Africa Gathering Washington DC Wrapup

So I was off to my first event of the Digital Capital Week or better known as DCWEEK this Saturday morning and made it with a thirty minutes delay to the  Kenny Auditorium at the SAIS building of John Hopkins University on Massachussets Ave. I got my brother-in-law to tag along for once and we got a warm greeting from the Africa Gathering staff on site and were relieved to find out that in fact, the event had not yet started due to the main organizer Marieme Jamme being lost in the DC streets. This must have been one if not the only time I thanked DC’s convoluted street system. In any case we were there for the start of the event and when Marieme showed up, she wasted no time in getting the event going in her energetic, determined style.

She gave us a detailed background on Africa Gathering, how it started in London cafe and aims to give African people a voice and a way to communicate with each other. I did not understand the meaning of her words until the end of the afternoon but back to Africa Gathering, after her quick introduction, Marieme got the event first presenter introduced and set to present. We got to witness and interesting presentation from the Global Conversations team at the State department highlighting their social media outreach efforts, followed by a presentation of the Diaspora African Women Network whose mission is to “develop and support talented women & girls of the African diaspora focused on African affairs”. Semhar Araia the founder, born in America from Eritrean parents was very passionate about her cause and it translated well into the audience.

Next one started with a good laugh courtesy of Kemdi Ebi at VoteOrQuench, an online initiative “made up of 4 young, like-minded and motivated young Nigerians – 2 guys and 2 girls – who’ve never actually been in the same room at the same time but share the same belief that change MUST happen and understand that they can either Vote or Quench”. Kemdi Ebi was inspiring hearing him explain how they were able to make somewhat of a difference in getting young Nigerians involved in the political process by getting to to register to vote and hopefully turn out on Voting Day. This is a continued effort so I am expecting more out of this team. VoteOrQuench was followed by Kathering Lucey of Solar Sister, which on top of being a somehow cool name, is a non profit operating in Uganda on a Avon Ladies of solar energy platform. Basically Solar Sister empowers women in rural Uganda through Entrepreneurship in a bag. Through Solar Sister, they are able to purchase a bag of solar lamps and re-sell for profits in their villages. It was definitely an interesting talk and project which got a lot of the audience’s attention.

We got treated to an eye opening discussion on the benefits of open data by Kaushall Jhalla of The Work Bank, more specifically Open Data Kenya, and it was quite revealing to me how open data can be used by government and the private sector alike to provide a unified launchpad for economic and social projects. I honestly did not expect to learn much but was pleasantly surprised at how relevant open data really is, which was one of the points stressed by Jhalla: giving people a better understanding of how open data matters helps them become more interested in the global conversations about climate change for example because they then get a better appreciation of  how these conversations relates to them. Jhalla was followed by the fiery Kambale Musavuli of the Friends Of the Congo organization who gave an eye opening talk on how the situation in the Congo is really relevant to all African countries, and how Africans themselves have failed to talk and engage about the Congo. He pointed out that Congo, because of its natural resources could power the whole of Africa in energy, and that the only bill President Obama passed when he was a Senator was about the Congo, acknowledging that solving a lot of the problems on the Continent has to go through solving the situation in the Congo, maybe through a Congo Beer Summit as Kambale jokingly suggested. His talk definitely brought back the urgency of what is currently happening in the Congo and how I as an Individual, have even failed to pay attention.

After a good lunch catered by I believe Ghana Cafe, we got a talk from Chief Boima, a DJ/Activist about the current forms of exploitation in African Music. This talk was especially interesting to me, as music is my strongest secondary interest, and one interesting nugget that I was unaware of was how internationally known DJs had carved Africa in regions, in terms of countries where they go to buy vinyls, sample them, or sell them on the Western market for juicy profits. This was like the Berlin Conference for DJs. Boima also talked about his HipCo (Hip Hop and Colloquial ) compilation, LoneStars, that he just released after a trip to Liberia exposed him to this local music style that even though appreciated in the West, has a hard time being monetized in Liberia. Hey nobody is a prophet in their own home the French say…

