Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chinua Achebe on the Power and Purpose of Stories

In Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe's fifth major novel, one of the characters, an old man, explains the power and purpose of stories:

To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those others whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.

The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards--each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story. Do you hear me? Now, when I was younger, if you had asked me the same question I would have replied without a pause: the battle. But age gives to a man some things with the right hand even as it takes away others with the left. The torrent of an old man’s water may no longer smash into the bole of the roadside tree a full stride away as it once did but fall around his feet like a woman’s; but in return the eye of his mind is given wing to fly away beyond the familiar sights of the homestead…

So why do I say that the story is chief among his fellows? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters--Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. Because it is only the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbours. […]

So the arrogant fool who sits astride the story as though it were a bowl of foo-foo set before him by his wife understands little about the world. The story will roll him into a ball, dip him in the soup and swallow him first. I tell you he is like the puppy who swings himself around and farts into a blazing fire with the aim to put it out. Can he? No, the story is everlasting…Like fire, when it is not blazing it is smouldering under its own ashes or sleeping and resting inside its flint-house.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mere Anarchy: The Life and Work of Chinua Achebe

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
     -- W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"
Chinua Achebe died this week. He was 82. At 28, he loosed "Things Fall Apart" upon a completely unsuspecting and unprepared world. It was a cataclysmic event, but only his first and most famous act of mere anarchy. Achebe had a habit of doing that: totally changing the world's thinking with gracious nonchalance. He did it again in the 1970s with his critique of Western conceptions of Africa and Africans, of which Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" just happened to be the unfortunate literary example. No one has ever read "Heart of Darkness" in quite the same way since. A deeply principled and thoughtful man, Achebe has left an indelible mark on world literature. Several commentators have invoked a fitting West African proverb: A great tree has fallen. Indeed: a great tree has fallen, but it will continue to nourish the earth with its substance.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Holistic thinking on innovation and entrepreneurship

Most thinking about innovation and entrepreneurship tends to be atomistic. And for good reason: such is the breadth and depth of the subject matter that mastery of any one aspect requires considerable specialisation. However, this does not obviate the need for holistic thinking. Indeed, it increases the need for it. Prof. Calestous Juma of Harvard University and Prof. Daniel Isenberg of Babson College are two of the world's leading holistic thinkers on innovation and entrepreneurship, respectively.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Square Kilometre Array

Design and construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the largest and most powerful radio-telescope in history, is about to begin very soon. Most of the SKA will be deployed in Africa.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

(The?) Engineering Prize

It's ironic that there is no universally recognised prize, equivalent to the Nobel Prize in science, for breakthroughs in engineering. Ironic because, of course, Alfred Nobel was an engineer himself. Perhaps the newly inaugurated Queen Elizabeth Prize will remedy this situation. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mobius on Templeton

What Dr. Mark Mobius learnt from Sir John Templeton.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Misfiring Economist

Africa made the cover of The Economist last week, as it does the cover of many a magazine these days. And lately the news, or more accurately the views, have been largely positive. I don't mean to be churlish towards our good friends at The Economist -- and one should never take these things too literally -- but is a giraffe with an abnormally elongated neck really the best visual depiction of "Aspiring Africa" that they could come up with?

If the aim was to dispel stereotypical (and wrong) notions about "Africa", doesn't representing the continent by this abnormal giraffe achieve the exact opposite? (And giraffes are wonderful creatures, I hasten to add.) Sadly the first thing that springs to the minds of many outside Africa about Africa are wild animals, not aspiring people. So when people think about Madagascar, or more recently Zambezia, for instance, they think of talking animals and almost never of the remarkable people that populate those African locations.

Just a thought.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

When Hope and History Rhyme


The memoirs of Amina Cachalia, a prominent South African political activist, who died recently. She was a longtime friend and ally of Nelson Mandela. The title comes from some verses of Seamus Heaney's wonderful translation of Sophocles's tragic play Philoctetes:

History says don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Kierkegaardian (adj.)

Life must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
- Soren Kierkegaard

Monday, March 04, 2013

Mama Africa

On what would have been her 81st birthday, the late great Miriam Makeba was honoured with her own Google doodle: