AiW Guest Steve Haines
Sunday’s panel session Facing Forward was introduced by the chair, festival curator Hannah Pool, as bringing together the many strands of Africa Utopia and giving an opportunity for speakers from diverse disciplines to reflect on the learning of the past few days. The panel, featuring Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, Joe Osae Addo, Ghanaian architect and Chairman of ArchiAfrika, and Theo Sowa, Chief Executive Officer of the African Women’s Development Fund, was well-chosen for this brief and reflected several of the themes of the festival: politics, trade education and technology, arts, social change, culture and activism.
Jude Kelly began by introducing some of the initial thinking behind the festival. In developing Africa Utopia, they had deliberately chosen the feel of a festival rather than a conference: somewhere you could discuss big issues while enjoying a plate of good food, where ideas of art and politics would flow freely between each other, and where a conversation could move from the serious to the playful as it would with a friend. Choosing the title Africa Utopia was not about projecting a vision of Africa as a utopia, but acknowledging the impossibility of any utopia and instead using it as a measure to create debate about the lives we lead. The original subtitle of the festival was ‘what the West can learn from Africa’, signalling its aim to shift tired paradigms of North and South, and focus on the ways in which ‘art and ideas from Africa are changing the world.’
Joe Osae Addo spoke about the need for different disciplines to converse: musicians speaking to architects, activists listening to artists, each of us engaging with different lexicons and media to unpack issues and seek new directions. This was brought to life with reflections on space and place, cautioning how, in the rhetoric of progress, spaces of dialogue and interaction such as markets, streets and compounds were being cleared to erect buildings of glass and steel.
Theo Sowa introduced her organisation with a clear feminist agenda: funding grassroots women’s leadership to bring about greater equality. She highlighted that the currently popular ‘women and girls’ agenda still stereotypes the role of women as child bearers or food providers in family spaces, rather than giving them equal voices in setting agendas, and the need to challenge this.
The event was framed in the programme with the quote from Ghanaian leader and Pan-African activist Kwame Nkrumah: ‘we face neither East nor West; we face forward’. Out of this came much discussion about the role of the diaspora. Given the collective financial power of financial transfers such as remittances, why, asked Joe Osae Addo, should African governments take instructions from the World Bank or IMF on the basis of their investments, but not feel the same heat from the diaspora? He noted that the vision of post-independence leaders such as Nkrumah included a vision for the diaspora and their role, and that this is lacking today. The panel challenged the traditional thinking of the diaspora as located in North America or Europe only, and pointed to the need to recognise the role of diaspora in countries such as Brazil. Hannah Pool also introduced the concept she had recently heard of the ‘reaspora’ – those who had recently returned to their country of origin or heritage having grown up or spent substantial time elsewhere. There were suggestions of how to harness the influencing power of the diaspora voice, beyond the ambassador’s reception and into the decision-making structures of the countries where they live.
Reflecting on this, the debate turned to the challenges of hierarchy and sources of power. Theo Sowa articulated one of the most engaging definitions of activist I have heard, and pointed to the opportunity to invest in women leaders at the grassroots. She argued for the role of the activist in seeking change through dissatisfaction with the status quo and the work of critiquing each context and striving for change became an important theme in the discussion (referring back to the framing of Africa Utopia set out by Jude Kelly at the start). The questions from the floor explored structures of power and hierarchy further, questioning, and in some cases supporting, its usefulness, and making suggestions of how to reinvest power at the grassroots for positive social change. Jude Kelly herself spoke about the challenges of growing up in Liverpool and how unlikely it was that a woman from her background would have held the position she does now a generation ago.
For me, Facing Forward opened up several vital discussions. It demonstrated the need to create spaces for learning, critique and dialogue across disciplines. It challenged the idea of accepted wisdom in relation to where learning should flow from and to. And it made suggestions on how we might seek to redistribute power to create positive change. In drawing together important strands of the festival by opening up more conversations, it was a closing event that spoke very much to what Africa Utopia is all about.
Steve Haines is a campaigner and activist for social change who has worked across governments in Europe and Africa. He is currently Mobilisation Director for Save the Children International’s global campaign EVERY ONE . He tweets @stevehaines101