Right after Boima we were treated to what I think outside of Professor Ayitteh’s talk the highlight of the day, which was the projection of previews from the “Merkato” movie by filmmaker Sosena Solomon. Merkato is the biggest open air market in Addis Abbaba the Ethiopian capital and home to brave souls who are living on a day to day basis while keeping a great spirit about them. We got to see previews about a young boy who works at Merkato collecting plastic objects for recycle, another woman who I believe sells tea and biscuits for a living, but the highlight was definitely 92 year old Hawa. Her general quirkiness and sense of humor as it was portrayed in the five minutes preview really got big laughs with the audience and was the link that allowed them to really connect with what Solomon was trying to achieve. She indicated that she was still collecting funds to try and complete the movie, which I believe she will get if more people see the previews. It is  a really well shot movie, with defined characters. You’ll definitely remember it after you see it.

Next we got a couple of other interesting talks, one by Khwezi  Magwaza, who formerly worked at Seventeen South Africa and gave a talk on how her former organization was able to research and implement the most efficient way of communicate with seventeen year old girls and have their brand be a real reflection of their culture. This was one of those coming out of left field talks that you actually get much out of even though you initially thought that there wasn’t much in for you to related. Next was Nii Simmonds of the DAIN network, a business incubator aimed at startups focused on post-harvest production in agriculture. He explained how due to the growth in world population, speculation, biofuels and natural disasters, one pressing upcoming global need would be to get food to the people that need it thus the focus on post-harvest production. After Nii came a gentleman representing the Connect For Climate initiative from the World Bank, which wants people in Africa to talk about how climate changes affects Africa.

One of the most interesting talks for me came from Barbara Birungi, who flew in from Uganda to talk about the two organizations she worked with. HiveColab is a collaborative workspace created in Uganda to give developers free access to computing resources, and Women In Technology Uganda or WITU. Her involvement with WITU was spurred by the fact that she was bothered that it was only men that were taking advantage of the opportunities offered at HiveColab so she started WITU as a way to encourage young girls and women to enter, stay and prosper in the ICT field. Her explanation of the hurdles that women face being or even considering IT as a career opportunity in Uganda hit home for me, as a father of a young girl and i definitely picked up a few tips for my own daughter.

Barbara was followed by Jackson M’vunganyi 0f UpFrontAfrica a Voice of America radio youth show aimed at getting the  youth to engage their civic leaders. Jackson’s talk was focused on how the education system in Africa is far removed from African values, to the point of teaching African kids nonsensical knowledge (John Speke “discovered” the source of the Nile, to the apparent surprise of the natives who had been living there quite a while), and Jackson’s solution was a complete reform that would integrate African cultural values and traditions in a knowledge base that suits African realities. The following debate was quite heated in between proponents of reforms and others of a more nuanced approach, but it was fortunately cut short by the moderator to introduce Dr George Ayitteh, who was in effect, the main act of the day.

I had never personally heard of Dr Ayitteh before that day but by judging from the reaction (deference, respect) of people to him during the day, I knew he had to be somebody worth the meet and he did not disappoint. He took the stage and commanded the audience’s attention at once. His latest book is called “Defeating Dictators” but the topic on Saturday was focused on traditional political systems in Africa, more precisely how consensus was the base of the democratic system and not majority vote, as the latter can lead to exclusion for the minorities involved. Exclusion or ignorance leads to frustration and frustration to violence as highlighted in most of the major and minor conflicts in Africa today which are based on minority rebellions. The second part of his talk was introduced by a documentary on the “Cheetah” generation , which is what he called young Africans in the diaspora making their way back to the continent to rebuild. We could not finish the documentary due to technical glitches but a gracious Ayitteh took over the stage to answer questions and recommended amongst other things his book “Indigenous African Institutions” as a good introduction to his work. I will definitely get it after what I saw.

After meeting some people it was time to head home and I give the people at Africa Gathering ( Kathleen Bomani (@katebomz), Molly Mattessich (@mollymali) and Marieme Jamme @mjamme)) a big kudos for making this happen. It was a refreshing, inspiring experience, really unlike anything I had been to before and reminded me that African people are achieving things worldwide. I will now be a regular at these events as there is now a DC chapter of Africa Gathering and I don’t think I could have picked a better way to start my DCWEEK trek. More to come.

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