I went to primary and high school in Zimbabwe from the 1980s until the early 90s. Back then, only four professions were considered proper professions worthy of pursuing: medicine, engineering, finance and law.
A child was forced into a professional stream as early as the age of 14. In my school, for instance, your results for mid-term examinations in Form 2 at the age of 14 would determine whether you were placed in the science, arts or commercial class, says Wanner, and as reported in her article in the NEWAFRICAN magazine. The article continues, as herein abridged.
If you passed the O’Level exams well at 16, you went on to do A Levels and by the age of 18, you could be going to the University of Zimbabwe or the National University of Science and Technology to study medicine, engineering, accounting. Or you could opt for law or try being recruited by Coopers & Lybrand or Ernst & Young to serve five years of articles before becoming an accountant.
When a young woman in her first year studying medicine visited her grandmother in the village, the whole village would have been told she was studying to be a doctor or a pharmacist. They would come with their sprained hand or a headache and miraculously be healed when the young woman suggested aspirin from the local store.
A father would start only answering to being called Baba va Advo (Father of Law) because his son doing his third- year law degree was a prospective advocate.
Medicine, engineering, accounting or law. These were proper professions. All other occupations that entailed working five days a week were merely jobs. Think teachers, nurses, factory workers, plumbers, salespeople, bank tellers or bus drivers.
Artistic lines of work, be it acting, writing, music, dancing, fashion design or cooking, were considered hobbies, and not proper professions. I remember talking to peers from across the continent and hearing that it was almost always the same everywhere.
The importance of these traditional or proper professions has had mixed consequences for those who toe the line with their parents, and for the future of Africa. For instance, for those now working in these professions, the next step was usually that one must ‘settle down and get married’. Indeed, I grew up in a society that had this shoved down our throats so much that when I was 16 and my best friend’s sister Elizabeth, an accountant, got married at the age of 26, my best friend and I looked at each other and mouthed, “Finally! She was so old.”
We now know from neuroscientists that the human brain is only fully formed at 25. And yet because post-independence tradition on the continent has expected us to be ‘adulting’ and paying fees for our relatives, and to be married at that age, we all know a fair share of family and friends who have gone the traditional route with some unfortunate results.
A friend who was a brilliant writer in high school and used to craft all the school plays was pushed by his father to study medicine, because they were a family of doctors. What did he mean by wanting to do English, French and Shona at A Level?! He dutifully studied medicine but the consequences were devastating. Later on, traumatized after witnessing death, he committed suicide while still doing his residency.
A Nigerian friend who studied medicine and decided to go into the psychiatry branch of it has found it enriching in his artwork as a poet.
How do we achieve the African dream? It is not through discarding traditions entirely but through accommodating both those who would pursue traditional or proper professions and those who want to pursue their dream professions, even when those professions don’t have a long history on the continent.
Because there is more to us, there should be more to our dream Africa than just hoping to study the proper professions and, hopefully, acquire money and become rich. South Africa is burning as I write because our political, business, scientific and artistic leadership failed to recognize this. North Africa was in flames in 2010 and 2011 because it refused to listen to the majority of the population on this continent, who are young.
The African dream then should be where arts, science and technology can work together to achieve a more humane continent not just for the rich but for all its citizens. It is where our governments invest money in research so that our scientists can be innovative while still looking at our traditional medicines to see how they can help heal us.
It’s where we don’t celebrate Africans for putting us on the map because they won an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Booker, a Leonore Annenberg or a Goethe Medal, but celebrate them in addition to what they will have achieved here because our governments are funding the arts.
An African dream is where we don’t need to hire architects from Italy or engineers from Switzerland to build our cities because our architects and engineers can work together hand- in-hand to make functional and aesthetically pleasing structures.
We realise the African dream through platforms and discussions like those at Ake Arts & Book Festival in Nigeria, or Abantu Festival in South Africa, where artists, accountants and scientists come together and attempt to forge a way forward, while not having a memory loss on some of the achievements already existing.
May we live to experience, rather than continue deferring the dream by recognizing that we can professionalize every occupation that we and our children are passionate about if the will is there.