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Why do people smear themselves with mud and then complain that they are dirty?

One proverb can capture the condition of a nation, and help people to move beyond their own self-oppression.

Credit: www.Shutterstock.com/Sidhe. All rights reserved. 

Recently I found myself at breakfast at Nkopola Lodge in Malawi with a colleague from the world of international NGOs. Since both of us had spent most of our adult lives as development workers in Southern Africa—he’s Norwegian and I’m from Malawi—we started comparing the different experiences of the countries that we’ve worked in, especially Norway and Zambia where we’ve spent most of our time and energy.

For Zambia at Independence in 1964, copper was the driving force of the economy, making it the second-richest country in Africa at the time (South Africa was the first). During the same period, Norway was a relative backwater in Europe. But today Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and most Zambians are significantly poorer than they were at Independence; while Norway is one of the richest—in fact it’s the second best country on the planet for a child to be born in terms of future quality of life (Switzerland is just ahead).

My colleague’s explanation for these different trajectories was that Zambia’s copper enriched North Americans and Europeans in the same way that it’s enriching Chinese companies today, always at the expense of the Zambian people. Revenues from copper were used to subsidise consumption rather than investing in building a strong and sustainable economy. The continued weakness of countries like Zambia works to the advantage of foreign investors because it offers them the opportunity to externalize Africa’s resources with considerable ease.

By contrast, Norway discovered oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s, and used the resulting revenue to build a national endowment, now part of an even larger Government Pension Fund. If the money in the Fund were to be distributed among the Norwegian population, each person would get at least $150,000 in cash.  However, my friend was quick to point out that this wouldn’t be necessary, because the Norwegian Government functions pretty well in meeting its obligations towards its citizens.

The real difference between Zambia and Norway, we both agreed, is not one of resources but one of leadership, management and governance: while Norway is busy building its future, Zambia is busy ‘smearing itself with mud and complaining that it’s dirty’ to quote the words of an old African proverb from Kenya. Corruption remains rife, with the 2015 Anti-Corruption Act widely ignored by the police and the judiciary, in public services and land administration.

There is little by way of a political consensus or constituency to prioritize long-term social and economic goals. And the situation is now so bad that President Edgar Lungu has appealed for divine intervention to rescue the economy. Zambians still haven’t taken their destiny into their own hands by establishing a vision for the future, a system of governance to put it into practice, and a leadership culture that’s prepared to set aside parochial concerns. So what to do?

At the time of my breakfast conversation at Nkopola Lodge I had just turned 40, and I was increasingly frustrated by the condition of the aid industry in Africa and its failure to engage with the long-term transformation of the continent.  Colin Grant’s biography of Marcus Garvey, A Negro with a Hat, was one of my favourite inspirations, written in 1914 and urging Africans to rise up and forge their own future by “dash[ing] asunder the petty prejudices within your own fold… be Negro in the light of the Pharaoh of Egypt, Simon of Cyrene, Hannibal of Carthage…who have made and are making history for the race though deprecated and in many cases unwritten.”

Yet today, a full century later, what has really changed? Some say that a significant shift has already taken place on the continent, with greater self-confidence and rising rates of economic growth.  But inequality and corruption are still rising, so perhaps the major shift has been in the identity of the oppressors. First they were outsiders in the form of slave traders and colonialists, while today they are insiders too in the form of aid workers, politicians, bankers, industrialists and the odd NGO or two.

African heads of state will blame lack of resources or inadequate funding from the rich world as the cause of all the problems facing their societies. But poor governance and lousy leadership are ultimately the responsibility of Africans themselves. Self-oppression is perhaps the most damaging of all, and if we’re ever going to get ourselves out of this mess than we have to look deep inside to uncover and address the history and psychology of the forces that have brought Africa to this point.

My contribution to that process has been to recover African proverbs, folktales and traditions as a way of illuminating the dilemmas of governance and leadership today. Just in case the development industry lacked sufficient jargon, it’s now been codified into a formal field called “Organizational Paremiology”—the use of indigenous wisdom in proverbs to improve the performance of institutions. This is especially important given that most organizational development advice and training in Africa is inspired by experience and research in Western Europe and North America.

Proverbs are an integral part of African culture. They are simple statements with deep meaning that serve as guidelines for individual and collective behaviour, having been built on repeated real life experiences and observation over time. By using African proverbs, organizational paremiology simplifies and clarifies complex subjects and opens up new avenues for action, capturing the essence of a problem in language that’s easy to understand and internalise–as when a country ‘smears itself with mud and complains that it is dirty.’

For example, “If the sun says it is more powerful than the moon, then let it come and shine at night.” I’ve used that proverb many times to uncover hidden debates about hierarchy and power, and how roles and responsibilities develop inside organizations. Or take this one: “The river that forgets its source will soon dry up,” a great way of talking about the primacy of values in any system or institution. One good proverb can capture in a sentence what a classic organizational development book would need a whole chapter to accomplish.

To be fair, I haven’t yet used this approach in national-level discussions about politics and governance, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be just as useful in that context—for example, in debating how Zambia could improve the governance of its natural resources, or changing how decisions are made about who benefits from their extraction. A good starting point would be to re-negotiate existing deals with Chinese companies to reduce the externalization of resources, build tax revenues, and encourage investment in the local economy. That would help to ensure that the Zambian state has the resources it needs to work for its citizens.

Confidence in the political process could be strengthened using deliberative platforms (real and virtual) that enable people to discuss their concerns and hold their representatives accountable for their actions. Decentralization policies that are already on the books could actually be implemented as a first step in re-orienting the benefits of Zambia’s skewed economy to rural areas. And a ‘right of recall’ could be established to deal with leaders who are absent from their constituencies for long periods of time (a common problem in the country).

When citizens are able to undertake these kinds of actions, they will begin to address their own self–oppression and be better positioned to help in creating systems of governance, leadership and accountability that can drive the continent forward. Let’s ‘take a proper bath and stop complaining that we are dirty.’


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