With 200 million people between 15 and 24, Africa has the youngest population in the world. As the region rapidly develops, youth are critical to catalyzing future socioeconomic growth. Rachel Nyaradzo Adams is the founder of Narachi Leadership, a leadership consultancy aimed at developing deep resevoirs of leaders for the African continent. After years studying and working at elite institutions from Oxford University to McKinsey and Company to Yale University, Rachel recently returned to her native Zimbabwe to help nurture the potential of Africa’s emerging leaders. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Rachel about the challenges facing African youth and strategies to catalyze their growth.
Why did you decide to return to Zimbabwe after working abroad at some of the world’s top institutions and companies?
Zimbabwe, as you know, is in flux at the moment. We all feel we are at a tipping point but it is not always clear in which direction we are tipping. I believe that it will be the energy and ideas and focus of our people – our ability to redefine a future – that will create good for all of our people. I wanted to play my small part in that process. My career feedback has always been that I am very good at helping leaders sharpen their vision and gain courage and believe in the possibilities of their personal and collective value. Perhaps think of me as a people whisperer. And I thought, if this is a gift, how can I use it to inspire school leaders, managers, executives, entrepreneurs, perhaps even politicians, to be the best leaders they can be in this one precious and beautiful life that we have.
How would you describe the youth that you’ve encountered in Zimbabwe?
Yearning. Like many youth I encounter across Africa, our youth are yearning. They are gifted. They have great ideas and energy. They are innovators and entrepreneurs. But they are also challenged by the circumstances of our struggling economy and limited opportunities to thrive. And so many of them are left yearning for an environment that will allow them to manifest as their most capable and talented selves.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing young African leaders?
As I said earlier, limiting environments. I also think that sometimes as young Africans we are not willing to make sacrifices to create the outcomes that we ultimately want. We can sometimes be victims when we could be agents. We dwell on the circumstances and not on the power of our ideas and our ability to actually influence our environments. I always make reference to William Kamkwamba, a young African in rural Malawi who made a powerful decision that the poverty of his circumstances was not a reality he could accept. Using scrap material from the local dump site, he built the windmill that would change the course of his future and the future of his village. We need a critical mass of Williams across Africa. We need to get into the practice of saying, ‘no, today I refuse to be a victim. Today I am going to do one thing that helps me create the future I desire, the Africa I desire.’ It is when enough of us start to do this that we will create the Africa that we want.
I think that a lot of the time, you see diaspora coming in and taking some of the top positions in government and private sector on the continent. In some cases, I think that this underscores the perception that being educated abroad means that you are inherently superior than your colleagues who might have gone to school locally. I see this in Ghana, for example, when returnees who have been to school in the US come back and are immediately seen as more capable than their peers who have gone to school at the University of Ghana. Clearly, this is not always true. And even if it were true, not everyone across the continent can go abroad for university. So how do we build confidence in our local educational institutions and give locally-educated Africans an equal chance on the playing field?
For me, the fundamental problem is what the philosophy of education is in Africa. If you’ve ever gone to school on the continent, you’ll know a lot of what is pushed is how well can you regurgitate someone else’s information and that’s essentially what causes this lack of confidence that graduates on the continent can create and believe in their own ideas, and pursue them rigorously while making the necessary mistakes along the way. Many students who are educated abroad understand that failure does not mean that you are infinitely doomed to be unsuccessful, at best, or that God is punishing you because you were too proud or someone has bewitched you, at worst. There are belief systems across the continent that work alongside the education system to make people less confident in themselves—which often puts them at a disadvantage on the global market.
We must develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. We must get kids into the classroom and say, “here’s an idea, what do you think of it?” as opposed to ‘read this entire textbook and regurgite it in an exam. An example of a school doing this is Pioneer Academies, which was started by an ex-colleague of mine, Chinezi Chijioke. Chinezi is building schools that help kids leverage their own thinking and creativity to create solutions for the challenges that they face. Students are encouraged to think of themselves as agents within systems. You will agree with me that we need more of this. To learn from innovators like Chinezi and multiply this effect.
America, for example, does this well. I was educated in the British education system. At Oxford, I remember being in an African Studies class that was largely made up of Americans and they brought in critical thinking and a rigorous approach to dissenting with the professors. I was astounded to see people challenging the professor in that way. I started to learn what this could do for me as a learner. How it could expand my thinking. Like many African children, growing up, I had always been told to conform to the authority. With this reality, it is no surprise that we don’t innovate at the same rate that Americans do because a lot of the time we get distracted as we ask ourselves the question, “did I get it right?” We spend too much time looking for approval. I dream of a future where learners can throw caution to the wind and drive their own ideas.
