I had trepidations being far from home during the U.S. Presidential Election, not least of which was the inability to discuss with my kids the results should they go in the unexpected direction. Watching the results come in, early morning in Arusha, Tanzania, I was just as shocked, fearful and emotional as the handful of Americans around me. We shook our heads, cried and tried to console each other, strangers first, transformed into immediate friends bonded by this shared experience. I was in Africa for Sustainable Food Lab’s Annual Leadership Summit, an event I cherish for its Learning Journeys and inspiring takeaways, participants focused on action to improve the space of sustainable food and agriculture. Before the election I had already been in Africa for nine days, hearing from Tanzanians their hope for a Clinton Presidency and the continued support of the U.S. Government for years to come. Tanzania, I learned, is the tenth poorest country in Africa, behind Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Visiting during the dry season made the gap between wealthy and those struggling all the more evident, the soil circling into dust storms around small cattle ranching communities and subsistence farmers. Having spent the prior nine days learning about the struggles and opportunities for growth in East Africa, it added another layer of sadness for me when I heard the election results. I immediately wondered if the opportunities to aid communities like the ones I encountered in Tanzania would be gone completely. It was at once a feeling of utter hopelessness, and the Americans around me began questioning what we could even accomplish Summit after all, if our own government would never support the efforts of our NGOs, companies and foundations trying to improve development.
That morning in plenary, I sat next to William Asiko, Executive Director of GrowAfrica, a partnership of the African Union (AU), The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the World Economic Forum launched in 2011. GrowAfrica aims to improve the rate of private sector investment in agriculture in Africa for the benefit of economic development, job creation and the future of the continent. They do yeoman’s work and I’ve known William since his days at the helm of the Coca-Cola Foundation. He is a wise soul, made even more so by the sound of his deep and commanding voice. William could sense immediately that my engagement, and those around me, would be lost for the rest of the Summit given the results of the election. He immediately asked us to pause and discuss our feelings, our fears, our emotions. William assured us once and for all that no election would take away the positive view of America from the hearts of Africa. That no President singlehandedly could ruin, or take back, the work we were doing to improve the future of farmers and young people throughout East Africa and the continent. William implored us to think about this result as an opportunity to keep fighting, to work even harder to make an impact on the communities we had come to understand, and that needed our engagement and investment.
I felt so encouraged by William’s words, that it made me consider this potential hole in leadership across development as an opportunity for those in developing economies to find the innovation themselves, to test themselves and fight for their own success. Sure those of us in development would be there to provide as many resources as we could, and teachings and infrastructure. But maybe this was the time for the youth in development to bootstrap into their future. William shared with us his experience fighting the dictatorships of Africa’s past, and how he saw such a vanguard of growth come from the hole left by effective leadership. There is so much more work to be done, but it’s not impossible. And the heart of America, like the heart of so many others throughout the world trying to heal the broken histories of our planet, will continue to beat for Africa. I hold these moments with William in my memory so dearly.
I am not sure I could have continued at the Summit, despite how much I value the exchange of ideas and inspiration, had it not been for William’s kind words of wisdom. Back in Washington I now feel an urgent will to fight for the future of development, for the future of Africa and Asia and Europe and the U.S. and each continent where people are living bereft of something they deserve. And I hope that my work, and that of my clients and colleagues will lift up the hope of the youth worldwide to innovate in the vacuum that I hope is only temporary, and find ways to secure their future.
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