, our student body
elected the first female president of a university student
government in the history of Ghana. It says a lot about her, it
says a lot about the emerging campus culture, and it says a lot
about her peers. She was elected with 75% of the vote.
out that Corporate West Africa appreciates the results of our
work too. Of the members of the two classes of students who
have graduated so far, every single one of them has been
successfully placed in industry -all of them on the continent.
And we are getting good reports from our graduates’ employers.
They are especially impressed by our students’ work ethic and
their ability to confront new problems.
tremendous hope for our Continent. Our current and future
leaders confront an incredible opportunity to drive a major
renaissance in Africa.
that Africa has reached an inflection point. With the march of
democracy and free markets across the continent, we stand at a
critical moment from which we can build a great society within
bright new future in Africa will require inspired leadership;
and it is my contention that the way we educate our leaders will
make all the difference.