“The African dream is to leave Africa,” said Kingsley “Junior” Kanu ’06. He was 17 when he left Jos, Nigeria, for Calvin College, and, like other young Africans he knew, he wasn’t looking back.
A trip to Europe during Christmas break of 2006 changed his angle of vision. Visiting Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna, Kanu realized he knew more of their character and history than he did of any African city.
“Traveling within Africa is not something Africans do,” Kanu said. “We have no idea that we have a rich history and culture. I promised myself I would not go to another continent until I’d visited Africa.”
Talking with friends, Kanu realized it was not a simple, personal road trip he had in mind, but a project, a Big Idea: “Solving Africa,” he called it in the grant proposals he wrote and the Web site he launched.
“At Calvin I was an engineering major,” Kanu explained, “so I was thinking like an engineer: What are the parts that make this continent work? What are the constants, and what can we fiddle with to create the outcome we want?”
After finishing his master’s degree in journalism at New York University, Kanu took his questions to seven African cities. From January through June of this year, he saw their sights and read their history. He talked to young Africans at universities and nightclubs and slums, asking them what they see as wrong and right with the continent and their role in its development.
“I came away believing that the idea of Africa only works outside Africa,” Kanu said. “The poverty, the sickness, the things that have come to define Africa—they’re simplifications, misrepresentations. They don’t capture what’s happening on the ground, which is kids playing soccer, going to school, people living their lives. So I’m wondering, how do we change those individual, present realities?
“I feel like people need to come to those changes themselves. They need to take back control of their lives. That throws charity out the door—grand schemes and policies, too. Change comes on a personal basis, when people have new horizons for themselves. It comes through small businesses that empower people and get them thinking about collaborating with others. For example, instead of trying to bring universal health care to Africa, can we go into one community, train a few women to be malaria nurses and have them set up a small health care business?”
It’s young, educated Africans like himself, Kanu believes, who can best set this kind of change in motion—if they’ll go back home.
“The ones who go back are those whose parents are rich and whose life at home is better than in the U.S.,” he said. “Until young Africans see opportunities that they can latch onto and believe in, it doesn’t make sense for them—me included—to go back.”
The enterprises that would draw him and his peers back home to solve Africa will begin to emerge, Kanu said, when other Africans do what he did: travel the continent and talk to each other. To encourage that, he hopes to organize a Solving Africa conference that would be more like a “work-ference: people partnering on an actual project and networking on others.” At the moment, he’s writing his trip into a book. “It will offer my dream for a continent that doesn’t yet exist and for myself as a member of that continent.”
For more about Kanu’s trip and project, visit www.solvingafrica.com.
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