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Lessons from Serendip

11 January 2013, 08:02

Since my last article, I did a bit of reading and came across the fictitious story of “The Three Princes of Serendip”. According to the fairy tale, three Persian princes sailed off to make their fortunes in the "land of silk", an island called Serendip. Along the way, the princes made all types of wondrous and delightful discoveries about the island, and learned things they never expected. From this very silly tale is derived the modern word serendipity, which means “the act of finding something valuable or delightful when you are not looking for it”.

The word serendipity may be relatively new in the English language, but human history is littered with serendipitous events. From the discovery of the hallucinogenic effects of opium, to the accidental discovery of the important antibiotic Penicillin, serendipity has provided the impetus for many turning points in history as we know it. And the list of accidental discoveries and inventions is almost endless. It seems genius is not the only way to make important scientific inventions and discoveries! Many of the modern advancements we see around us owe part of their very existence to some rather fortuitous event in the past. This brings me to the important question of how Africa can advance. I’m sure we all want a modern and prosperous Africa, filled with high rise buildings and thriving economies. Free of hunger and disease, and the ravages of war. There are currently many efforts towards attaining all these for the African continent, yet most, if not all of these efforts, have achieved very little. Could it be because the west has gone about trying to aid Africa’s advancement the wrong way?

 I’m of the belief that taking a less direct approach to dealing with Africa’s problems might actually be the way forward. Sending in troops and shipping in tons of food has clearly not got to the root of the problem! If you are a careful student of history, you would realize that Europe and America’s founding fathers were not originally thinking of high rise buildings and booming international trade. Some early visionaries might have had such thoughts in their minds at the time, but these things only became possible and desirable to ordinary citizens simply because their societies had advanced enough to support these ‘higher concepts’. Consider colonization from a European point of view, it was only after ship building, navigation and ammunitions had been discovered/invented that the conquest of foreign lands became possible. These simpler societal advancements laid the foundations for ‘higher ambitions’. In much the same way, our journey as human beings into space could not have been possible without the advancements that took place in the fields of civil aviation and rocketry here on earth.    

My advice to Africa and the rest of the poor nations is that we must learn from the west as best we can. I say this because the European and his seed dominate the world for a reason, and third world nations have found their way to the bottom of the food chain in part because we fail in the same areas that the Europeans were able to master and use in their advancement. I will explain my point with an example. Consider the way knowledge and invention was systematically incorporated into the academic institutions of the west many centuries ago. This was done because people in Europe at the time realized that education and the pursuit of knowledge was important and it allowed them to advance, hence their advantage today. Through this knowledge they were able to build ships, navigate the seas and now they even send probes deep into outer space. These higher ambitions were made possible by the simpler needs to learn and understand lesser concepts like geometry and the very nature of matter. In a way, this was serendipity! The Wright brothers were not planning to put a man on the moon, but their actions ultimately played a pivotal role in making space travel possible. Fortunately most nations have now adopted this model of educating their people and we can all now be part of this scientific process. So it’s really about equipping a country’s citizens with the right skills, tools and desires. From there onward, people can do amazing things when given the chance! There is nothing special about richer nations; they are rich because their citizens are wired to work hard and produce wealth from the available resources. Africans on the other hand have the unfortunate reputation of being wired to pursue sensual pleasure and the pursuit of immediate riches, with little regard for much else!

I believe the reason that Pan Africanism remains a great notion on paper but without any far reaching results is that it lacks a practical and feasible working model. Castigating “the British” for their past “sins” hardly passes as a viable working plan for advancing the continent. Today, some of our government’s main tools of economic advancement are the sometimes controversial BEE and Affirmative Action programs. I have no trouble with governments stepping in and trying to empower its own people, yet I feel this is a shortcut to real African success that will NOT endure. I’m not saying BEE and Affirmative Action programs don’t have their place in the fight for African emancipation, I’m saying that in the spirit of serendipity, a lot of that support and money could have far reaching effects if channeled towards the grassroots rather than directly into people’s pockets. Once we have rightly educated, and well equipped citizens, then overcoming some of the countries pressing issues will certainly become much easier.  

The prevalence of corruption and crime in Africa is in itself an indictment on the moral fiber of mainly the black African. If this problem of crime and corruption is to be vanquished, then a lot needs to be done to foster honesty, integrity and genuine values into our young black men and women. It is believed that if you want to see where any country is headed, then you need to look no further than its youth. Stories of teen rape, violence and crime in our schools paint an ugly picture for our country’s future. The fact that about 74% of matriculants passed their exams yet roughly only 27% of the pupils achieve university exemption status highlights a critical failure of our education system at the key grassroots level. These figures mean that either the academic gap between matric and universities is too large, or that the matric process is fundamentally flawed. Whatever is responsible for this discrepancy, its very existence does not bode well for South Africa’s future.

To summarize, I’m saying you build complex components from simple ones. Like the lesson from nature in which all the heavier elements like Carbon and Oxygen can theoretically be synthesized from the simplest and smallest of atoms (Hydrogen) in Supernovae. Similarly, billions of tiny electrical switches working together in harmony have given rise to the brilliant invention that we have come to know as the computer! If we didn’t have switches, we wouldn’t have computers!

So, let’s get the simple and most basic of things right first, the greater and desirable targets like the eradication of poverty, peace, racial harmony and the realization of a stable and a self-sufficient African continent will come as a consequence of getting these “basics” right! 

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