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Paying Tribute to the African Renaissance

Jessie Elisberg | February 28, 2014

If you have been to Dakar in the past few years, no matter how little of the city you see (even if you never set foot outside of the airport), there is one sight you will not miss: the Monument to the African Renaissance. This immense statue depicting a man, woman, and baby dominates the skyline of Dakar, and it has generated a proportional amount of controversy.

Regardless of whether you believe the statue is a great memorial or a huge boondoggle, there’s no denying that it is an impressive feature. Despite my curiosity to know more about it, on previous trips to Senegal I hadn’t managed to visit the Monument and make the journey to the viewing platform in the top of the giant bronze man’s head. However, the opportunity presented itself at last on my recent visit; since I was there to support the training of the Innove4Africa Fellows, and many of them were in Senegal for the first time, a group of us decided we needed to do some sightseeing. What better place to start than the Monument?

Spending a couple of hours wandering the art galleries on the lower levels and marveling at the views from the top with a group of young social entrepreneurs from across Africa was a lot of fun, but it also made me stop and think: what exactly is this African Renaissance that the Monument is paying tribute to?

I didn’t have to look very far to find an answer—whether it’s what the architects of this monument had in mind or not. The young leaders I was surrounded by are the perfect representatives of new visions and possibilities for Africa. The more I thought about it, the more this statue reminded me of why I love what I do and who I work with. The Fellows I spent time with in Senegal are part of a new generation of leaders in Africa; they are innovative, passionate, and aiming for nothing less than changing mentalities in their countries. They want proactive change, and they aren’t waiting around for someone else, someone older and in a position of authority, to make it happen. They are creating ventures that embody new visions of the economic possibilities in agriculture, social inclusion through environmentalism, and leveraging ICT to solve everything from lack of educational opportunities to lack of access to health care.

These social entrepreneurs don’t have big budgets, and many still struggle to overcome anti-youth bias and have their voices heard. But I’m convinced that nothing will stop them in their quest to empower their communities and to redefine leadership in Africa. They are building a new generation of leadership that is focused more on change than on power, a group of leaders who approach challenges with humility, determination, flexibility, and generosity.

Maïmouna Ilboudo, who is working to develop agricultural value chains in her community in Burkina Faso to provide economic empowerment for women, thinks that “vision is the primary quality of a leader, and you need the charisma to rally others to create a common vision.” André Moliro and Maximilien Kungana, who are both working to increase environmental awareness and combat climate change through their respective projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, agreed that vision and influence are critical, because the problems they need to address are many; as the region with the youngest population in the world, many Sub-Saharan Africa countries struggle to provide education and training, employment, and access to land for their youth. Kangah Donatien, whose website, web radio, and e-school are bridging the digital divide and providing training for digital jobs in Côte d’Ivoire, added that leaders need to remain faithful to their original motivations and not be corrupted by the system, with the aim of “leading followers to shed their dependence and become their own leaders.”

This focus on empowering others brought to mind a YouthActionNet blog post last year about the power of a humble leader. During the Innove4Africa retreat week, many Fellows echoed the sentiment that they must help their communities create a new vision and get away from the old mentality of dependence. They understand the problems they face and the determination it takes to overcome those problems. It makes me appreciate that although the challenges and contexts may be quite different from community to community, there are many common – and truly remarkable – qualities of the young people who tackle those challenges head on and eventually find themselves joining the YouthActionNet community. It’s also pretty cool to think that we, along with The MasterCard Foundation and USAID, are able to support the incredible vision and determination of these 25 Innove4Africa Fellows, who are the best symbol I can imagine for the African Renaissance.