The story is told of a founding father of one of the African nations who was on a state visit to Egypt.
He was wearing a three-piece suit and when his host — the then president of Egypt inquired about how he could wear a three-piece suit in the hot Egyptian weather, his answer was that a gentleman is a gentleman regardless of the weather.
While this sounds like a very noble thing to say, it reveals the spirit behind a lot of our problems as a people.
What makes you a gentleman is not that you are able to wear a three-piece suit in hot weather. The clothing is not what makes the man.
Why is this important in our discourse on the condition of the continent? What has led us to the place where we have an insatiable appetite for what we do not produce is the fact that we have been raised to define our identity from it. We have no problem flaunting our Versace or Dolce and Gabbana outfits or Louis Vuitton bags.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing. However, the problem arises when that is where our identity comes from. While some people relish in what is fashionable, others determine what the fashion will be.
This leads me to another line of thinking. There is a word in the English language that I find very intriguing. I did not hear it much in all the years that I lived in the Western world. However, it is a buzzword in Africa, especially among governments.
It is the word benchmark.
African governments are the world’s gold medallists in everything benchmarking. They benchmark roads. They benchmark trains. They benchmark buildings and they even benchmark sporting competitions. Yes. They spend money to send delegations to sporting competitions to benchmark.
Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with benchmarking but let us do a little thinking.
The builders of the first pyramids that were the tallest man-made structures on Earth for 3,800 years; Who were they benchmarking?
Let us look at other wonders of the ancient world like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt. Who were they benchmarking?
When in January 1863, the London Underground kicked off, it was the first of its kind in the world. Again, who were they benchmarking?
Now let us look at another side of this story. The Chinese were the world’s masters at copying. In fact, when I was younger we laughed at everything that was substandard and jokingly said it must have been made in China. They paid no attention to our jest and they just continued copying technology from around the world.
It is said that they would buy things and take them apart because they wanted to know how they worked. We bought to consume.
We benchmark to copy verbatim. We benchmark even mediocrity. We benchmark old technology and rejoice when it is delivered to Africa. We are not bothered about how things work but just want what works.
While we are on China, let us not forget that the Chinese were the one who gave the world paper making (105 BC), movable type printing (960-1279 AD), gunpowder (1000 AD), the compass (1100 AD), the mechanical clock (725 AD), tea production (2,737 BC) and silk 6,000 years ago.
Finally, isn’t it interesting that we all now flock to Dubai in droves? It is now one of the favourite destination of Africans. I watched a video last week that had gone viral.
It shows a Nigerian interviewing an Emirati who is very blunt. He says that we have more resources than them but the one thing we did not have is visionary leadership.
The leader of Dubai always insists on the best. The biggest. The greatest. With that mindset you do not have many people to benchmark.
This is the point where you have to learn how to benchmark your own imagination. But then, how can you benchmark an imagination that is not fertile?
As long as we benchmark just to consume or to feed our lack of identity, there is no future. If the purpose of our benchmarking is to learn the how and then make it better then there is hope.
However, from all the evidence available, such visionary leadership is far away. We are happy to pride ourselves in benchmarking that makes us the dumping ground for yesterday’s technology. Unfortunately, both the leaders and many of the led are ignorant and so we rejoice at these great feats of mediocrity.
Wale Akinyemi is the chief transformation officer at Powertalks.