It started in January, with the untimely death of my friend, the entrepreneur Simone Bresi-Ando. She went to the hospital one day and never made it back home. She had come to America from London a few years ago to pursue her dream. Her passing triggered an immense sense of sadness in me and reiterated a sense of urgency to live in the moment even if the world sometimes seems to fall apart around us.
After being on lockdown in New York for almost a year, a deep sense of fatigue and tiredness was slowly crippling my wellbeing. This led me to make an unexpected decision, a decision that some would call risky given the pandemic context. I decided to travel to Benin, in West Africa.
At the time, the CDC had advised against non-essential travel, with many European countries having closed their borders due to the uptick of the pandemic. Still, I purchased a round trip ticket to Cotonou. Against a backdrop of ongoing bad news, I knew I had reached my limit. There is a point in life when one chooses their mental health above anything else. What I didn’t know was how transformative this trip to Benin would be. As a result, it will forever be a reference point in my mind. I call it “my African retreat.”
With four weeks to spend in Benin, I advocated for a more authentic lived experience that would tap into my African heritage. What the world chooses to ignore is that Africa is beautiful and ready to embrace open-minded people and those who come without bearing suggestions about how ‘things could be done better’ but are instead ready to change problematic narratives one action at the time.
Today is Africa Day, and this year, Africa Month is being celebrated at a time when the world has been forced to question what is truly valuable, in comparison with what is merely vain.
In answering this question for myself, the concept of value feels particularly important, especially within the context of building a healthier narrative for Africa, for African people, and for products that are made in Africa. When we look at the global consumer goods sector for example, we see how for decades, foreign goods companies have poured billions of dollars into marketing initiatives, in various ways, monopolizing the space and making it harder for new entrants to compete. As an entrepreneur, this makes pure business sense – get in, invest and sell hard. However, we often underestimate the deep and damaging connection between economic power and cultural imperialism.
In the post-colonial, post-pandemic reality we will soon find ourselves living in, we will need to understand that what we place value on might be what will end up selling. Our behavior over the next few years will be an important indicator of how far we’ll be able to go in helping to change mindsets about Africa. People will need to recognize that African people and African productions are worthy and competent constituents of our new global reality.
The new challenge for our generation of entrepreneurs—especially those of us who are part of the African diaspora—is to know our history. We need to learn our heritage by listening to our elders. That is how we can transform that knowledge and turn it into an attractively authentic concept that has the potential to scale globally. Most importantly, we need to spend our money with intentionality, knowing that, ultimately, our actions are the message.
Choosing how and with whom we spend our money will determine the future of emerging African enterprises that are trying to break through on the global scene. The digital ecosystem is now creating a path for brands such as Goya Paris, Tongoro Studio, SARAYAA Fashion, ituenbasi, and Torlowei. There are many others, and their biggest value proposition is their ability to integrate their African heritage into a global brand.
Strategically choosing our vacation spots is an opportunity for us to decide where we’re going to spend our time, or even our retirement years. All these decisions have an impact on the economy of a country, of an entire continent. Until recently South America or Bali were on my list of possible places to escape to for a refresher. However, the pandemic has helped me to recalibrate this intention.
I love the sun and the beach, and I found myself enjoying long walks along the beach of Friedjose, around the cascade of Tanougou Falls. I felt very much at home in Benin.
As a content producer, I’ve learned how to better observe context in order to help invent, through content engineering, a better world. I believe there are grave socioeconomic implications that arise as a result of misrepresentation in the social narratives we consume as content.
Even in New York City, many people have limited interaction with members of other groups, mainly as a result of economic isolation or ethnic segregation. The interaction they are likely to have with different racial or cultural groups is often influenced by media depictions of that particular group of people. That is why I believe there is a great deal of urgency. We need to shape and translate positive, balanced and healthily nuanced representations of various cultures, starting with African cultures.
Lastly, today is not just Africa Day. Today is also the day that marks one year since a Black man lost his life simply because he was Black. In desiring (and searching for) a healthier future, George Floyd died. Many others Black people have said they couldn’t breathe. George Floyd’s passing should prompt everyone to reassess their perception of Black people, of Africa, of “Africanness.”
I may be back in New York City, but Benin is still in my heart. I can speak of a transformative personal experience, and I can reflect on what such experiences can mean for all of us. Benin is a country that is trying to overcome poverty and economic fragility, yet the nation remains settled in its beauty, in the fact that no one can take that beauty away from her. Mostly, Benin was able to embrace me without having to first decide if I was worthy of that embrace.