Friday, June 13, 2014

My summer reading list!

I finally started on my summer reading list! I used to be quite the reader in my younger years but academic reading ruined me. After I had the read The Wealth of Nations, Dante’s Inferno, The Iliad and The Communist Manifesto in undergrad I lost my enthusiasm for reading and soon after, science took over my life. I plan to claim that piece of my being this summer, and I started with my current favorite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I just finished reading her latest installment, Americanah, and I could not put this book down once I started it. I was completely engrossed in Chimamanda’s narration of the life of a Nigerian girl who migrated to America and I marveled and how accurate it was. I identified with the turbulent immigrant experience that Ifemelu, the main protagonist, was going through and I saw a lot of myself in her struggle. America has been this bitter sweet pill that I was forced to take, much like Ifemelu and a lot of other immigrants out there. Everyone knows when America calls, you answer. With Zimbabwe’s political and economic instability foiling my dreams, when University of Chicago gave me a full ride scholarship, I packed a bag and bid my family farewell and got on a plane to America. Everyone expected me to make a scene at the airport with my mother, being the baby in the family, but in the departure lounge at Harare International Airport, I did not even look back at them, only forward, to my brighter future, or so I thought.

Now 7 years later, I feel ambivalent, as I reflect on the long and twisty road I have travelled to get to

That time I wanted to be a doctor! Oh and a view from some height hiking
up Table mountain in Capetown!
this summer internship. In undergrad I had a close-knit group of ambitious African friends who dreamt of becoming surgeons, physicists and economists and our common goal was to “save” Africa. Over time, the immigrant “struggle” got real and those dreams either dissolved or manifested in a different way for all of us, and I am the latter. Although I abandoned my original dreams of becoming a surgeon, I am one of the few who still kept Africa in my future goals. My new career plans were inspired by an undergraduate summer experience I had, working with African women who had breast cancer in South Africa. I would spend my off – work hours in the ward visiting my favorite patients and listening to the stories that brought then to having ulcerating breasts and disease that had invaded their liver. Their stories spoke of systemic and institutional failures that thwarted their attempts to get the care they needed when they needed it, and it broke my heart. Most of all, for the big dreams I had, I realized how frustrated I would be as the physician who sends these women to palliation because I cannot help them beyond that, and that is when I became a convert to public health. As a dual degree in public health and business, I want to become an expert in global health policy analysis and market strategies to optimize and strengthen healthcare systems in sub Saharan Africa.
About to go cut some tumors,
jk, assisting in cutting tumors!
(cannot decide which internship was more awesome,
that one or this one)

I meet up with the old African gang from time to time and to most of them,  my ambitions are a pipe dream. America is supposed to be the great escape, where you make it, where you have the American dream. I should have gotten an economics degree, an investment banking job in New York and slid into a life of cutting monthly checks to my parents and visiting them for a few weeks every year with my biracial babies( my parents expect me to marry white, why, because that’s what people do in America apparently -_-, oh and it would make them so popular in the neighborhood). Its not such a shabby dream especially when you consider what Africa gives you to work with. You have a full menu of suffering from long ongoing civil wars in central Africa, terrorism in the west and east and disease epidemics, unstable economies and crazy politics in the south. Even my own parents cannot imagine why I care at all and sometimes when I get off the phone with them, or when I read African news, I ask myself, what exactly am I fighting for?

Then I remember it all. Having grown up in Zimbabwe, my life is the story of resilience.  It’s a gift that people to whom life has dealt some bad cards have, as immigrants from harsh places have experienced. Imparting parts of my life in therapy at some point and discussing suicide, I noted to my doctor that suicide is a luxury that people like me are not afforded. We are too busy trying to survive! The lost boys of Sudan walked tens of thousands of miles to have a chance at life, and children in villages in northern Uganda at some point went to sleep in the bush to avoid being captured by rebels, just so they can see another day, to walk 10 miles to school and learn the alphabet under a tree! Where I come from people often do not know where their next meal is coming from, but they wake up before the crack of dawn anyway and go about the business of surviving.

Which brings me to my second summer read that I just launched into, the Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade. Dayo wanted to provide insight into how Africans really survive, despite the wars, terrorism and disease. She travelled around the continent and documented stories to showcase Africa’s abilities to solve their own problems  in creative ways that bypass the broken social and political systems. Dayo maintained that there are two kinds of entrepreneurs; entrepreneurs by opportunity and entrepreneurs by necessity, and Africans are the latter.

 My mother comes to mind as I continue my forage into this book. My mother was never formally fully educated but she is probably one of the smartest women I know. As a fulltime housewife she supplemented the family income with various small business ventures, like keeping and selling chickens and making clothes and jerseys for resale amongst other things. She is in a “ home- improvement club” with her friends where they put money together and give it to one person each month to buy something they need for their home, and in recent years my mother has repainted our house and tiled her kitchen, from that income. Just last year she started making bed sheets, where she buys bedding cloth, hems it and sells it making her money back almost twice over. I sit in my classes and I can put everything that my mother does in business terms, micro finance with her friends, and her impeccable marketing abilities that gets her a margin of over 200%.  It endlessly fascinates me how I am going to be in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to learn things that my mother figured out on her own to survive.
My mum (in the middle), the last time i saw her in 2010 summer!
Survival is the key point to Africa’s entrepreneurship culture. People barely think beyond the next day as they go about the business of surviving,  but according to Dayo all this creativity is the backbone of Africa’s economy, not the formal institutions that everyone is worried about. Africa is not as helpless as the rest of the world thinks they are. I was recently at an emerging markets convention and Africa and was a hot topic. A number of economies in Africa, such as Rwanda, Mozambique and Ghana are growing at unprecedented rates of between 7-10%. In this new era, private investment, rather than foreign aid is the key player this phenomenon. In addition while natural resources were previously believed to be the source of economic success, it is now believed that human resources are playing a more significant role in development in sub Saharan Africa. In a moment of validation of my career choices, conference speakers noted that Africa’s future lies in its largely young educated population that can innovatively turn knowledge into action and optimize the resources at their disposal to drive progress on the continent.
Dayo took it upon herself to write the story of the Africa missed by World Bank GDP statistics, CNN, BBC and by Africans who lost the vision for its betterment. Her book is appropriately named the Bright Continent, to dispel the long standing perception of Africa as  the "dark" continent that needs to be helped out.  Chimamanda alluded me to a new term for my vocabulary. Instead of evolving into an African-American, the longer I live in the US, I am more of an “American- African.” I have enjoyed most of the best that America has to offer, from the fine education at top-notch universities (thanks Uchicago and Umichigan i.e. go maroon and go blue), to being a young professional who sips Cosmos at the top of the Trump Tower on Friday nights and goes wine and whiskey tasting during the summer. However America has never really felt like home to me, and l continue to fight for my “ saving” Africa dream, despite all its complications, challenges and uncertainty. My graduate education is giving me a roadmap of where I will take this passion and this summer experience in Ethiopia is only one of the many to come, as I build expertise in using health policy analysis and market strategies to improve healthcare access in sub Saharan Africa.  People always ask me if I want to go back to “Africa”, and I think, I never left, in all truth!

 As I walk on the streets of Addis everyday, get Amharic shouted after me because well, I look African and eat shiro for lunch, I feel like I never really left, my heart never left!

1 comment:

  1. ugh so perfect Nancy. I need to read me some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie this summer.