You recall the wise saying: 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

It is attributed to George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.

But it is to Africa that we must return to understand what Santayana was musing about. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone, or been stripped of can be reclaimed, revived, preserved, and perpetuated. Visually and symbolically, “Sankofa” is expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. The symbol is that of the mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward with its head turned backwards. Thus, the Akan people of Ghana believe the past serves as a guide for planning the future. To the Akan, it is this wisdom in learning from the past which ensures a strong future.

The Akan believe that there must be movement and new learning as time passes. As this forward march proceeds, the knowledge of the past must never be forgotten.

`…The past six months of 2020 have been a time of extreme pain, heartbreak, and reflection for the citizenry of the globalized village. The effects of Corvid-19 pandemic are going to last for much of the rest of the decade and beyond. We’re already about six months into a global pandemic, and there’s already no end in sight. Yes, things are reopening — but even that reopening is hesitant and cautious, in wise nations at least, very much unlike yesterday. The lesson is simple: try to go back to normal — bang! — you’re done. The rest of our lives are going to be much like the last six months. We’re explorers in uncharted territory right about now. How are we to survive things like pandemics, climate change, ecological collapse, mass extinction — and the shattering waves of depression, upheaval, and panic those unleash? Coronavirus is just a warm-up, a drill, a very, very tiny taste of the rest of your life…!’

I am reminded of the epic movie `Ben-Hur’ (1959) where Stephen Boyd as Messala says to Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur):

`It goes on. It goes on, Judah. The race… the race… is not… over!’’

The recent racially triggered US murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, and Breonna Taylor leave us angry and heartbroken. These acts of violence and police brutality are despicable. Yet again, innocent men and women were killed for no other reason than the colour of their skin.

`…Enough is enough. How many more African American men and women, boys and girls will die before we finally stamp out the racism, bigotry, and hatred that plagues our society? It’s time for this to end. And yet I know we’ve said, “Enough is enough” and “it’s time for this to end” so many times before. We’ve been saying it years. For decades. For centuries…’

so lamented Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation.

In a policy advisory to African governments, I have said that there is really no easy route through the COVID-19 crisis. Besides the obvious problem of selecting the correct path to take, leaders also face the monumental task of reassuring the public and persuading them to follow through on government decisions – even when measures such as social distancing – with its knock-on effect on employment – come at great personal cost. A wrong move could erode trust and unleash unrest that exacerbates the existing dangers. Is the leadership class in Africa, both political and corporate, have the required capacity to enable them with the appropriate response to steer our countries through the pandemic?

There is ample research that leadership makes the greatest difference when the world around us is uncertain, when we are unsure about what lies ahead. We also know that the impact will be greatest when it comes not only from the apex but also from the middle ranks and front lines. Thinking strategically, communicating persuasively, and acting decisively are the hallmarks of good leadership in times of crisis such as this pandemic.

Two researchers inform the best strategies requited to develop effective leadership. Political scientist Arjen Boin, at Leiden University in the Netherlands, has studied the most successful and unsuccessful responses during previous emergencies There is much more to a leader’s responses than his or her speeches. Boin has identified many of the steps necessary for an effective response. Leaders should, for instance, offer a rapid recognition of the danger and, ideally, the necessary infrastructure and procedures should already be in place to quickly gather data once the crisis has hit (the so-called “sense making”). Boin has found that “Effective crisis leadership cannot be brought about by simply doing the right thing’ on the ground…” Instead, the leaders need to craft a good narrative that helps clarify the problem and unite the population if they are to attain the “permissive consensus” that is essential to be able to make decisions and formulate policies.

Lawrence Hamilton in his article published on June 7, 2020 in `The Conversation’ titled  What sets good and bad leaders apart in the coronavirus era makes some memorable observations:

`…Crises bring out the best and worst of politicians and populations. Folly, fear and fortitude are on display everywhere. In the main, democracies have fared better than non-democracies in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

But the record is very varied indeed. What explains this? What can be done about it?

Among democratic regimes, at the one extreme we have seen denialism, the denigration of scientific advice and an obsession with putting the economy before lives. This is especially evident in the United States and Brazil. At the other we have witnessed the organised, prudent, empathetic responses of countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, and Finland…

I am curious about one Donald John Trump the 45th and current president of the United States. 

Has Trump ever heard of Sankofa? 

Even more pertinent, has he ever heard of the mighty Zulu king, Shaka?

Shaka had come to power through warfare strategy and had unleashed Mfecane, a period of political disruption and population migration in Southern Africa which occurred during the 1820s and 1830s. Shaka’s cruelty reached its peak when he lost his mother, Nandi, and put the population through a prolonged torturous period of mourning. Those who refused to openly mourn over his mother’s death were killed. 

To fully appreciate Mfecane, you need to watch the epic film `Shaka Zulu’ ( directed by Joshua Sinclair and that stars the late South Africa actor, Henry Cele, whose portrayal of Shaka is extraordinarily powerful.

I believe that Barack Hussein Obama II, an American politician and attorney who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017 was inspired by Sankofa. During the dark days of 2020, Obama said:

“…As tragic as these past few weeks have been, as difficult and scary and uncertain as they’ve been, they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends and they offer an opportunity for us to all work together…

When sometimes I feel despair, I just see what’s happening with young people all across the country, and the talent, and the voice, and the sophistication that they’re displaying, and it makes me feel optimistic. It makes me feel as if this country’s going to get better…

To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable…’

1 Comment on Learning from Sankofa

One Reply to “Learning from Sankofa”

  1. A beautiful peace Jpr. Only Fools forget the past. Forget the past at your own peril. The Kenya Police Service have forgotten that they used to be a “Force”. They brutalised us with abandon. Using vehicles designed in apartheid South Africa designed by police psychologists to create fear and despondency among the populace is outmoded
    #Retrain our police force

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