African solutions to African problems

Three black African students (two females and a male) smile to the camera with their arms around each other's shoulders
Conference organisers Irede Akindele (left), Mekseb Eskender (centre) and Tavengwa Chitata (right)

A conference, organised by Lancaster University undergraduates, put African voices at the centre of discussions about Africa’s future.

The conference focussed on climate change, the role of the African diaspora and decolonising the ways we all think about Africa, including how Africans think about themselves.

Mekseb Eskender, a third year Geography student of Eritrean heritage, came up with the idea for the conference more than a year ago, as a way to introduce her fellow students to a range of African perspectives.

“The philosophy behind the conference stems from calls to decolonise the curriculum and the need to showcase thoughts and ways of thinking from other parts of the world, and to show that African ideas and innovations are worth considering,” says Mekseb.

She asked a friend – Lancaster Law student Irede Akindele, who had gone to the same London sixth form - to help organise the conference.

“Normally Africa as a continent tends to be given a back seat in a lot of developmental discussions, it’s time to give the microphone back to Africans and ask them what they need to progress,” said Irede, a first-generation immigrant from Nigeria. “Often the world forgets that colonialism is still continuing to make a great impact on African development, a lot of foreign countries and companies play a part in stopping Africa developing.”

The friends were put in touch with two Professors from the Lancaster Environment Centre - Frances Cleaver and Camilla Toulmin - who have both carried out long term field work in Africa. The academics were enthusiastic and offered support.

Mekseb signed up for a module - Africa: Geographies of Transformation - led by Frances and Camilla, with teaching assistance from Zimbabwean PhD student Tavengwa Chitata. Tavengwa decided to help organise the event because “being an African organising an African event, it was a natural thing to do.” Frances and Camilla provided contacts, encouragement and advice and helped to source funding from the Lancaster Environment Centre. They all agreed that the Conference would become part of the module’s seminar series.

Mekseb, Irede and Tavengwa wanted to find speakers who could talk about practical solutions to Africa’s problems. It wasn’t all easy going.

Mekseb said: “One of the things I have learnt is to bounce back from rejection: a lot of the time when we approached people, we didn’t get responses, or they had other commitments. We learnt to persevere and still make the conference a success.”

Eventually they did pull it off, lining up academic researchers and practitioners from a range of African countries and disciplines, whose expertise spanned agriculture, economics, energy systems, healthcare, human rights, climate change, capacity building and politics. They included a former Under Secretary General of the UN for Energy who is now an MP in Sierra Leone.

Students from the Africa: Geographies of Transformation module were joined by Lancaster students from other academic fields and Lancaster researchers for the day-long conference.

A strong theme coming through in many of the presentations was how Africa’s institutions, economy, culture and mindset are still shaped by colonialism, holding back the continent’s development.

“We look down on people who don’t speak English or French. Many Africans like to look European. How did I come to have a European name?” questioned Monica Gyimah, a Lancaster University PhD researcher and a human rights champion. “Africa needs to decolonise our minds: our leaders are the new colonialists, many are supported by the west so they listen more to western countries than they listen to their own people.”

She touched on political and economic domination of African continents noting that 65% of sub-Saharan Africa’s best arable land is either controlled by white settlers or multinational corporations.

George Asiamah, a Ghanese doctoral researcher from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said that Africa can’t just blame the West, but needs to come up with its own, local solutions. He spoke about the enormous difference small off grid solar energy systems could make to the millions of Africans who still have no electricity, like the system now installed in his own village. Just $25 dollars installs a system that can run three lightbulbs, a larger system can enable people to grind flour or run a sewing machine.

Dr Chishimba Mulambia, a research fellow from the University of Zambia, spoke of how foreign aid often benefits the elites and gives power to the aid givers. “Africa needs to trade with Africa,” she concluded.

Many of the speakers felt that key to change was to change the way people are educated in Africa – to decolonise the curriculum in Africa, prioritising African languages, history and culture.

Professor Aminu Mamman, from the University of Manchester, talked about challenging the western view of education as providing human capital, and instead reviving the pre-colonial African philosophy of Ubuntu. “Colonials say, send your children to school so they can get a job, that is not Ubuntu…Ubuntu will say, send children to school so they can serve the community.”

For Mekseb’s fellow students on the Geographies of Transformation module, the conference was enlightening. “It’s nice having something different, to listen to different people, different topics, hear different people’s ideas”, said Tilly Elwell.

Her friend Amelia Smith valued the experience of going to an academic conference, which she had never done before. “The history of Africa is usually talked about by non-Africans. Hearing Africans’ perspective and experience is more valuable.”

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