By Dr Noah Manyika
Let me start with a confession: I have not always been my wellbeing’s best friend. I have bristled when others have described my lapses in judgment as … lapses in judgment. I have not always been man enough to consider as friends those who point out my shortcomings, and at times I have insisted on my own way to prove them wrong, only to end up proving them right at significant cost to myself. Unfortunately as a father, husband and leader, there are others who are forced to share the cost of my poor judgment simply because they are under me.
Life has taught me that preferring only the company of those who esteem me highly is not always best for me. I have indulged in the intellectual quackery that insists that the best ideas are those that only I and those who look and think like me come up with. I have learned that the convictions from which I have drawn courage are not always based on wisdom, but often only on seeing one side clearly when in fact reality is multi-dimensional. Because I have not always valued the perspectives of others, my decisions have not always advantaged me or my cause. I have learned the hard way to need others who see what I cannot see, and know what I don’t know. I need them not just for me, but also for the sake of those for who I am responsible.
It doesn’t do me or my cause any good to draw comfort from the fact that there are many reading this article who are just like me. Being in the company of many who are “just like me” would make the need to address my dysfunction less urgent. Fifty-two years ago at the historic March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr spoke of tomorrow being today, and the “fierce urgency of now” that confronted people then. He warned that in the “unfolding conundrum of life and history,” there is “such a thing as being too late”. One of my countrymen learnt this truth the hard way several years ago. At the final family meeting on the day he was supposed to catch his return flight to England, no one had the courage to interrupt the head of the family’s monologue, even though the airport was almost an hour away, and it was getting awfully close to departure time. The fact that the elderly man was not just talking, but praying and commending the traveller to God, made it even more difficult for anyone to interject.
Not that anyone would have dared.
By the time the elder said “Amen,” it was almost an hour before take-off. Everyone knew it was futile to even try to get to the airport, but try they still did, only to be told on arrival that it was indeed too late: the plane had already left. Someone could have reminded the elder that even the scriptures tell us that there is a time for everything. In other words, there is a time to pray, and a time to get to the airport. They could also have suggested another approach that would have neither offended God nor caused the traveller to miss his flight: the family could have simply prayed on their way to the airport.
What I have found to be particularly disturbing over the years is how similar the stories about missed opportunities and casual attitudes towards time told by fellow Zimbabweans and Africans are. Without getting into the complicated science of measuring the ever so slight variations in the earth’s rotation period relative to the sun caused by what astronomers call “orbital eccentricity,” the simple truth is that the earth rotates at the same speed for everyone, neither slowing down for the laggards, nor stopping for those who believe there is no hurry in Africa. It would not be tragic if the only cost of our sometimes asynchronous behaviour is a missed flight or two, or mere regrets about lost but inconsequential opportunities. Personally, I have more at stake than that, and can no longer be patient with myself nor with “friends” who try to make me feel good when I fail to make quality and timely decisions that are advantageous to me and my cause.
In a world where tomorrow is today and everyone lives in the present-future, none of us can afford to authenticate our Africanness by ignoring deadlines and being late for everything, including work, school, church, weddings, funerals, dinner appointments, meetings with potential investors etc. Tardiness cannot be normal and acceptable behaviour simply because many who are like us do the same thing. Punctuality and valuing time cannot be wrong because our erstwhile “enemies” were punctual and efficient, and made the most of the opportunities time presented them as the world turned.
Turning time into a friend and ally needs to be an urgent quest not just for individual Africans, but for organisations, communities, governments and nations. The reality that 40 of the 49 countries at the bottom of the United Nation’s Human Development Index are African can only be changed when we recognise time as the bearer of opportunity, and make the most of what it presents. Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany after WWII, would not wait until the whole world had forgotten the crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich to see in the period immediately after the war the opportunity for his nation to rise to become the second most dynamic economy in the world in less than a decade. As far as Adenauer was concerned, the same time the nation could have spent wallowing in guilt and shame could become West Germany’s friend and moment to thrive. By timely, informed decision-making that was not focused on what Germany had lost, but what it could be with what was available to it, Adenauer willed a vanquished nation to rise from ruin to produce the Wirtschaftswunder (German economic miracle) which gave the current unified German state the solid foundation for its prosperity today.
If there is a lesson we Africans can learn from those who might not look like us, think like we do or work at our speed, it is that there are opportunities in the unlikeliest of moments, and that to make the most of them, we might have to think like they do and work at the speed not of our culture, but of life. As compelling as Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney’s argument was about Europe’s systematic plunder of Africa during colonial times in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, an inordinate focus on what was stolen can cause us not to see what is still available to us today. With 50% of the world’s gold, the lion’s share of the world’s diamonds and chromium, “90 percent of the cobalt, 40 percent of the world’s potential hydroelectric power, 65 percent of the manganese, millions of acres of untilled farmland as well as other natural resources” according to economist Walter Williams and many others, our continent is still the richest in natural resources today. We are therefore not poor today because there was nothing left after the plunder.
Martin Luther King Jr was right: there is such a thing as being too late. While I don’t believe it is already too late for Africa, it will certainly be if we continue to choose not to be honest about our shortcomings. It will be if we choose to learn only from those who look like us and think like us. It will be if we continue to insist that the things that have been proven not to work … work simply because we are the ones who are doing them. It will be if we choose not to need those who can see what we do not see, and know what we do not know simply because they are not our friends.
And it will certainly be if we do not understand that in the present-future in which we live, the urgency of now has become even fiercer than it was 53 years ago, and that the world is not going to slow down for us to catch up.
Dr Noah Manyika is a foreign policy, international business diplomacy, communications and community development expert. A graduate of the world-renowned School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington DC and of the Stefan Gheorghiu Academy, in Bucharest, Romania, he has served on the Affordable Housing Cabinet of Mecklenburg County and on the Board of Visitors of Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the boards of United World Missions and Harvests of Hope, which between them have projects and workers in over 35 countries. Dr Manyika’s “Shoes for Healing Program” which was adopted by the Organ for National Healing under the leadership of the late Zimbabwean vice president, John Nkomo, brought thousands of shoes for distribution to schoolchildren in all of Zimbabwe’s provinces for distribution at events that were designed to promote national healing and peace. Dr Manyika has mobilised investment for Zimbabwe, and is currently spearheading efforts to launch Build Zimbabwe/Vaka Zimbabwe, a platform to encourage Zimbabweans at home and in the diaspora to give back to their country and communities in service. He is the author of the book The Challenge of Leadership: Is There Not a Cause?