Blog: Under the Baobab

My Year with Four Female African Presidents: Learning by Example from #Africanwomenleaders Promoting #GenderEquality

Liz Grossman

As I struggle to come to terms with the current state of gender politics in my own country, I am looking to Africa for inspiration, where many countries are actually making steps to bring women into positions of public leadership. Seven African countries make the top twenty of Inter-Parliamentary Union’s statistical rankings on the percentage of women in parliament, Rwanda being first globally. Not only this, but four different women from four different African countries have served in the highest office of the land.

This past year, I have had the honor to listen to, shake hands with, meet with, and grow professionally with all four of these women:  Her Excellency Ellen Sirleaf Johnson President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize winner,  Her Excellency Joyce Banda Former President of Malawi, Her Excellency Catherine Samba Panza President of the Transitional Government of Central African Republic, and Her Excellency…

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Why do we know Hitler but not King Leopold?: The Holes in The Way World History Is Taught

As many of us know, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently caused a hubbub in the media by likening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler.  Spicer infamously said, “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”  The internet went (understandably) wild.  Not only is Spicer’s statement blatantly incorrect, it is also deeply offensive.  The world over, the Holocaust is understood to be perhaps the single greatest atrocity of human history.  How could Spicer imply that it was somehow preferable to anything going on today, or at any point in history?

Let’s pause there for a moment.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazis systematically wiped out five or six million Jews, believing their existence to be not only worthless, but also somehow detrimental to the world order.  No one can refute how unthinkably horrible that is.

Spicer’s statement and the subsequent public uproar it caused made my mind jump straight to Trevor Noah and his incredible book of short stories, “Born A Crime.”  Noah’s stories each open with a brief explanation of its historical context and outline his life as the son of a black mother and white father in South Africa during the final years of and immediately following apartheid.  His anecdotes are both funny and poignant, creating a captivating picture of the realities of race relations in South Africa.  The specific story I think of in relation to Sean Spicer is entitled, “Go Hitler!”  If you haven’t read it, you should.

In “Go Hitler!”, Noah describes the DJ and dance crew he forms with friends as a teenager.  Their main dancer is named Hitler–not nicknamed, named.  Chaos ensues when their dance crew is invited to perform at a local Jewish high school and they begin chanting “Go Hitler! Go Hitler!” as their friend takes the floor for his dance routine.

Born A Crime

The disconnect is in the cultural understandings of the name.  Noah explains that in South Africa, black people were required to have “Western” names. They therefore chose names from the history they learned in special schools for black people without any understanding or context of those names.  He describes the schools for black South Africans as far inferior to those for white South Africans, as the administration did not consider black people intellectually capable of learning complicated material.  Needless to say, black South Africans did not have a solid understanding of the Holocaust.  They knew that Hitler had done some bad things, but more than anything, they understood that he was a powerful man who made others bend to his will.  He was tough.  Why not, then, name their children after him?

The history of atrocities carried out by African leaders–a history that too few people around the world know much about–contributes to the distinct lack of horror that black South Africans felt at the name Hitler.  Tens of millions of Africans have been massacred across the continent by the likes of King Leopold of Belgium, Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Omar al-Bashir, and Joseph Kony.  So what made Hitler so much “worse”–or at least better known–than any of these despots?  One could argue, the fact that Hitler largely killed white people made the world view his actions as more horrendous.

King Leopold

What, then, would have happened if Sean Spicer had said, “Not even King Leopold of Belgium used chemical weapons.”?  The statement would have been more factually correct than his statement about Hitler, but how many of us would have known who he was talking about?  Even if listeners did know, would they have been as outraged by the comparison to mass murder in Africa?  Furthermore, what basis of comparison do we have between the Holocaust and the systematic murder carried out in the colonial Democratic Republic of Congo?


Noah makes the point that the Holocaust is documented.  This means we know approximately how many people were killed because someone was counting.  At least equal numbers of people were killed under King Leopold’s rule in the Congo, but because no records were kept,  nobody is out there building monuments to the millions of Congolese needlessly murdered in King Leopold’s “zoo.”  The African lives lost seem to have not been important enough to count– even many  Africans who live that legacy do not wonder why the deaths were not tallied, as Noah discusses in his story.

