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What Africa Can Teach the World

Like the October 23 festivities marking Debora Spar’s inauguration, the next morning’s commemorative event had an international focus. That event was the academic symposium What Africa Can Teach the World, where President Spar introduced the panel, cited her own “passionate intellectual interest” in the topic, and alluded to profound lessons she’s learned from Africa in her travels and research.

Spar ceded the James Room podium to historian Abosede George, the symposium’s organizer and a Barnard faculty member whose scholarly work centers on Nigeria and other African nations. George addressed an issue that other speakers would highlight as well—the importance of community in African life, versus the Western cult of the individual. George paraphrased author Walter Mosley on the Western “artiste” who rises in status by extricating herself from “ordinary” people, and the African artist who sees herself as a product and member of a broad social community.

Panelist Jonathan Cook, a white South African and a senior lecturer and administrator at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institution of Business Science, talked about other consequences of the African belief “I’m human because I belong.” It’s the belief, he said, that important decisions should be made only after the consideration of various points of view, and that the whole of humanity is diminished when one part is humiliated or oppressed. While recognizing the severe damage wrought by destructive tribalism, Cook also suggested that a reverence for consensus has played a vital role in African justice, particularly the success of his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Malik Fal, a Microsoft executive based in Africa, focused on how Africans see themselves not only as part of a human community but as inseparable from nature, the animal world, and a spiritual universe. Despite poverty and deprivation, he said, Africans have low suicide rates and often score higher than affluent Europeans on the happiness index. He added that prosperous Africans feel a responsibility to share their wealth with family and neighbors, and derive great pleasure from this role.

Poverty endures, but the continent’s economies are growing faster than Europe’s, observed panel moderator Mamadou Diouf, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. He said Africa’s extremely young population of 1.5 billion people can play a leading role during this era of rapid urbanization and globalization.

Rapid commercial growth was also noted by economist Una Okonkwo-Osili, who teaches at Indiana University and advises the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. She credited her Nigerian childhood for teaching her important ways of understanding generosity and support systems, and she highlighted the advances made by African women in higher education, the workforce, and civic life. Recalling a Ugandan official she met a few years ago at a Washington, D.C. conference, Okonkwo-Osili quoted her as saying that women and men had fought side by side in her country, and that when the conflict was over, “If men had told us to go back to the kitchen, we would have said no.”

-Anne Schutzberger, illustration by Annabel Wright