by Erasto Mpemba
CN Africa Correspondent
Johannesburg, S.A.—With world attention fixed on the looming US election, outgoing President Obama has announced the launch of his foreign-policy brainchild, the so-called Africa Works Initiative.
The first consignment of eager Africans has already embarked for US shores and is expected at Baltimore sometime this afternoon. Officials in Washington say the trans-Atlantic migration and employment scheme, the first of its kind ever, will operate on a voluntary basis to begin with.
It’s traditional for the US President to devote his ‘lame duck’ years to projects that engage his personal passion but are unlikely to arouse opposition in Congress. Barack Obama has embraced this custom with gusto: Africa Works is said to have been at the heart of his vision for the new American workplace for years.
“Because Africa’s Greatest Natural Resource… Is Its People,” explained the President at a Washington, DC media conference earlier this month.
if it succeeds, ‘AfWorks’ would not only define Obama’s second term in office, but transform just about every aspect of US life—from the rural economy to the industrial landscape, even the makeup of the American people itself—forever.
But it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. In an embarrassing open-mic incident on September 20, Rwandan President Paul Kagame groaned audibly as Obama took the lectern to promote the scheme.
“Great,” Mr Kagame was heard whispering to a colleague, “just what we need… another white man telling us how to run our country.”
Thinking on his feet, Obama proceeded to greet the audience in what local reporters described as ‘near-fluent’ ebonics. His charming ad-lib not only won over the conference room but earned bipartisan praise back home.
Pressed as to where he’d picked up the phrases, the President reminded media that “some of [his] best friends [in college] were African [American].”
Ultimately no progress can happen without the help of African headmen, and Washington knows it. That’s why the US State Department last month kicked off a continent-wide evangelism tour—a PR-cum-education blitz designed to sell the benefits of Afro-American partnership, recruit local collaborators and secure buy-in from Africa’s stakeholders, opinion-makers and strongmen.
We were invited to sit in on an official AfWorks outreach evening, one of almost a hundred State has been delivering in key African capitals in the past weeks.
The mood was interactive, raucous and energetic, more like a New Orleans church service than a press conference.
To keep participants on our feet the facilitators randomized us into heterogeneous lots, forcing us to make friends outside our comfort zones and linguistic groups.
As an icebreaker, each attendee was then assigned a typical “American” name to which we had to prepend an adjective describing our most positive quality. It was an English-only affair: the name-tags at our table read Happy Jim, Quiet Betsy, Strong Sam and Chicken George. (I was Big Jake.)
Randomly chosen “workers” then stood on stage as American audience members “bid” on them.
it was a gentle, fun introduction to the capitalist mindset, which is still foreign to many Africans.
“In the African world today there’s a lot of self-consciousness about the lack of education and skills,” explained Toby Schultz, the former Russia Czar who was promoted to Obama’s pointman on the Dark Continent in 2014.
“So the ‘auction’ activity is designed to flip this around. Be positive; sell yourself; you’re the product, literally!
“Sure, I may not be proficient in MS Excel, but I’m a hard worker, a team player, a machine, or I work like a dog. Or I know MS Word… whatever.”
Among the many challenges facing AfWorks: decades of ignorance and prejudice here about day-to-day life in the States. Africans get most of our information from rap music, so it’s not entirely surprising that we tend to picture America’s urban youth as a cohort of predatory thugs. To many, the prospect of being resettled in an inner-city neighborhood is a deal-breaker.
“The President anticipated this obstacle right from the start,” says Schultz, full of admiration for his boss. “In fact it was his idea to bring Sasha and Malia [Obama] along to these education evenings [in Africa]. To let the locals know that black people can, you know, be people too.”
(Obama, he reminds me, is the first President since Jefferson to have black children.)
But for all the effort that’s gone into Africa Works on the ground, the program’s future may ultimately rest in the hands of American voters.
A Hillary ’16 administration would maintain and likely expand funding for AfWorks, Clinton spokesmen have promised. Republican candidate Donald Trump, on the other hand, has threatened to abolish the scheme, drawing accusations of racism. ◼︎