7 things Africa can learn from the UAE

I know it’s late, but let me start by wishing you all a very Happy New Year! May 2018 bring you joy, laughter and prosperity.

Happy-New-Year-2018

You may have noticed that this blog title is a little provocative. It has been spurred on by my recent trip to Ghana, West Africa and is not meant to offend or bash anybody. I’m not Trump… I recognise that no country is perfect; I simply want to begin a conversation and attempt to put into words some of my thoughts and feelings whilst travelling my country of origin.

Primarily, I must say I absolutely love Ghana and its culture. I am proud to come from a country which is known as the ‘Black Star of Africa,’ which has the friendliest people you will ever meet, the best food you will ever taste and the most entertaining dance moves you will ever see (except that nonsense ‘one corner‘ dance). I have been to Ghana countless times now; my mother took me there first when I was a year old and we have been going back every three or four years since then. However, due to finances, I hadn’t been able to visit since 2010 but have tried to keep in touch with some current affairs -and music, mainly music – to stay connected.

There has been a recent surge in British-born Ghanaians (and anyone else who fancies it) going back to Ghana over Christmas with the help of organisations such as ‘Ghana Escapes.’ This company arrange an all-inclusive trip to Ghana where flights, accommodation and itinerary are all sorted. And I’m glad there’s a lot of interest. I’m pleased people are waking up to the fact that Africa isn’t all mud huts, corrugated roofs and babies with kwashiorkor and flies attached to their faces, as the media suggests. There is so much beauty in Africa that social media has finally enabled us to witness. If you ever get the opportunity to visit Ghana, snap it up with both hands! You will not be disappointed.

Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park

Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park and Museum.

However, there is a massive discrepancy between rich and poor in Africa. Being a Westerner, you will probably spend most of the time in luxurious places rather than with the locals. Unless you’re intentional about it, you may end up in a Western bubble which serves as a shield from many of the realities of local African life.

Where my family stay in Ghana is not the most affluent of areas, to say the least. So I was quite disappointed to see that all the improvements I had heard about back in the UK did not seem to reach my small town in Ghana. Previously, I would’ve blamed colonisation for the state Ghana is in but my relocation to Abu Dhabi, coupled with President Nana Kufuor-Addo’s speech, has made me deeply question this notion. I know there are major differences between the continent of Africa and the United Arab Emirates (and I am making massive generalisations about both) but I think there are many similarities between the two which make the UAE a nation that Africa can learn a lot from. And I think I’ve nailed a few reasons why the UAE has been able to build an incredible metropolis in a mere 46 years whilst Africa, although the richest continent in natural resources, is home to some of the poorest people in the world.*

So what, in my opinion, has the UAE done right?

  1. Leadership

Sheikh Zayed

This is Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It was his brilliant idea to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971 and to create a place where his people would thrive for many generations to come. Sheikh Zayed ensured that the country’s wealth was distributed among his people, something many African leaders have clearly never heard of. His successors were his family members too, meaning his vision and ambitions for the country did not die with him; his sons were able to pick up where he left off and move the country forward. If only Sheikh Zayed was a Ghanaian…

Osafo Zayed Kwame Owusu-Asante could have revolutionised the continent!

In all fairness, some of our African leaders have really tried. But unfortunately, the majority of our ‘leaders’ have been too blinded by wealth and too greedy for power to see beyond themselves. The word ‘united’ is key here. United Kingdom, United States, United Arab Emirates… It’s not rocket science! We are far more powerful when we band together.

2.  Roads

Oh my days, the roads! Jesus not only has to take the wheel frequently but has to knock some sense into the person(s) responsible for the roads in Ghana. And I’ve heard Ghana’s roads are among the best in the continent. How Sway? The potholes are plenty, there are still open drains (in this 2018!) and the rocks in some of the roads make it seem like we’re on a rollercoaster ride. And the traffic is so terribly torrid that ten minutes up the road can easily become a two hour journey.

So what can we glean from the UAE? Build bigger roads! Dual carriageways, six-lane motorways and only allow safe cars on the roads (the amount of death traps I saw!). Allow people to get around the country safely and with ease.

Dubai Roads

3.  Free Schooling for Locals

Do I even need to write under this heading? Seriously.

As a teacher in the UK, I found it astounding how many of the African pupils who migrated to the UK during school were moved up a year due to their intelligence. Africans typically take education very seriously and because respect for our elders is embedded into our culture, we tend to listen to what our teachers say and excel in education. But this seems to be everywhere else in the world but Africa! If you are lucky enough to pay your way through school then the streak may end once you complete your degree but haven’t brown-nosed enough to make the transition into a job. A lot of the time, employment is based on ‘who’ rather than ‘what’ you know and once again, the money stays with the wealthy.

If education was free in all African countries, I think we will make an indelible contribution to the innovation in this world.

4.  Lack of idolising the West

One thing I really admire about the Emirati people is that they are extremely proud of who they are and where they come from. They accommodate other people’s cultures but they have a strong sense of identity and community. I always marvel at how regal they look in their traditional dress – the Kandura and Abaya.

