Worthless People: We Africans must learn our true value before trying to teach the world our values.

An ‘intellectual evolution’ of sorts has been happening over the last 2 decades, although may be a subjective view since I have viewed the period through the prism of my career as a conservation scientist. We are coming from a point of begging to be heard at international conferences at the turn of the century to a point today where resource conservation conferences are actively soliciting African input, and even being held in Africa in order to maximize on the same. Last year, we had CoP 27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt and the Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC) in Kigali, Rwanda. This year, there is the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) conference in Nairobi. This is heralds a paradigm shift, because those of us with any involvement in resource economics are familiar with ‘The tragedy of the commons’. This theory developed in 1833 by British writer William Forster Lloyd refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a public resource (the ‘common’) act in their own interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource- An elegant definition of the nexus between capitalism and environment. Since then, individualist western thinking has abhorred the concept of commons and fought it relentlessly, so it what is changing, and how? The west is recognizing Africa’s resilience and the fact that its foundation is the various socio-cultural “commons” that exist in our continent.

This theory of course is based on the history of capitalism, which as I have written before, was the basis of imperial colonialism and its attendant cruelty. It also harks back to the epoch of primitive accumulation, when the perceived power of empires was largely material. Another much-used and primitive measure of empires was the geographical area over which they exerted their (often malevolent) influence, leading to grandiose statements like “”this vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained”  Attributed to British colonial  administrator George Macartney in 1773. This referred to the territorial expansion that followed Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ war between the European powers over territories in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. The state of human technological advancement at that time was such that this accumulation of material and the attendant power could be rooted advances in technical skills like maritime navigation or weaponry. “Soft skills” like trade negotiations and diplomacy, which necessarily required intellectual aptitude were used very peripherally (if at all) in the Europeans’ interactions with Africa. It was mostly extractive, capitalistic, and necessarily cruel.

The pedestrian quantitative view of Africa’s value today as solely material and largely based on our natural resources is at the core of our deepest external and internal intellectual challenges as a continent. Arguably the most harmful part of this challenge is the impact that it has on the thinking of our leaders. When those we entrust with power think that the best thing we can offer is material, then all their negotiations with the outside world become material-based and quantitative in nature, rather than value-based. Examples abound of the quantitative mentality and Kenya is one of the bastions of this this school of thought; We seek, for instance to earn more by exporting higher quantities of coffee, but not to roast, package, or otherwise add value to the product. We largely do the same with tea. In tourism, we constantly seek higher numbers of the much-vaunted ‘arrivals’ rather than the social and financial value they actually bring to Kenya. One former tourism minister even proposed waiving visa fees to make Kenya “more affordable”, leading one to wonder what financial value a country can gain from a tourist who cannot afford to pay fifty dollars. One apparent escapee from this mental ‘gulag’ is H. E. Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, even though his statements in this direction often escape notice or understanding. This first came to my attention from a post he made on Facebook™ in July 2015; “Human Resource is the greatest wealth, if it wasn’t, China would not be a rich country. It’s human resource that produces and consumes, minerals do not consume. That is how Japan, India and, even, South Korea have become much richer than Saudi Arabia. We need to integrate to create a wider market, and even have more produces (sic).” Following the general elections in Kenya, Mr. Museveni was invited to the inauguration of President William Ruto on 15th September 2022 and his speech included these words; “According to my experience of 60 years, I advise Africans that prosperity comes from wealth creation. And wealth is not the same as natural resources, you may have natural resources and not get wealth out of them…” It is true that the nations he named are wealthy, far beyond the material value of the material resources that exist naturally within their boundaries. Singapore is probably the most storied example of qualitative wealth generation out of value, rather than availability or ownership of material resources.

This is not a treatise for mutual exclusivity of these two bases, because the reality is far more sophisticated and demands that we approach it as such. Now that post-independence Africa trades with Europe in the same goods that were earlier looted, it is imperative that we do so under commercial and intellectual structures that differ from the exploitative ones they established to serve their colonial avarice. We need to adjust our philosophy away from seeking quantitative increase in trade volume to qualitative increase in trade value. This thematic shift is required across all interactions between Africa and the outside world from trade, education, philosophy, environmental issues and professional interactions, but I am able examine it most effectively through my lens as a scholar.