So why aren’t the atrocities carried out in the Congo as widely known as the Holocaust?  If human life was similarly disrespected, belittled, and ultimately destroyed, why aren’t we learning about the Belgian Congo in our middle school history classes?  Why isn’t Sean Spicer likening Assad to King Leopold?  The simple answer is that historically, African and black lives have not been counted.  Black life lost has not equaled white life lost. As Jack, a character in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda”, says about film footage taken of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”   Black lives have not merited memorials, days of remembrance, or even chapters in history books.

In “Go Hitler!”, Noah points out that for black Africans, the Holocaust does not have the same shock value that it has for white Europeans or Americans because black Africans have a distinct history of being massacred.  The Holocaust is not the only example in their minds of mass killing.  What’s more, when their leaders massacre them, people around the world are not counting or weeping.  When black Africans learn about Hitler in school, they learn about a massacre. While massacres are horrifically violent, they’re relatively normalized in the historical context of many Africans.  So why not name your child Hitler, after the man who was as strong as King Leopold or Idi Amin?  When white people learn about Hitler in school, they are taught that he carried out the most massive genocide ever in human history, so his name is not used lightly.  The divide in education creates a disconnect in understanding.  Nobody is offended by a child named Leopold, and had Sean Spicer compared Assad to King Leopold of Belgium, I argue that there would have been next to no reaction at all, simply because the Belgian King’s actions do not resonate with standard white history.

“Go Hitler!” ends with a terrible fight and misunderstanding between Noah and a teacher at the Jewish school.  When the teacher pulls the plug on his equipment and declares him and his friends disgusting, Noah believes that she is doing this because his friend Hitler had, at that very moment, begun doing a dance traditional to his ethnic group.  He thinks her racist.  The teacher believes that Noah and his friends are singing Hitler’s praises in an effort to offend and insult her students.  She believes that they are anti-Semites. Noah and the teacher have received vastly different and unequal educations, leading to their totally different interpretations of the same name and situation.

A more comprehensive, diverse, and equal education worldwide is the antidote to our broken systems.  We must ensure quality education to all, free from such gaping omissions and cultural biases, regardless of race or geography.  Western schools must include the histories of people of color, women, minority ethnic groups, and cultures from around the world, in order to become more connected to the world’s collective history, especially the ugliest parts.  The world’s black and brown students must be treated as and trusted to be intellectual, intelligent, and worthy of quality education.  African history, both glory and tragedy, must be regarded as worthy of time and education in the Western world.


Lizzie pic
Lizzie Starr spent seven years teaching English and organizing around early childhood education in Dakar, Senegal. She is currently running teacher training programs at The Boston Language Institute in Boston, MA, and wrangling her darling son, John. Pictured above in le Parc National de Niokolokoba in the Kédougou region of Senegal.



Partnerships increase creativity and new technologies in #STEM in Africa.

Last month, a delegation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and education experts from Senegal visited Kenya for the fourth Partnership for Skills in Applied Science, Engineering and Technology (PASET) Forum. Tayib Fall, Baobab Consulting‘s Executive Director, was invited to participate in the conference because of his role as Partnership Officer at Gaston Berger University (UGB). Fall was accompanied by five other Senegalese representatives from the academic, governmental, and development sectors.

Fall’s work with UGB and Baobab Consulting fits with PASET’s mission to make STEM better utilized and wider-known in Africa by bringing together key stakeholders from Sub-Saharan Africa and private African companies, as well as training and education institutions and emerging development partners. PASET’s vision is to use STEM to unleash Africa’s potential for growth and job creation, ultimately creating structural changes in Sub-Saharan Africa. A key component of PASET’s approach is to focus on strengthening links with Asian and Latin American countries that have successfully developed their technical and scientific skills to support their socio-economic development. Their strategy involves knowledge sharing as well as technical and financial assistance.

This Kenya forum provided the opportunity for the Senegalese PASET partners to present Senegal’s experience with STEM and to exchange views with representatives from 19 African countries, five development partners, and the World Bank, as well as a dozen private companies and universities. The Pan-African focus of the event fostered an environment of mutual respect and glorified African-led initiatives.

Innovation and STEM integration was an important theme during the forum. Speakers shared their experiences with integrating creativity and new technologies into traditional STEM development strategies. They covered subjects such as digital design and manufacturing (Gearbox Software), individualized learning for developing skills in computer programming (Andela, Microsoft 4Afrika Academy), an innovation center for university-industry partnership (@iLabAfrica), and entrepreneurial skills development (FinTech4Good). The diversity in ideas and country of implementation inspired many in regards to the adaptability of STEM within unique contexts.