That being said, diaspora and “locals,” for lack of a better word, must learn to tap into each other’s wisdoms. The diaspora perspective is so global and vast that it can bring knowledge systems that those on the continent might not otherwise be exposed to. But there’s something that the “local” person has that is so deep and rooted in the complexities, challenges, and opportunities on the continent. Bringing those things together can create some incredible magic, but to do that, both parties need to get over their insecurities, put them aside and leverage collective skills and talents.
I went to a Quaker high school, which is perhaps the extreme of that American example—I grew up referring to many of my teachers by their first names. Do you think that the dismantling of hierarchy in the American system is one of its assets? Many African cultures have a high value on respect for elders, but some might say we are compromising our cultures as we move away from traditional modes of engagement and education towards a more American, or Western, model. What do you think of that?
That’s exactly what it boils down to: dismantling hierarchy. I don’t think people should bow down to cultural practices that will not serve us. I’m an anthropologist and I can tell you, having studied culture very in-depth, that culture is fluid. It’s determined by people and it is responsive to external environments. We cannot continue to insist on outdated cultural practices or attitudes in the context in which we now live. The world is very competitive. Just yesterday, I gave a talk where I discussed the fact that everyone else in the world has a very serious agenda about Africa. They’ve really thought carefully about what kind of relationship they are trying to build with Africa and which people they’re targeting. From YALI, President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, to these German skill-building programs or China programs, major world powers are looking at how to create friendships with young, up-and-coming Africans who, ten years from now, they will be counting on for favors. Yet with our people, I don’t think we are thinking about these relationships critically. We can’t keep dwelling on colonialism, on global foreign policy that disadvantages us, or the aid industry. All of those things are reactionary. How can we become more proactive about saying, “it’s a really competitive world out there. How do we stay ahead of the trends?” We keep talking about Ubuntu and community, but that’s not what people are thinking about. They’re thinking about, “how can I be faster, smarter, brighter than you?”
If you think of the YALI program, for example, it’s a very smart diplomatic effort from the American end. They get 500 bright emerging leaders every year who are doing great things in Africa. These leaders are selected carefully—they look for those who haven’t really developed relationships with America yet.
When they are president twenty years from now, they want to be able to reach out to those people. It’s interesting because Africa doesn’t have the equivalent of a YALI program at that scale or level of seriousness. And the YALI program doesn’t stop at the six weeks they spend in America—they continue to build formidable relationships. I just saw on Facebook that Pharrell was in South Africa and all the YALI fellows had pictures with him and were engaging with him. Americans have understood the psychology of how you win a young person over. They give them access to amazing opportunities, introduce them to ambassadors, leaders in culture and politics. They create opportunities for these young leaders to attend conferences and highlight their stories in newsletters. These youth get put in the limelight in ways that our own governments are unable to do for their own people. We are losing this battle for the hearts and minds of our youth because we stick to these cultural practices that don’t value youth as much as we should and urge them to keep quiet for the sake of “respect.” If your cultural practice is that you must be so obsequious because there is an older person in the room, even though the older person in the room isn’t making any sense, to me that is stupidity. It doesn’t make any sense and you need to let go of it. If the person is wise, of course, you should defer to their wisdom, but if they’re not, you should feel comfortable speaking out. That should not be seen as disrespect. The obligation to dissent is a practice that suggests that we all have skin in the game and that is in all of our interests if hierarchy does not stand in the way of good ideas. Our older leaders should be taking the council of young people very seriously. Everyone else is.
A lot of young people I’ve met are discouraged in the face of poverty, of discrimination, and other things we often feel set us at a disadvantage. Having confronted some of these things in your life, what did you tell yourself in your darkest moments? What do you tell yourself when you are discouraged?
I have reminded myself of the fact that in any given situation, you have agency. You’re seeing the world as you are and not really as it is. We see the world through a specific lens, which may be poverty, or gender, or ethnicity and culture, but really, we can change that lens or perspective by pulling on the knowledge,resources and networks that are available to us.
A practical example: as a woman growing up in Africa, in my culture in Zimbabwe, you are sent the very subtle but sometimes loud message that your highest aspiration is be married and have children. You can be educated and successful yes, because my country also values education as you know, but as a woman you MUST get married and have children.You are also told that you want to be subservient to men and make sure you don’t intimidate them so much that you start to upset your social hierarchy. I remember knowing that as a piece of knowledge in my head, but at a very young age, I knew in my heart that I didn’t feel like I fit this definition of “woman.” I felt like a human beingin the world who wanted to engage and contribute and to have a voice. Whose contribution to the world was more important than the implications of gender. So this “woman” stuff contradicted my personal belief system . I started going against that social wisdom and actively said, “I don’t like this.” I decided to be true to my own intuition and I think that has allowed me to move forward.
At every step, I have listened to what my inner wisdom says about a situation. I think the best gift we can give to ourselves is to listen to that voice, to have the courage to live the lives that we yearn for despite what the social agenda of the day is telling us.
