Africa needs a new culture to foster unity and development

Friday March 10 2017

African Heads of State before the official opening of the 27th African Union Summit in Kigali, Rwanda on July 17, 2016. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | AFP

African Heads of State before the official opening of the 27th African Union Summit in Kigali, Rwanda on July 17, 2016. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | AFP 

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For centuries, Japanese culture has been guided by a singular, mono-syllabic notion known as Wa. The closest translation to this in English is harmony. This idea pervades all aspects of Japanese life, from basic social interactions to the workplace and even to international relations in the post-war era.

Wa is a series of cultural concepts born out of the traditional family values of the island’s ancient civilisation. It describes the individual as part of a whole. Above all else, unity must be preserved, at its extreme this comes at the expense of individualism. Wa inspires communal harmony and requires a group of people to work towards a unifying goal, one that will bring honour or prosperity to everyone within the unit with any deviations quickly corrected.

This philosophy is credited with forging Japan’s postWorld War II economic transformation that lifted Japan from the ashes of the Second World War into the advanced nation it is today. It has conditioned public leaders to act in the interest of their society as a whole whether big or small, international or domestic. It is the reason for the country’s relatively low crime rates and the success of its automobile industry. It is also the reason why political unrest in Japan often results in the resignation of public officers instead of mass civil disturbance.

Africa is not a stranger to value systems that underwrite social harmony. Perhaps the closest parallels to Wa in the African context are concepts of Afrocentricity, Negritude, aan-Africanism or the more recently Ubuntu, the philosophy that humanity is what binds us together.


However, Wa is not Ubuntu. Africans have sovereignty over their ideas and Ubuntu, or the ideas that came before it, do not have a political-legal, let alone cross-border imperatives. If Africa is to claim the 21st Century, we must undo the legacy historical experiences that have disrupted systems that drive intelligent collective action towards a common African vision.

So what would an African Wa look like? In order to foster continental harmony to drive development, this notion has to be of pan-African scope. It must be endogenous. Finally, it has to merge and build on the traditions of thought we already have, such as Kwame Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism, Senghor’s négritude or Julius Nyerere’s ujamaa. Crucially, it must give us a compelling reason to work together as one.

If there is one reason Africans must act in unison, it is because the challenges we face are structurally tangled. There is substantial consensus on at least seven challenges that Africa faces today. For example, except for South Africa, Morocco and Egypt, much of Africa has experienced rapid urbanisation without commensurate industrialisation as is happening in Asia. When it comes to healthcare, only half of the continent’s billion have access to modern medical facilities and even fewer can afford it given that, on average, 10 per cent of national budgets are spent on medical resources.


However, Africa’s challenges and aspirations are two sides of the same coin. There is a culture of innovation already built into the African context. This can be illustrated by the calibre of entrepreneurial talent we have. Here in Kenya, entrepreneur Lorna Rutto understood the many issues the city of Nairobi’s growth was causing. It generates about 3,000 metric tonnes of waste every day and about 20 per cent of this is often plastic waste. At the same time, timber reserves were on the decline due to a deforestation crisis. But the city’s electricity poles were made of timber and they were getting expensive due to constricted supply.

Rutto took the two problems and answered them at once. The electricity poles could be made from recycled plastic which would provide a cheaper, more sustainable alternative to timber. Her plastic waste would come from the same waste that was becoming difficult to manage. In one fell swoop, her business found unique answers to the challenges of urbanisation, unemployment, climate change and infrastructure.

Imagine if we could apply her ingenuity in some of Africa’s other urban centres like Lagos, Kampala or Kinshasa? What if we were to escalate the spirit of her solution to higher levels policy-making and leadership? What if we taught our young people to seek out solutions with varying dimensions, as she has done?

To truly accelerate the trajectory of our development, we must see many more broad-based initiatives that answer ongoing challenges and opportunities from education, healthcare, infrastructure to governance, climate change and agriculture. All in the spirit of an African Wa.

Frank Swaniker is founder, African Leadership University.