In a special workgroup session for the Research Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), Fall and his counterpart from UGB, Professor Cheikh Talibouya Diop, met with Professor Frank Thuijsman of Maastricht University and Nodumo Dhlamini of the Association of African Universities. They discussed the terms and conditions of their co-supervised thesis program, “The Sandwich Program” and Professor Thuijsman shared perspectives from the Department of Business Intelligence and Knowledge Engineering. Fall and Professor Diop presented the African Center of Excellence in Mathematics, Information, and Communication Technologies and their top priority research areas. The group was able to identify possibilities for future collaboration on common research themes.

Also within the framework of the RSIF program, Fall met with the Korea Institute of Science & Technology (KIST). Their main topic of discussion was a 10-day training to strengthen the capacities of PASET partner universities. The seminar is planned for the second half of 2017 and will take place in Seoul. This is a major step for a possible partnership between KIST and UGB.

By the end of the forum, much progress had been made in fortifying links within the PASET network between STEM practitioners and sponsors from around the world. The forum encouraged better understanding of and a strong commitment to PASET initiatives and put in place partnerships to carry out concrete steps toward change. These partnerships are a prime example of the importance for collaboration in order to help the PASET initiative reach its goal of training 10,000 African STEM PhDs within the next 10 years.

Written by Ashlee Sang, Under the Baobab Contributing Writer

Refugees are just like us

Written by Manuela Chedjou

On January 27, 2017, I stepped foot into the United Nations Headquarters for the first time. The Committee on Teaching for the United Nations (CTAUN) hosted a conference dedicated to giving teachers more information about the global refugee crisis, sharing testimonies from refugees living in the United States and giving concrete examples of organizations working on the issue. I was particularly moved, because I myself am an immigrant.



I grew up in Dschang, a small town in Western Cameroon, where everyone knew each other. All I spoke was French and my dialects, Yemba and Nguemba. My father always dreamt taking my siblings and I to the United States, for us to get an education. We hosted American students and learned as much as we could. He played the Visa Lottery for 6 years consecutive years until he won back in 2008. Finally our dreams came true.


When I first arrived on February 2010, I had to adapt to the system because everything was different compared to Dschang. I knew I had to learn English quickly in order to be able to communicate and learn in school. I had to adapt to the pace of the Bronx, NY and I couldn’t believe how everyone was so busy and parents didn’t even have much time to spend with their children because they were busy working to make ends meet. Everything was different.

When I started school, I used to cry in the hallway, feeling scared and alone. I couldn’t talk to anyone or make friends because I didn’t speak English. When I was asked a question by classmates, I usually just smiled, nodded or even ignored because I did not understand. However, thanks to the ESL teachers who supported my transition into the New York Public School system, I was able to learn English integrate into DeWitt Clinton High School, and I was admitted to the City University of New York, Hunter College, where I am expected to graduate from in December 2017.

As my peers like Mahmood from Iraq, Bahati from Rwanda, Manal from Iraq, Mading from Sudan, Sana from Syria and Gladys from Burundi spoke at the United Nations, I realized how lucky I was to move to the United States as an intended legal immigrant. My family chose to leave Cameroon to settle here. We return to visit our friends and family back home, and I am able to travel to London to visit my sister and her husband. I am an American citizen, but I will always have my connection to home. Refugees are people just like us, but they had to leave their country due to fear, war, violence, or religion. They have been deprived of their basic human rights like health, education or shelter. Some cannot access education or healthcare because of their legal status, something U.S citizens and document immigrants, like myself, often take for granted.


So how can we support refugees? You can donate to refugee resettlement organizations who welcome newcomers to the community and help people see that refugees are human beings who want the best for their families. You can listen to their stories, and help them heal their pain. We must not let politics stop us from helping and welcoming refugees. I believe that we as global citizens have the duty to do so.



#Resist Xenophobia: How We Can Make the US More Inclusive to Africans

Liz Grossman

Just a few days ago, USC’s  African Global Economic and Development Summit announced that it lost 100 attendees from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa — 100% of its African registrants — due to refusal of visas.

In other words: a summit about development in Africa had no Africans in attendance because every single one was denied a visa.

On February 26, Nigerian engineer Celestine Omin was stopped by customs at JFK Airport and intensely questioned about his expertise and his reasons for coming to the United States. He works for Andela, a startup with operations in New York, Lagos and several other African cities, and was hired to build software for a client. Omin was only released after officials heard from senior leadership of his company.