It was the same thing in my decision not to go into the professions that people said a good African child would go into: medicine, law, etc. I went and studied social anthropology—there aren’t very many black anthropologists in the world and people said, “what are you going to do with that?” And frankly, at the time, I didn’t know either. But I knew it felt right for me, and I would figure it out because I started on the right foundation. I don’t know what the tree would be like, but the roots felt right. I went with my instincts and the things that I have been able to do with what they called my “silly anthropology degree” are amazing to me. Trust that by shifting the way you see the world and trusting your instincts, you can create and influence the world versus the world creating and influencing you.
Is that what you mean by the phrase “believe in your madness?” I’ve heard you use that before.
Yes, exactly! When I was making these choices and thinking and dreaming these things, a lot of the time, it felt crazy. Sitting with doubt and the sense that you are not living up to the status quo can make you feel crazy, but I came to the conclusion that I was going to follow what my inner wisdom told me was correct, even without evidence. At every single step of the way, my wisdom was proven correct. This is what global leadership experts are starting to teach on: your true north, your authenticity, how you tap into your strengths. Quite simply what they are saying is that you already know the path you should walk. It’s clear to us —even from when we are children—but people often tell us a bunch of things and before we know it, we’ve lost our way.
When we talk about leadership, we often discuss business or politics but how can we create a greater space for African creatives?
Yes. This is a fundamental question. Art and culture are critical drivers for how humanity ends up understanding itself. African artists, I think more than any of us, know this. Their creative energy tells them that they have a space to fill, a mosaic to paint, a narrative to shape through storytelling or song. But they have to do this, without apology and hesitation. They have to demand that spaces are created for them to thrive. That institutions are built to celebrate their work. That our art needs to be brought back to our shores. They hopefully believe in their imaginings enough to make them come to life for all of us to see and benefit from. We need the artist’s gaze. It is vital to what we will perceive of ourselves as we mature as a continent.
A lot of the students you work with are in high school or in college. If you had to go back, what advice would you give to your eighteen-year-old self? I picked eighteen because it’s a time of self-discovery, of figuring yourself out.
Let me tell you what I would have told myself at age fifteen because something happens in the middle of your adolescence where you really start to formulate your own identity. At least, it was that way for me. I think at eighteen, there are a lot of forces at play. You are thinking of university, what profession to go into… it’s a constructed space whereas fifteen is very abstract. Fifteen is in the middle of nowhere—you’ve just graduated from primary school and you’re in the middle of high school.
I remember fifteen and being very insecure about my body, which was starting to take form. I remember covering up and being ashamed. As a woman, I think this is when I first developed shame because people started to comment about things like the size of thighs or my backside. Even at home, the shorts I used to wear when I was twelve were no longer appropriate at fifteen…my mother would pause and ask me if I was sure I wanted to go out into the world looking like that because it wasn’t safe.
So I would tell my fifteen-year-old self to pay attention to that shame and what and who is causing you to have that shame and use that as a platform to understand how power works in the world. To understand how victims are created and how powerlessness is created. Journal it and use it as your nuggets of wisdom in your later life because it will serve you so well. I wish I had known that because every thing that has happened to me in my life is, in many ways, informed by the mindset I developed at that age. At fifteen, I started to hide—I started to wear a bigger jersey at school to cover myself my behind and my thighs. I went into the world almost apologizing for who I was and what I looked like and even what my ideas were. I would tell my fifteen-year-old self to pay attention because some incredible life lessons are happening at that point because you start to learn how other people victimize you and how you give your power away. How you give up on dreams because you want to conform.
Fifteen is also an age of conformity because you start to learn what being socially acceptable means. At that age, you can lose a lot of yourself and that can take years to regain some of your sense of self. Young women are often told they are too bossy or too confident; so in those ways, they begin to self-censor, self-course correct to avoid punishment from the world. They don’t want to be considered “not worthy marriage material” or to be called “bossy” or “bitchy.” Shame is a powerful emotion because it makes you start to self-punish before people even give you a punishment. I wish at that age I had understood that that is what shame means and what I was doing to myself.
Luckily for me, I think anthropology was the first re-entrance into myself because it helped me understand how world systems work and who the gatekeepers in our cultures are. Older women, especially in Africa, are critical gatekeepers: they help us figure out how we understand ourselves as women. Often they reinforce some of these very patriarchal ideas that are very debilitating for younger women. I started to understand what that meant in the larger context of my life and the society I lived in.
So I encourage young men and young women to be selective about who they allow to influence their minds. I also encourage them to value their ideas and push them forward with everything they have, no matter how little ‘everything’ is. I also encourage them to focus on what they are good at and build a career on that. That is the key to authenticity and ultimate happiness. And yes as I always say, ‘believe in your madness!’