Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Beginning January 11th 2009, Junior Kanu will be visiting seven African cities- Dakar (Senegal), Accra (Ghana), Lagos (Nigeria), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Tunis (Tunisia), Nairobi (Kenya), and Johannesburg (South Africa)- listening to young Africans' dreams about what’s right or wrong with the continent and their roles in its development. The final outcome will be a book tentatively titled Solving Africa. Part memoir, part travel log and part political commentary, the book will be the voice of young Africans’ dreams for their homeland and an attempt at a new way of telling Africa’s story. In this interview with Jennifer Ehidiamen (The Nation newspaper), Kanu talks more about what motivated him to embark on such project. Below is the excerpts:

When did you plan the Solving Africa project?
Kanu: Since the beginning of 2008, I'd been thinking about traveling around the African continent but because I was busy with school for most of the year, I couldn't do much to plan. In the summer, I created an independent study course focused on African literature to get my mind thinking of places I'd like to visit. And as things died down, I applied for a grant from the Soros Foundation in November and converted the grant application into a website that I launched on the 6th of November.

What inspired it?
Kanu: The idea for Solving Africa began as a conversation with some friends in early 2008. We were in a restaurant in Vienna when we decided we would solve all of Africa's problems with two roads. One road would run east-west, from Dakar to Addis Ababa and the other, north-south, from Cairo to Cape Town. Tributaries would eventually join these two main roads connecting all the major cities on the continent.

I'd been traveling around Europe for five weeks in the winter between 2007 and 2008 on what some North Americans call, "The Europe Trip". This trip is done somewhere between school and real life, for most middle-class Americans of European descent, and it is a rite-of-passage, a tradition of sorts. Young Americans traipse all around Europe, backpacks slung over shoulders, staying in cheap hostels, catching cheap flights and generally discovering the land of their ancestry. I had stopped in England, Scotland, France, Holland, Germany, and Belgium. Austria was my last stop before I returned to school in New York. If I was looking for my ancestry, it was finally starting to dawn on me that I wasn't going to find it here.

As a result of my trip around Europe, I had got it in my head that a road trip around the African continent was an imperative for every privileged African youth. Not only would visiting other African countries result in ethnic tolerance, my friends and I argued that there was ample opportunity for inter-African collaboration. This was one thing our parents' generation had overlooked after independence and it showed as a so-called "independent Africa" remained in a posture of counterfeiting western developments even after independence. It is why imported goods are automatically better than African goods even if the raw materials were bought from us. It is also the reason why there is very little inter-African trading. Road trips, we surmised, would solve all of it.

What is your ultimate goal?
Kanu: The material I get from this journey will make up the bulk of a book I'm writing by the same name, Solving Africa. Because it's hard to love a place you don't know, I am proposing a trip to seven African cities to get to know, and hopefully, fall in love with, some of the people and places my education in Nigeria failed to mention.I was a science student during secondary school in Baptist High School Jos and during that time, history and literature weren't required. I was trained to excel in math, physics, chemistry and the like without any idea of whom my education was meant to be serving. So like most young Nigerians, or even Africans, I saw this continent as something to escape. I want this book to capture the the voice of young Africans' dreams for their homeland. I want Africans to take a look around and see what God has blessed them with and learn to be proud of who they are and where they come from. And maybe, with this change of attitude, we'll all be more interested in making this nation and continent at large, a place we want to live in and not run away from.

Besides the writing of a book, this project will be about connecting the young Africans I meet during the trip to like-minded Africans in the other continents. I also hope to establish an annual Solving Africa Conference, where promising Africans from all over the world, between the ages of 18 and 35, meet to discuss issues related to the continent's development and their role in its advancement. It would be amazing if each year, young Africans from every corner of the world made their way home for one week to enjoy the natural beauty of this land while being inspired to implement the many ideas they've been dreaming about. Imagine the kind of difference it will make when all these great minds get together and start riffing on new ideas and ways to elevate the livelihood of fellow Africans. We're a blessed people; and from what I hear among young Africans in the U.S., we just might turn things around and make our parents prouder than they'd anticipated by sending us abroad.

Because I want to entice young Africans to visit these places for themselves, I will be doing some touristy things. However, I'll also be staying with residents, locals who live there and can show me the city from their perspectives.

How are you funding the trip and overall project?
Kanu: The trip is being funded by various people. Some of them are friends from university. Others are members of my church. But what's humbled me the most has been the support from people I've never met. People who call me up or send me an email and say that they are excited about the project and what to be a part of it in some way. So far, I'm halfway done with fundraising and I don't think money will be an issue because as people read updates from the journey, the stories will stand for themselves.

I would like to involve whomever is interested in the project. It's not mine per se. It's a great idea and I happen to be the random guy with a few months to spare. If there people, organizations or other agencies you think would find this interesting, please don't hesitate to tell them about it. The project is definitely bigger than Jr Kanu and I don't intend to stifle it.

What has been a major factor that prepared you for it e.g good education?
Kanu: When I told my mom and dad that I was applying for a master's in journalism, I was surprised at how calmly they responded. I had graduated with honors in mechanical engineering and here I was telling them that I was going to go be a writer. All they wanted to know was that I had sought God's opinion on the decision and I think that the scholarship I received sealed the deal as evidence that my prayers were answered. Having their support was key. I also think that my experience as an international student makes it easy for me to get along with people of various cultures. That attitude of having friends who don't look, dress, talk or think like you has been a huge blessing. I won't be staying at any hotels during this trip because a friend of a friend knows someone in every city I'm visiting. I also have a healthy dose of faith. I'm the kind of person who believes that if God opens the door for me to start this project, He will prepare me along the way to complete it.

What are the limiting factors and challenges you foresee?
Kanu: My French is not as good as it once was. So while I'm in Tunis and Dakar where French is one of the main languages, I might sound like the equivalent of someone speaking Pidgin instead of something more respectable. And my football playing skills are very rusty so I hope people won't mind if I'm cost them a goal or two. Other than that, I am excited to see how this turns out. I'll take the challenges in stride; one day at a time. I know I have a host of family and friends supporting me.

Is your project in anyway aimed at discouraging Human capital flight/brain-drain?
Kanu: The project is aimed at engendering pride in where we come from. I've found that I didn't have this kind of pride until I left the continent and that's almost a shame. If people have to leave, let them leave. But they should understand what they're leaving behind and how much their presence after they return is needed. It helps to leave sometimes, I'm a proponent of traveling. But with the brain drain thing, I think it's a shame that all our geniuses are across the Atlantic when we so badly need them in Africa.

To learn more about the solving Africa project you can visit

This interview was first published in The Nation Newspaper. (c) THE NATION Newspaper January 11th, 2009.

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