Mindset of Africa

Genaye Eshetu
Dec 27, 2015 · 9 min read
Image credit: lighthousemktg.com

Africa is often referred as a broken, devastated continent. Researches, books and reports always enlist reasons causing the devastation of the continent. In order to solve problems that affect Africa, it is important to understand the roots of the problems. However, I believe that much time has been wasted in studying and investing on what seems to be the roots of Africa’s problems such as: colonization, lack of democracy, bad governance, corruption, human rights violations, ethnic tensions, war, famine, drought, diseases, infant mortality, among others. I believe these are mere manifestations, and not the roots of Africa’s problems.

In this article, I assess the mindset of Africans as a root problem for the continent. When I say Africa’s mindset, I refer to mental attitudes of the majority of Africans that determine response to situations; which can be changed to serve individual needs and the continent as a whole. I believe the key to political, social, economic and cultural transformation lies in the transformation of the mindset of the people. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he,” says the Bible. I believe what is true for an individual is also true for a nation. A nation can have a common mindset that determines realities.

Common problems in Africa like, dictatorship, less democratization and corruption begin in the individual’s mindset before becoming a problem for a country, and then the wider continent. A better strategy should encourage tackling such issues while still in the mind. However, in Africa most wait till the ideas manifest and affect not just a few countries but almost the whole continent.

According to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) World Economic Outlook, published in October 2012, 11 of the world’s 20 fastest growing economies are in Africa. The leading cause that is said to contribute to Africa’s development is resource exploration. Africa has always been rich with resources. If Africa has failed to use resources for the past hundred years, but then now that resources are extracted and put into use, credit shall not be given to these resources that have always been present but rather, for the people that engage in the extraction and employ proper utilization. I was not able to identify any studies done on the mindset of African’s related to its impact on the development of the continent. However, I will share my opinion on how mindsets in Africa affect the continent’s development.

There are two kinds of mindset: fixed and growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe that basic qualities like intelligence or talent are simply fixed traits. Such people spend documenting entire lifetime intelligence or talent instead of focusing on developing such traits. They also believe that talent alone can create success, without effort. On the other hand, in growth mindset people believe their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication, learning and hard work; intelligence, skill and talent are just the starting point.

For a vast continent like Africa, it is impossible to conclude citizens generally have growth or fixed mindset. Though Africa is a continent of people with growth mindset like Nelson Mandela (a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa), Desmond Tutu (a South African social rights activist) , Kofi Annan (a Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, Wangari Maathai (a Kenyan environmental and political activist), Emmanuel Yeboah (born in Ghana with a severely deformed right leg and achieved to be an athlete and activist to the plight of the disabled), and many more, it is also true that the continent is land to people of fixed mindsets. In this article I only assess the fixed mindset in Africa based on personal experiences and overall observation of other Africans.

People with fixed mindsets say, ‘we will always live in poverty,’ ‘things will never get better in Africa,’ ‘we will never grow,’ ‘we will never be able to use our resources,’ ‘we can’t avoid war and disputes,’ and so forth. Such people often do what they are naturally good at. For people with fixed mindsets, it is difficult attempt new engagements. People with fixed mindsets adopt non-changing skill for fear of risks, mistakes, image consciousness, and general difficulty to try new things. In a recent personal encounter, I visited the national museum of Ethiopia. One of the items in display at the museum is the ard, a primitive ox-drawn plough. The ard has been the only tool known to almost all Ethiopian farmers for tilling land for thousands of years. Poverty is often cited as an excuse for these farmers to use ard for thousands of years. Is it not that poverty itself a mindset that has a potential to keep people in bondage of fear for a change, for trying new things and taking risks?

I believe most of us have found ourselves in a conversation with ordinary people where the discussion aggravates with opinions like; “this is who we are,” “Why should I be concerned? I won’t change anything,” “I can’t get my life better unless I start all over somewhere in Europe or the United States” “there is no option for peaceful election processes in Africa,” “what is there to do?” “Africans’ always fight; it is in our blood” and so on.” Lately, I read news that Ethiopia discovered commercial reserves of crude oil; I shared the news with friends, colleagues and family. Though they are happy with this news, there is always a ‘what if’ to their opinions. ‘What if we go to war over the oil like other African countries?’ ‘What if leaders go corrupt because of this?’ Poverty mindset primarily gives reasons to why things do not work out and how things could go wrong.

