We must all dream about a better Africa: Dr. Myma Belo-Osagie’s Commencement address to the Class of 2021

Ashesi Class of 2021 – Congratulations! Ayeeko!

I know I don’t need to explain that exclamation to the many non-Ghanaians who form such a treasured part of your Class, but for the non-Ghanaian parents listening in from other parts of the world I am congratulating this amazing class which, despite the many difficulties faced by having to complete their last year of university online, virtually, and probably feeling really lonely, has made it to graduation. It’s a phenomenal achievement and one of which all of you students and all of us parents, professors, lecturers, supporters and friends of Ashesi should be, and are, proud of.  Savour the moment graduands – it’s a moment you need to remember with joy as well as with pride.

This is also a moment that I am savoring for a slightly different reason.  It’s because Ashesi University and all of you are fulfilling one of my dreams – the dream that Africans will once again – and I say once again because I am thinking of the historically great institutions of learning in places like Timbuktu – build and operate world class and world beating institutions on the African continent that our best and brightest young minds will attend and then go out, and do great things for our continent and the world.  As all of you will know it’s a wonderful feeling when a dream comes true, so for me it’s both an honour and a joy to have the opportunity to thank you for bringing a dream towards reality. Although it would have been an even greater pleasure to see each of you in person, I really am happy that I can convey my thanks on this occasion.

As you leave Ashesi each of you too will have goals, hopes and dreams for your future  – which human being doesn’t?  These may be personal – things you as an individual want or would like to achieve – or they may be more communal or corporate – things that you want to achieve for your families and communities and your countries.  Most likely a combination of both. Because you are high achieving Ashesi graduates you are probably going to put a lot of pressure on yourselves to realise these goals and objectives – and indeed some of you may well already have begun to take the steps along the path you have mapped out; in which case, well done!

For those of you who have not, remember that while there is nothing wrong in being ambitious to achieve, not all of you will get to your goals or fulfill your dreams within the same time frame. Some of you will come back for an alumni event three to five years from now still not having determined your final path. Others will be well on the way to having done so. In either case it’s fine. To use the analogy of a fire, some of us are slow burners but the flame is strong and steady. Others are fast flamers – the flame burns hot and bright and then quietens into a steadier flame. Yet others are those whose flame will need fanning – or even re-igniting – a number of times; and potentially – because after all this is real life – a few may be regarded by some as having flamed out.  For those who may find themselves in this situation I urge you to remember that an apparent “flame out” can often be God’s way of suggesting you take a different path. Consider it. The advantage of having been to Ashesi as opposed to some other universities is that you have the ability to successfully transition between varied career paths – something that may  be the way of the future of work.

I don’t think, however, that those blessed with an Ashesi education should have limited hopes, goals, ambitions or dreams; so today I want to encourage each of you towards a bigger dream. I want you to remember Ashesi’s mission to transform Africa and its people, and add to your personal list your hopes, goals, ambitions and dreams for a larger community – the community that is Africa, the continent on which we were born and in which we live and work; the continent into which we want our parents to be able to retire in comfort and security; the continent on which we want to bring up our children free from want, in good health and with expectations for a bright future; the continent whose beauty, whose many cultures and whose spirit – including the often mentioned spirit of Ubuntu – we want to share with our extended families and friends. Given that so many – including Africans like ourselves – tend to dismiss and denigrate Africa or see it only in the context of a place to be used – and unfortunately abused – I’d like to encourage you as you move to the next phase of your lives to have a dream of the kind of Africa YOU want to see in your future.

Of course, depending on what your hopes, ambitions and dreams are for this continent some of you may feel that your dream for Africa is too much of a big ambitious dream; too much of a stretch, too farfetched, too impossible to achieve.  You may likely think of all the negatives that are relentlessly drummed into our ears – the dark continent, the hopeless continent, a continent of poverty, corruption, pathetic governance, incompetent leadership. An embarrassment. A joke. A continent not worth bothering about.  A global irrelevance. Indeed, you are graduating at a time when the popular narrative as you will know is that the combination of the economic and health crisis resulting from a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, the associated lockdowns and all the negative factors I have mentioned means that Africa may well be headed for a continental crisis. It is easy to despair if one accepts the common narrative about and common perceptions of our continent.

And yet. And yet all of us know that while there is some truth to all of the negative stereotypes they are just that – stereotypes; albeit stereotypes that ought to be taken seriously and changed.  But that change is going to come only when, in addition to better leadership and better governance and better institutions we have facts, figures and data allowing for realistic assessments, realistic policies and realistic plans to shape the kind of future we all want to see. We should dream; but we should dream, as the saying goes, “with our eyes wide open.”

Even those of you who like me are more positive about Africa may well instinctively limit our hopes and ambitions and dreams for the continent because we have these negative perceptions swimming through our minds. We may well be saying, look, if we can secure education for 60% of our populations that’s okay – it’s too much to expect 100%. Or we may be saying well if we can ensure internet penetration across 70% of our respective countries we have done enough – to expect 100% penetration is unreasonable. Or we may completely dismiss possibilities such as that some day soon, an African nation (or a combination of African nations) will launch a rocket into space.

