This week I was given the invaluable gift of observing Africa and Tanzania through the eyes of American legislators and Africanist/Tanzanianist scholars and practitioners. To say that it was a rich experience would be to understate matters quite a bit. So this is post number one of what might be a series as I digest what I learned.
I was happy to see that some things are universal. Whether they come from Maputo or London or Pretoria, Dodoma, Washington, politicians are politicians. My long-term subjective qualitative behavioral study of Homo Legislativus* now has a new subset of data. Excellent.
Not so excellent: the way that American legislators perceive Africa and Africans is markedly different than the way we perceive ourselves. This may sound obvious, duh. But understand this: the implications of this fact should not be underestimated nor dismissed.
If you're reading this blogpost then you're not the kind of person I need to tell about America's perplexing ability to not know basic facts about the world outside North America. This blanket statement in no way negates the fact that those Americans who know the world beyond their borders? Really, really, really know their stuff exceedingly well, especially if that's what they do for a living. Also obvious.
I can see the efficiency in this: why burden the general populace (and education system) with basic geopolitical knowledge when specialists can handle that end of things. There might be other factors at play as well, but I want to talk about sticky, controversial, contested history in another blogpost.
So America can "afford" it, but this information gap raises (at least) two major issues:
1. It is a vulnerability in a superpower for this information gap to even exist, one I find hard to grasp in a country with 100% literacy. Yaani, I can't, even. That's definitely the Africanist in me talking, and the Tanzanian jingoist.
2. This affects us as Africans in ways that I was shocked to learn. I suspect we're not managing our end of this relationship as well as we need to. Let's just say I have a lot of questions and comments for my Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other institutions. GoT? Eh bwana, tuwasiliane.
Of course, from a Communications perspective, there is nothing but opportunity here. Like, just so much opportunity. I know the tourism ministries try what with the Magical Kenya this and the Pearl of Africa that and other branding whatnots, but there's a whole other level of work here that needs doing. And believe me, it does need doing. Can I stress that enough? No, I cannot. I repeat: this needs doing.
The exciting part was of course seeing what politicians can do when they are handed information, first-hand experience and some time. Squishing huge amounts of messy data about a gajillion different things into compact and actionable knowledge pieces is a form of alchemy, I tell you. Watching it in practice by masters at the art was beautiful. And it coalesced a number of vague misgivings I have about our statecraft into clear, distinct issues that can now guide a couple of musings and probings and actions of my own.
Si with the elections coming, we're going to be hearing a lot of promises from our hopefuls. Sasa, I can better understand whether they're totally whiffling or on point when they detail the ways in which they intend to deliver on those promises. Na isitoshe, I now have a better understanding of what questions to ask to test said manifestos and candidates more effectively. The how, people, it really is all about the how. The whom is important but the how is importanter.
As this pertains to our coming elections, my notion (prejudice) that younger is better has only been reinforced. Our older generation of politicians are used to a culture that might be out of step with the current realities. They are wise, no doubt, and capable. But are they 21st Century capable? This is a question that not only Tanzanian politicians have to contend with- American ones do too. I'll leave you (and myself) with that meditation point for now.
Gratuitous piece of advice: if you're hosting, don't tell folks there's a political rally coming to town. Just... you know, don't. Take them to the park or beach or something quiet like that.
*Yeah, no. Too obvious to be my neologism, but I hoped for about 30 seconds before Google was like "nope."