Newark, Delaware: Any mention of African leadership in the United States of America (and elsewhere) often comes to audiences as a set of stereotypes and is likely to be interpreted within the limits of available or even availed assumptions about how the continent could look like. That is not surprising given the number of ways through which Africa was, and is constantly being, invented and the many possible ways through which the continent can be read in the minds of many. We have Capitalist mainstream media to thank for that, right? To think of Africa as a set of ideas and assumptions therefore is to take a journey into demystification and unlearning. It is, indeed, an exercise in rethinking and re-conceptualizing what we might think that we know (or not know) about the many different cultures and practices on the continent. This is what we, at the University of Delaware’s Summer Institute have, for the last one week being doing. Under the umbrella of President Barrack Obama’s flagship programme (Washington Fellowship), twenty-five out of a five hundred cohort of young African leaders have been placed at the University of Delaware in Newark for a total of six weeks for academic programs, leadership training and mentorship. What this means is that the fellows get to not only experience an American university culture but also that they are exposed, in closer detail, to American modes of instruction and American-specific governance practices.
At the University of Delaware (UD) are twenty-five fellows from nineteen African countries, including: Burundi (1), Rwanda (1), Democratic Republic of Congo (2), Kenya (3), Somalia (1), Zimbabwe (2), South Africa (2), Uganda (1), Nigeria (2), Cameroon (1), Sierra Leone (1), Senegal (1), Swaziland (1), Lesotho (1), Comoros (1), Mauritius (1), Zambia (1), Ivory Coast (1) and Ethiopia (1). What a diverse group of young people! In this post I will attempt a review of today’s academic sessions. I am not sure that I could do any form of justice to the many ways in which we, on the Civic Leadership Track, have been able to engage with material with which we are presented. As one would imagine, young people (well, I am no longer so young!) are able to critique and interpret information in ways that are not always obvious. At least not when these young people are grassroots activists ( what does that even mean?). In the next few paragraphs I will give an overview of the subject matter in the two sessions, the teaching approach of each presenter and I will in turn offer a personal reflection on each of the two. Please indulge me. Let’s go.
Morning Session: Democratic Representation and Accountability (Prof. Phil Jones)
Photo credits: Neo Musangi, Iranti-Org.
Prof. Phil Jones (pictured) from the Department of Political Studies at the University of Delaware this morning took us through a talk on “Democratic Representation and Accountability”. Jones presentation began with a quick round of introductions in which all twenty-five fellows introduced themselves, the countries they came from and what they had, for the last one week, learnt or done in the U.S. For many, this was an opportunity to both reflect on their experiences of the U.S and their expectations, as well as to think through previous academic and community activity sessions. What came across was both feelings of being culturally overwhelmed and those of unmet expectations. I found this icebreaker quite interesting and a creative way of entering a disciplinary Political Studies discourse with an unfamiliar audience.
In the next phase of his talk, Jones guided the group through the concepts of accountability and representation and expounded on how these might play in different countries. The notion of democracy, Jones told us, began in the early states (ancient democracies) particularly in Ancient Greece where the etymology of the word ‘Demokratia’ could be traced: demos, “the people” and -kratia, “power/rule”. According to Jones within this mode of organising societies, people would meet in public halls and hold discussions about pertinent issues of the day. Although Greece talked a lot about ‘the people’, as Jones pointed out, a lot of people in Athens were not allowed to take part in these meetings as the criterion for admission was largely based on gender, class, generations of Greek descent, among others. Decisions were therefore largely made by wealthy men of a particular Greek ancestry who had a lot of time to debate. It is important to note that these men were not politicians but were considered citizens and final decisions would only be arrived at through consensus. Most importantly although the Greeks came up with the concept of ‘democracy’, Jones in response to a question from the audience highlighted that this did not mean that they were the first and only society/nation to exercise democratic practices and participation. Indeed there could be other civilisations that practiced the same.
Moving away from the Greeks, Jones went on to speak about current democracies. In present forms of democracy, Jones explained, there are two groups of people: the politicians and citizens. We elect people to go make decisions for us. In this scenario therefore, ideas of representation and accountability only come up when we allow people to make decisions for us. We do not have a democracy where we all come together to make decisions, we elect people and then in the next election we hold them accountable for the decisions they have made. However, as Jones pointed out, one of the flaws of the current system is that people often assume that if politicians are held accountable it automatically results into good representation.The logic behind this linkage is that if politicians want to be re-elected they will do what the people want. It is about keeping jobs; staying in office.This assumption stems from the idea that if citizens hold politicians accountable for what they want, politicians are more likely to do what the citizens want. But then here are the questions:
- What do representatives represent?
- What do voters hold representatives accountable for?
- How can that accountability be enhanced?
Afternoon Session: LGBT Rights in the USA (Prof. Claire Rasmussen)
Photo credits: Neo Musangi
In the afternoon session, Prof. Claire Rasmussen (pictured), took the group through a history of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) activism in the U.S. Rasmussen began, like Jones, by asking the group what they knew about U.S LGBTI Rights and/or what they would like to know. This session was really an eye opener to many not only in terms of U.S LGBTI movement but also in terms of the LGBTIQ struggle in general. The linkages that Rasmussen made between the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation and the Gay Rights Movement were particularly important in establishing the many ways through which specific groups throughout U.S History have highlighted the interconnectedness in (and of) oppression. I caught up with Sibusisiwe Bhebhe, a fellow from Zimbabwe, who had this to say about the session.
Generally, today was great! The struggle continues.