What we need to remember though, is that each of the steps towards achieving any ambitious goal is also an achievement – albeit a mini-achievement – and each mini-achievement comes with concomitant benefits. For example, each of you passed exams for primary school, secondary school and eventually built on those “mini-achievements” to get into Ashesi. Or for example, let’s take the project management skills needed to get a rocket into space. These are beneficial for so many things other than a space programme. These are skills that can help to implement all those 5 and 10 and 20 year national plans that we hear about so often, and they are skills that can help to translate manifestos and policies into implementable programmes and plans. In other words, even if we don’t get to space soon, or indeed ever, the skills learned can be used in other ways. So there is nothing wrong in having ambitious goals and dreams and working towards them however small or apparently insignificant each of the steps towards getting there may be.

What would be wrong is to sink into despair and let a sense of helplessness overcome you even though you are leaving Ashesi at a time when it would be easy to despair.  The many and varied disruptions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed the myriad social, economic, environmental, health and security fault lines that millions of people are exposed to every day of their lives. A very large portion of these are people who live on the African continent and fall into the global bottom billion – living in poverty, in danger, in terrible environmental conditions, with minimal or no access to achievable things like clean water and health care and education; and they are Africans who are suffering economically, physically, emotionally and mentally. For these citizens of Africa there is indeed a crisis, and it is because of this crisis that each of you – each of us – must make the dream of a better Africa one of our dreams.

Why we should do so is obvious: Africa is our home. Whether Africa is irrelevant in the global scheme of things; whether to many Africa is relevant only because it is seen as a source of valuable minerals and other natural resources; whether Africa is seen simply as a source of younger, cheaper labour or just as a huge market; or simply as a repository of unique flora and fauna for tourists to visit; whether it is seen as the source of migrants and refugees or the potential source of future pandemics and future wars and therefore a problem for the world; for us and at least a billion other Africans, it is home.  Like all normal human beings, we want our home to be a place of joy and comfort and pleasure; a place that sustains rather than drains us; a place of good governance where all have access to all the things that allow for a decent life. We cannot and should not accept an Africa where lives of citizens are defined by crises. It is a matter we urgently need to address.

Situations of crisis such as so many within Africa live in – just like the times of crisis resulting from the pandemic – present both opportunities and possibilities for new ways of thinking.  As Ashesi students and alumni you are uniquely qualified to address both. You have the skills and the confidence which so many lack and have not had the opportunity to develop. You have been taught to think critically, reason logically, ask thoughtful questions, do research, seek data and information and make data-based decisions. Ashesi students and Ashesi alumni are amongst those particularly well qualified to recognise that some of the negative narrative about our continent is perpetuated for reasons that have little to do with Africa and its people, but rather because it suits and benefits others. You are amongst those uniquely qualified to recognise that these narratives are not the only Africa story and are certainly not the whole story. You are better able than many to address complicated and difficult issues – and make no mistake about it, the issues faced by this huge and complex continent are indeed complicated and difficult ones. You are amongst those who are uniquely qualified to make a difference to a future that will hopefully be increasingly equitable, increasingly green and carbon free and increasingly technological and digital. Your education makes you better able than many to put forward new paradigms, to argue for different and more Africa relevant decision-making metrics and parameters, to consider different contexts for making assessments and judgements. As confirmed by the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, you have attended one of the most impactful universities on the continent in part, I believe, because students from all parts of Africa have the opportunity to participate in the Ashesi educational journey and because your university has encouraged you to have a social conscience. Like your founder I am a proud Achimotan Akora, but I am willing to acknowledge that Ashesi students are particularly well qualified to address Africa’s future.

For those of you who feel there is nothing you can do, I encourage you to remember the well known perhaps over quoted words of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”. Individual actions may seem unimportant but can, when put together, achieve ambitious goals. Wouldn’t it make a huge difference to some of Ghana’s current environmental issues if every single person in Ghana stopped flinging plastic items and other garbage out of their houses, offices and vehicle windows into streets and gutters and took the trouble to put the rubbish into bags and dispose of it properly? This simple action is one each of us can individually take and it ultimately addresses a significant health and environmental problem. Let’s think about that!

For those of you who feel the challenges are so overwhelming that they are impossible to deal with, I will share with you a little part of an anecdote my husband sometimes tells. While he was in Oxford University, his class agreed with one of his tutors that there were certain things that could never happen. I don’t recall all of them – but I believe they finally agreed on 5 major ones. And I recall that one was that the UK would never have a female Prime Minister. Obviously, that happened. Another was that the US would never have a black President. You have seen that in your lifetime. A third was that the political system, apartheid, would not end in their lifetimes. Again, this has happened. To slightly misquote a famous saying of President Nelson Mandela, things often seem impossible until they actually happen.

So Ashesi Class of 2021, what will your dreams for your continent be? How will you change the Africa narrative? What will you plan to do to make the impossible possible? You have abilities, qualities and skills that are vital for the future of our continent and indeed the world. Be in no doubt that having graduated in such difficult circumstances, it is clear that you are capable of a great deal – your resilience, your determination and your laser focus on the graduation goal make this clear – and I encourage you wherever you may eventually find yourselves to take up the challenge and make this continent a better place for all.

May God guard and guide each of you as you enter the new phase of your lives. Congratulations again Class of 2021, and well done.