It is clear our immigration policies will be shutting even more doors for Africans, and other targeted populations…

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We are our own heroes

Written by Michael Ibonye

Recently, I had a long conversation with an old friend about our heroes.The Martin Luther King Jr’s and Nelson Mandela’s of this world, who lived and fought for causes bigger than them so their children and future generations could live in a more equitable world.  A theme that emerged was that heroes lend their voices. When others were quiet, they spoke, in spite of retribution, they spoke fearless, and in the process bent the arc of history toward a more equitable world.


The world has been watching what is happening in the US with sadness. Personally, I am inspired by the hundreds of thousands of citizens who are mobilizing, organizing and speaking out, particularly regarding the “un-American” executive order barring refugees signed by the most powerful man in the world, their president, Donald J. Trump. These are ordinary people, using their skills, expertise and good faith to support their fellow Americans. Lawyers providing free legal services to immigrants who need it and suing the federal government to have the order overturned. Americans know that they have to be their own heroes. If no one mobilized, the executive order would have stood, preventing thousands of people, including Iraqis who fought alongside US forces, from entering the US. And trust that is vital for maintaining peace would be even more threatened, so the ordinary American citizens contributed greatly to stability.

Across the ocean in my country, Nigeria, we are going through a deep recession, inflation is almost 20%, the worst in the last 30 years. Cost of living has basically tripled yet wages remain stagnant. The worst is, there are no plans being communicated to the people of how Nigeria will get out of recession. The current administration that took over power almost two years ago promises “change” and says “we are working”, meanwhile there is no evidence of it. Living conditions have become worse for more than 70% of Nigerians, while the government continues to to spend and waste money .

In Nigeria, when a civil society organization, Enough is Enough, organized to get people to protest against the current state of the country (rising inflation, insecurity, wasteful spending by government officials etc), the current government administration saw it as an opposition driven ploy to indict their regime, and so the police promptly advised that the protests be shelved because some “hoodlums” plan to hijack the protest and cause mayhem. Nevertheless, the protests were held, with thousands coming out all across the country, peacefully.

While our current President Muhammadu Buhari was in the opposition, they considered the #BringBackOurGirls movement credible and a major failing of the then incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan. They promised to bring the girls back if elected. Now the tables have turned, the Oby Ezekwesili led #BBOG movement has met opposition in an incumbent regime that was once an ally, but the movement continues to stay strong and stand up for the rights of the girls.  Enough is Enough and #BringBackOurGirls movements are examples of the kinds of heroic acts we need. For us to change our world, we must speak out, like they are doing, on issues that matter.

War, insecurity, famine, unemployment, poverty, corruption, gender inequality and more are often a direct result of our failure to speak, act and engage when it mattered the most. We, the young citizens of the world, have stayed on the sidelines for far too long. We have trusted our governments to use power to make decisions on our behalf and build the world we want. But is this the world we want? When those we entrust start to create a world that we don’t desire then we must hold them accountable and withdraw their power. This is why we must speak and engage. Citizenship  is a call to responsibility and care for our world.  It’s time to do away with cynicism, “who e epp?” (rhetorical question in Nigerian Pidgin which implies a disregard for anything that’s unbeneficial) , and be our own heroes.


Our world needs more heroes today than ever before, and being a hero is hard. It means speaking about difficult issues that affects lives on a daily basis. It means backing up the words you preach with action, starting a social enterprise to address a problem or participating or organizing in a nonviolent protest. It means being prepared for the long haul, dedicating yourself to making progress, but accepting the fact that you might not see all the fruits of your labor during your lifetime and trusting your actions make a difference.

Recap of #AHES2015, incorporating the views of Senegalese students

Liz Grossman

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the African Higher Education Summit, welcoming nearly five hundred delegates including government officials, private sector stakeholders and university chancellors from across the continent.  They met to discuss how to reinvigorate African higher education.

Kofi Annan was the keynote speaker, alongside Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union and Macky Sall, president of Senegal. Oby Ezekwesili, former VP of World Bank Africa and champion of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, also gave a rousing speech about the importance of good governance in all development efforts in Africa.

Getting the chance to greet Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan said in his address that “No one is born a good citizen or a good democrat or a good leader; it takes time and education. Our institutions should instill in Africa’s young citizens a mindset and understanding of the world that inspires visionary and positive citizenship and…

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