Disputes have actually been largely part of African history. These disputes are often said to result from resources like oil and minerals, culture, ethnic nationalism and religion. However disputes, wars and conflicts primarily originate from the mindset of citizens. I believe tribal mindset is a fixed mindset prevailing throughout Africa, and a reason behind many disputes and conflicts in the continent. We live in a continent where politicians use tribe issues as a vote earning point. Kenya, Rwanda, Ivory Coast are some of the many African countries with such incidents. It is also common that if a president or a prime minister is voted from a certain tribe, the people from that tribe automatically assume they’re superior to the rest of the people of the country.

For a continent, that is the origin of ‘Ubuntu’ philosophy, ‘I am who I am because of who we all are,’ tribal mindset is extremely unfitting. The mindset of citizens that thought of tribal differences had the same potential to think of commonalities. The mindset of citizens that thought of disputes actually had the same potential to think of peaceful negotiations over disputes or any other better means. The same thinking that paved the way for millions of deaths has the same potential to pave the way for development.

Africa remains in the bottom 25 ranking of the United Nations quality of life index. Most of the world’s poor are in Africa. Over 400 million people in Africa live on less than a dollar per day. In other words, 400 million people in Africa live in poverty which I primarily mentioned as a mindset. This is evident in most cases as we lack the initiative to change our situation, easily give up when faced with a challenge, and tend to only focus on risks and negative assumptions. This does not mean that citizens purposely choose to be poor while they are rich potentially. A given mindset develops from childhood of citizens and grows accordingly. This process begins during child-hood of our parents and grandparents. Most of us develop a mindset during child-hood that implies things will not work out for us both as individuals and as a nation. Mindsets are also often shaped by past experiences. For instance citizens that are often affected by disputes and conflicts like Mali, could face difficulty in developing a growth mindset of peace and stability. Citizens of a country that faced bankruptcy like Zimbabwe could develop a bankrupt mindset. Likewise, many African counties with past and current experiences of aid dependency could develop a dependent mindset.

This shows that if Africa’s root problem is citizen’s mindset, Africa’s problem can be resolved by renewing the minds of the people and developing a growth mindset. The growth mindset says, ‘I have a choice,’ ‘I cannot sit in my misery, ‘I will not remain in poverty,’ ‘I can change my life,’ ‘I can get more educated,’ ‘I can influence millions of people,’ ‘I have a contribution for my country’s growth’ and so forth. In my opinion, education can be used to change the mindset of the continent. According to Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, without denying individuals difference in intellect, education and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence. Many African children today do not have access to sound education. In addition, most children who have access to education are only made to be rooted in academic knowledge without being uprooted from the wrong mindset they developed from their upbringing environment, culture, tradition and religion. Children and young people’s mindsets can be impacted by using the education system. Citizens need to be educated about their potential, civic rights, duties and democracy. Here, it is good to note that the majority of Africa’s population is made up of youth.

Also, the media has great potential to reach and transform the mindset of people. For many years, representation of Africa on the media has been dominated by crisis, war, conflict, famine, dictatorship, etc. Even worse, the media’s representation of Africa does not only affect the West but Africans self-image has profoundly been affected by the media to be only associated with poverty, war, sickness and corruption. This image has affected how citizens lead respective lives and how leaders lead respective countries. According to a research by Carol S. Dweck (PhD), a globally leading researcher in the field of motivation, ‘the view you adopt of yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you commit to and accomplish the things you value.’

The other area that builds growth mindsets is relationships. It is necessary to note here, that thoughts, feelings and ideas are contagious. Leaders for example, tend to become like the leaders they spend their time with. Continental meetings by organizations like the African Union Commission also have a great contribution in this regard. There are even chances that, leaders follow the same election process and set up similar policies much like other peer leaders. This is also true for citizens, who tend to remain quite against dictating leaderships for decades until an opportunity arises to change the mindset. When one individual with a different mindset, like Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man in rural Tunisia has an idea to pour gasoline on himself to protest mistreatment by a government functionary and also a deep expression of helplessness in the face of a lack of opportunity, the entire citizens of Tunisia, follow-up on his idea to topple the ruler of the country. The same happened in Egypt and Libya within the last year. The individual’s idea, which is contagious, especially in this time of open and fast communication access such as social media, shall never be undermined.

African leaders have been trying to solve the problems of their people from the effect and not from the cause. However, the first step in problem solving is identifying and solving the cause, which is Mindset!!

This article was originally published on Echo Africa magazine 2013

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