It goes without saying that Africa (like every other continent) is a constant spring of creative, scientific and technical ideas, but historically, very few of them have been exchanged or exported to other parts of the world. Instead, the African countries that like to look outward constantly gravitate to “bulk commodity” thinking, even when dealing with their citizens. In Kenya, human labour is becoming one one of our leading exports, earning the country Ksh. 502 billion (approximately 4 billion USD) in 2022. This is far ahead of our other commodity exports, which are typically agricultural. However, this is almost exclusively domestic workers, labourers, security personnel, hotel staff, valets etc. The government is very supportive of this trade, which is primarily done by agents under the kafala system, which exposes the workers to serious rights violations in their destination countries and an average of 80-100 homicides (mostly of women) annually, a grim figure in this day and age. The then Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Macharia Kamau encapsulated our government’s attitude in this flippant response; “There are some places where, culturally, unyenyekevu ambao unahitajika kwa kazi zingine za nyumbani sio unyenyekevu ambao unapatikana sana kati ya watu wetu..” Loosely translates to mean that Kenyan workers should be more submissive when working in certain places. Our government is most comfortable earning foreign exchange from the efforts of the labourer class, to whom they feel least responsible.

The institutional weakness is visible in the absence of any established or state-supported system for hiring of skilled professionals, whose skills are worth more per person. This cadre would of course require more government input and legal attention to their terms, but our interest has been more in the number going out rather than their value. Another example is the tech sector. The IT skill levels amongst Kenyan youth are world renowned, but rather than encourage techpreneurs, Kenya invites big tech firms to outsource their online monitoring to skilled cheap youth labour in Kenya. One such company, Sama was receiving over 10 US dollars per man hour from Facebook for these jobs and paid the workers less than 2 dollars an hour for the highly stressful work. Complaints about the conditions fell on deaf ears until an article about it appeared in ‘Time’ magazine in March 2022. After the exposé their wages were raised to $ 2.20 per hour, still a pittance, but an improvement only motivated by the western gaze, not our country’s perceived value of skilled labour. This mentality is replicated across trade in minerals, agricultural commodities, and fossil fuels all of which tend to be traded in their ‘raw’ form, bereft of any value addition.

Our greatest challenge as Africans today is our inability to understand our homeland’s value through people rather than through commodities, or the much-vaunted “natural resources”. It leads us to ape the behaviour of our exploiters in the way treat our own citizens. This is also apparent in the heritage sector. Anyone who visits the National Museums of Kenya and notices that we have an “Institute of African Studies” housed there. In 2013, the oldest known human burial site was ‘discovered’ in Panga ya Saidi at the coast. As soon as the remains were fully excavated, the National Museums of Kenya shipped them off to the National Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain ‘for further analysis’. We still needed the external gaze here, in this case to validate that we actually had civilized societies, burying our dead 78,000 years ago. Literature even refers to this find as a ‘discovery’ yet the remains were of a child, carefully buried by his family, who were presumably humans. Further afield, the fallacy of ‘African studies’ is robustly displayed by top American universities without a hint of irony on their websites. Harvard University claims to be “one of the world’s foremost centers of learning about Africa” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Princeton is even bolder about its primitive extractivism, stating that “Africa is the continent where our future will be determined. The continent boasts an abundance of both cultural and natural resources and is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, making Africa a fascinating place to study.” On theirProgram in African Studies’ webpage. Stanford University is the least bashful of the sample, sharing some decidedly fascist views from their faculty on their website like this gem from Prof. Sean Hanretta, a historian who studies Islam in West Africa; “Colonialism defined what it meant to be African.” Shared on their African studies webpage.

We African scholars need to find our compatriots a way out of this miasma where we constantly examine ourselves through the prism of Western eyes, beliefs, and thought patterns, thus making them our “peers” in the knowledge of our own identity and heritage. This is necessary because academia tends to be the ‘unquestionable’ vessel through which questionable ideas find their way into practice. There is no reason why for instance, a Kenyan can describe human interactions with an organism or even a culture particular to a certain part of his homeland and his work will be “peer reviewed” by some scholars born raised and working deep in the American Midwest (with all due respect to them). The Merriam-Webster definition of ‘peer’ is “one that is of equal standing with another”.  Foreign scholars and institutions are not our peers or equals in knowledge about ourselves. It is imperative that we devise new networks and methods of developing our own knowledge of ourselves for the benefit of our societies. We are our only peers, and we must start acting accordingly.

Such articles are never meant to vilify the West, though many see them as such. They are simply calls for change, which necessarily must come from, and be driven by the global south, if it is to benefit mankind. The West and the Global north has no imperative whatsoever to change a structure that has served them so well since the days when their intentions were less than noble because there exists no inertia as strong as that visited upon any society by past successes.