Now I love my African print as much as the next guy, especially with how some of us in the diaspora have merged it with Western fashion trends. But when did you ever hear of Versace or Bentley making gele’s in the same way they make Ghutra’s for Emiratis..? Because many Arabs sport their traditional wear in the morning, noon and night, big labels know that the only way they can appeal to the Arab market is to make their clothes for them. I’d love it if Africans wore their traditional attire so much so that big brands had no choice but to make designer Kente print and Angelina’s for us if they want our money. I didn’t like the fact that when I went back to Africa, I saw some people wearing the second-hand, filthy rags that the Westerners had most probably thrown out.

Instead of trying to look like Westerners, we need to take more pride in what we have: the things that make us distinctly African.

You know, those things that we used to find embarrassing growing up? Funny that, now I have a flurry of African headscarves in my wardrobe, the necessary bag of shea butter in my bathroom and thread to make my hair softer and grow longer. If someone had told me I would be proud of being African when I grew up, I wouldn’t have believed them. But I feel as though I’ve made the transition and it was somewhat disappointing to return to Ghana and see people imitating the Western culture more than representing their own. Are we not losing our identities?

As much as I would like to see major international companies investing in Africa, I would prefer to see Africans investing in Africa. We’ve got the resources, the smarts and the manpower to create our own things. We shouldn’t need to rely on anyone else. Our problem is that we would rather buy from outsiders than buy from our own. We’d rather buy Ben and Jerry’s than Fan Ice so we can brag that we have international money. We’d rather support Li Xiu Ying in China than Kofi Sarpong next door and instead of the wealth being shared amongst Africans, it travels to foreign hands in foreign lands.

kantanka car interior

Who’s heard of Ghana’s Kantanka automobiles with the Kente interior?

5.  Business and Emiratization

In the UAE, there is a government policy called Emiratization which aims to develop a competent UAE national workforce and provide sustainable employment opportunities for them. Terrific. Moreover, you cannot start a business without an Emirati partner. You can’t just waltz in, take what you want and then duck out when it suits you. If you’re starting a business here, it must benefit the people of the land in some way.

I think Africa need this kind of policy. For too long, people have been taking advantage of us (either our generosity or our greed) and exploiting our land and people for their own profit. There needs to be a law against this, whereby if you want to do business in Africa, it should be in collaboration with an African person. And there needs to be legitimate governance of this by people who are not greedy or corrupt (or both). People who understand the vision of shared wealth.

Additionally, we as Africans need to do more to support our own local businesses. In the UK, all the hair shops which sell African products are owned by Asians. In Ghana, many of us go there with our Western currencies only for them to be spent in places owned by Westerners. What a joke! But it’s not really funny, is it?

6.  Making tourism a priority

When people say they are travelling to Africa, there are only a few countries that spring to mind. And as an African, there are some countries (like Mauritania, no, not the Mauritius, you read me correctly) that I had never even heard of! When people say they are travelling to Africa, and their travel doesn’t consist of a safari, then they are usually there to provide some sort of aid. Helping build a school, a well or visiting orphanages are all typical reasons for Westerners to journey to the African continent.

But as I mentioned previously, there is so much more that Africa has to offer. It’s high time that people came to visit and learn about us rather than just our animals or to give handouts.

For example, you cannot leave the UAE without visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, seeing the world from the Burj Khalifa or going dune bashing in the desert. I’d like to see more Ghanaians creating more tours that enable people to visit the Kwahu mountains, learn about how Shea Butter is made and even have a go pounding fufu and preparing nkatenkwan. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of tours do already exist in Ghana, but they are not well-advertised or promoted. There should be a plethora of companies who offer these cultural and educational experiences across Ghana, not just Accra and Cape Coast. For this to happen though, we need good roads people!

Pounding fufu

7.  Cleanliness

Abu Dhabi is one of the cleanest places I have ever been to. The streets are clean, malls are clean, the buildings are clean, heck, they even clean the floors of the car parks in our apartment blocks. Think of how many more people would be employed in Africa if they  created jobs where people had to clean up? I’m talking more investments in bins, incentives for people to tidy up their neighbourhoods, a robust bin collection service, a national drive for recycling, fines for littering, the list goes on. Our continent will look a whole lot better and our people will be considerably healthier, that’s for sure.

africanunion

I will end by clarifying that my goal was to begin a conversation about Africa’s progressional focus. I have used Ghana interchangeably for all African nations although I am aware that many countries already have some of these things in place already (e.g. Botswana is one of Africa’s richest nations and its diamond revenues enable every child up to the age of 13 to receive free education). I also know that no country – including the UAE – is perfect but I have genuinely been inspired by many of the things they do here and think it would be awesome if our leaders employed some of their principles and policies. I hope that we will take more responsibility of the state of our continent and begin to hold our leaders to account. In the next 60 years, I hope we’ll be looking at a drastically improved and a more supportive and interconnected Africa.

*I know some of the world’s poorest nations are found on other continents too such as Asia and South America. I also am aware that some of the poorest people live in so-called ‘developed’ nations.

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