On Big Africa's 60th birthday, make a wish for the continent. Here’s mine...

Saturday May 27 2023

Picture illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Thursday, May 25, was Africa Day. The day marks the 1963 founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was reimagined as the African Union in 2002.

A quote derived from John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, who served as its second president, goes: "If you are a not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative when you are old, you have no brain."

We did much better when we were young in the east side of Africa. We were radical and dreamt of changing the world through revolution. Now we are old; we realise how foolish we were, despite the noble idealism of it all.

Notwithstanding the disappointed commentary about the state of Africa that has poured out, as often happens around Africa Day, some of us have a reason for joy. When we were young and radical, we used to be asked for just one thing we wished for in Africa.

You weren't allowed to have more because it was considered that it encouraged moral laziness and ideological fuzziness. Mine was to see the end of apartheid in South Africa in my lifetime. I dreamed about turning myself into an invisible man (yes, I was obsessed with H. G. Well's The Invisible Man as a young lad), flying to South Africa, and raining fire on the racist regime.

Apartheid formally ended in 1994. In fact, it came earlier than many of us had expected. If I were to stick to my single biggest African ask, I would be happy. The end of apartheid, however, came with one of the greatest tragedies in Africa of the 20th century, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, where nearly one million were slaughtered over 100 days. It was bittersweet.


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There were other foolish wishes and African dreams. For some reason, and for many years now, I can never stop dreaming about a canal built from the Indian Ocean in Kenya, through the middle of Uganda, kissing the western edge of Rwanda and Burundi, and on through the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Atlantic Ocean, landing some distance off Matadi. If I returned to this world in future as the god of Earth, I would surely unleash a bolt that would create that canal.

Another wildly grand dream is to see the Sahara desert as it was 10,000-5,000 years ago, covered with lush vegetation and lakes. I have a vested interest; because I also hallucinate about getting land the size of The Gambia and establishing a happy African republic, where pot is legal, you can marry who you like, walk naked or covered on the streets as you wish; there would be a law against taxes that are higher than five per cent; no standing army and all the citizens of the world would come and go without the requirement of visas.

There would be no sedition laws nor criminalisation of free expression and, of course, free elections (we would insist on proportional representation).

As the founding father, I would be a kind of Dalai Lama figure — for only about ten years — to avoid disgracing myself on the campaign trail.

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I grew up reading and hearing about the Cape (South Africa) to Alexandria (Egypt) railway. In later life, it captured my imagination vividly. Hopefully, the 21st century will end with the railway. It will be a great Africa where that is possible. We will visit from the dead for the ride.

I have had other less important pan-African desires. For years I have been taken up with creating a (video) game based on African history and a network logic on how to get from one end of the continent to another in the quickest way possible. I wrote up the game, and in 2015 and 2016, tried in collaboration with other like-minded Africans to bring it to life — and we failed miserably.

In 2006, there were no tech hubs in Africa. Today, there are nearly 700 of them — and growing. Not too long ago, I dropped in Norrsken in Kigali, which bills itself as Africa's biggest hub for entrepreneurship. Being there and other innovation hubs I have sniffed around the continent, I am optimistic that one day someone will create the game before we are all too old and arthritis in the fingers makes it too painful to play.

The other wishes for the continent have been the usual ones passed on over the past three generations. That it finds peace and wars, with the attendant suffering they bring, end. It sounds cheesy today to talk of "make love, not war" as the 1960s hippies did, but, hey, they were on to something. Diseases like malaria, HIV/Aids, sickle cell and cancer will be overcome.

That the poverty that afflicts millions, and the deprivation of basic needs like water, be met in all households. That the horrors of life that African women, especially those who aren't in the middle class, endure end.

The one thing life teaches, even stupid men and women, is that you can't have it all. As a wise old man told this preppy grandson, "You can't marry every beautiful woman you meet." They are long gone, but I keep wishing that one of these days, the Nobel Committee will change its rules and award either Okot p'Bitek or Chinua Achebe the Nobel Prize for Literature posthumously.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3