A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a dimly-lit room with 11 other Africans in Toronto, Canada, we went around the circle describing which leadership qualities we admired most about each other. We had only met a week before, but we were slowly becoming the closest of friends.
I recently participated in the Kumvana Fellowship, a programme hosted by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada. Kumvana, a word from the Malawian Chichewa dialect, beautifully translates to “unite so we may discuss and understand.” The purpose of the fellowship is to take exceptional African leaders and expose them to Canadian organisations, cultures and ideas, but also for the African leaders themselves to share what we know about Africa with the EWB Canada community.
The fellowship took place in Canada from the 11th of January to the 10th of February this year, 5 weeks in the freezing cold. It was an experience unlike any other. It allowed me to think deeply about the world and its people, reflect on why there is still such a massive disparity between the haves and have nots and figure out what role I can play in creating change.
One of the insights I gleaned early on in this fellowship was about the social problems in South Africa in comparison to those in Canada or rather, the social problems in Africa compared to those in North America. After a rather crazy scavenger hunt around Toronto, one of the Ghanaian fellows remarked that he had not expected to see homeless people in Canada. I was not altogether shocked by this having seen homeless people during my travels in the US and Europe. However, I realised that this misconception stemmed from the huge disconnect between what we are told about the developed world and what is actually the case and similarly, what the developed world is told about Africa and what is actually the case. It strongly aligns with a TED talk I watched recently given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on The Danger of a Single Story. Africans are continuously ‘told’ by the developed world that we live in poverty and need help and more often than not, we start to believe it. On the other hand, media channels in the developed world reaffirm this notion by continuously spreading news about the ‘despair’ in Africa.
Many of the social problems in Canada are similar to the problems here, it is only the magnitude of the social problem that differs. At the end of the day being homeless in South Africa and being homeless in Canada is quite comparable. In fact, I am inclined to believe that homelessness is sometimes worse in Canada where temperatures in winter can drop to -40 degrees C.
My Kumvana experience was full of interesting insights and looked something like this…
WEEK 1: THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE, HAMILTON
During the conference in Hamilton, the EWB Canada community spoke endlessly about Systems Thinking and Systems Change Leadership, concepts I thought I understood before leaving South Africa, but was only able to fully grasp during the conference.
Systems Thinking is a perspective and set of methods and tools that make it possible to look at the full extent of a system, rather than at fragments. Using a systems approach, it is clear that longstanding social problems have been created by the systems in which they exist. For example, while giving students in informal settlements, free textbooks or computers may improve access to educational resources, Systems Thinking could help us to figure out why education in rural areas is still such a challenge, how it is connected to other issues and to identify strategic interventions to eradicate this problem.
This underlying concept was scattered all over the conference and it became evident to me that EWB Canada use the Systems Thinking approach as an intrinsic part of their work in both Canada and sub-Saharan Africa, an approach not normally followed by organisations who do development work. EWB Canada, kudos to you!
WEEK 2: LEADERSHIP TRAINING, TORONTO
Back in Toronto, we spent the next week with a French organisation called, Le Playground, who guided us through a personal evolution of sorts, and we met Nadia, who taught us about prejudice, privilege and the difference between equity and equality.
I loved this picture that she shared with us. As young South Africans, we tend to talk about equality more than equity. We get frustrated with equity because we forget the disadvantages of the past, but we need to remember that although it seems fair to give everyone the same opportunity, it is only really fair if we all started from the same base. We still have a long way to go before there is no need for equity in our businesses and institutions and the following picture summarises that concept perfectly.
Image source: http://interactioninstitute.org/illustrating-equality-vs-equity/
WEEK 3: ORGANISATIONAL HOMESTAY & VISITS, MONTREAL
All fellows were given the opportunity to live with a Canadian family for two weeks and to meet with interesting people and organisations. I spent my first week with a lovely French family in Montreal. They were warm, inviting and eager to learn about South Africa.
My highlights this week:
- A roundtable on ‘Female Leadership and Success in the Workplace’ with three distinguished female leaders from the same organisation who strongly believed that no inequality exists between men and women in the workplace.
- A refreshing event held by EWB McGill which reminded me of my days on the EWB Wits committee. I noticed that whether we are in Canada or South Africa, only twenty engineering students will pitch to an EWB event, but that the probability of students attending greatly increases with the promise of food.
- A visit to a start-up called Sunmetrix, who I believe are changing the solar energy sector with their innovative online tool for estimating how much money users in the contiguous U.S., southern Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean would save over the course of any given month, along with a projection for the entire year.
- An inspiring Friday afternoon meeting with Isabelle Deschamps, a professor at Polytechnique Montreal who establishes mechanisms to promote and facilitate the creation, incubation and commercialisation of technological innovations from academia and the surrounding business environment.
WEEK 4: ORGANISATIONAL HOMESTAY & VISITS, TORONTO
During my second week, I lived with an Iranian couple, a Korean couple and a Ghanaian girl who had moved to Canada to study. It was one of the most multicultural experiences of my entire life and I enjoyed it more than any of the visits I had this week.
My highlights in Toronto:
- Meeting the CEO of the start-up ReDeTec, who recycle the plastic used in 3D printers. A concept that seemed arbitrary at first, but then made perfect sense once I found out how many people have access to 3D printers in the developed world.
- A visit to the MaRS Discovery District, one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs.
- The LEAP centre for social impact, housed at Boston Consulting Group, which is essentially a consulting group for non-profit organisations. I was super impressed by how non-profits were given the same professionalism as any consultant would give their clients.
WEEK 5: THE DEBRIEF
The programme was closed out. Feedback was provided. And the fellows were left to think about how we could utilise the brilliant network we had just created.
I am back in South Africa now. I feel changed by the Kumvana experience. I have been transformed and I cannot go back to who I was before. I am currently sitting next to my to-do list, consumed by the menial admin of my life, desperately holding on to the visions I have for change in Africa. I am restless for change. And I am restless about being a part of this change.
One of my biggest passions since Kumvana is educating people about Africa’s potential. My soul literally dies every time I see an international campaign about donating to ‘helpless’ Africans. We have such incredible people in Africa, innovating for social change more than any developing country, starting unconventional, successful businesses, while educating themselves and others. And most importantly, the beautiful view all Africans share: we will not prosper unless we prosper together.