Collage of PfAL alumni

Alumni experience

Celebrating diversity: my Programme for African Leadership story

PfAL alumna Zainab Haruna (2016-17) writes about her experience participating in the Programme for African Leadership at LSE. The original article was published in the LSE Students blog, and this article has been adapted.

I no longer see Africa as one homogenous geographical bloc but as a colourful continent of people who are strong and determined

Hallmark moments are like the beautiful photos which we save for the photo albums. They affect and define us so that from time to time, we are moved to take them out, to remember them and relive the wonderful memories. My acceptance into, and participation in the LSE Program for African Leadership, PfAL certainly deserves many pages in my memory album. 

Zainab Haruna and other PfAL colleagues in a photo
Bottom centre: Zainab Haruna with her PfAL6 classmates.

I came all the way from Nigeria to study African Development at the London School of Economics (LSE) and I certainly did succeed in my quest for that education. I gained this knowledge on two fronts: Formally in the lecture hall and informally through PfAL engagement. In class, I was entranced as we studied the historical evolution of Africa’s Political Economy, the domestic-based challenges to development for African countries and the intersection of African issues in the broader global context. Those classes were certainly interesting and for me, a young woman with a background in Botanical Science and not nearly enough awareness of such development issues, I have come to learn so much.

However, it was my PfAL colleagues who helped me to shape my classroom knowledge from still texts on paper into realistic issues. Those 59 young people, my cohorts for PfAL 6 came to the LSE for study and with them they brought their diversity, passion and intellect from their different countries. These young women and men with their bold voices who were not afraid to speak up about issues that separate Africa as well as those that bind us together, gave me the colour and humanity that transcended into my reality and study.

And so, in my mind, Ethiopia became less a country in the Horn of Africa which I had never been to but rather came to mean Halle’s home. For Halle is a passionate man and it was impossible to experience a man speak of a place with love in his eyes and fire in his gesticulating hands and fail to see Ethiopia through his eyes. Zambia, a country of which I also knew little developed shape and form in my mind’s eye as Muna and Ranelle spoke familiarly of Zambian politics and potential paths to development. Ghana became the country that birthed brilliant and beautiful women like Efua, Priscilla and Josephine, all strong black women versed in their country’s heritage and history. Uganda, home to Phionah, Job and Hillary became a warm place full of lovely people that have given me itchy feet to visit and do so soon. 

Then Natacha gave me the colour of Angola, Otshabile showed me the beauty of Botswana and Maudo shared with all of us the integrity of The Gambia. I experienced Kenyan politics and entertainment through the boisterous conversations of  Martha, Linet and Jackie so much that it came to seem that I had walked the streets of Mombasa and Nairobi in another life.

My PfAL experience was replete with debates, discovery and a lot of laughter. The immense generosity of Firoz and Najma Lalji who sponsor the program left me speechless. Firoz Lalji would often attend PfAL programs and stand at the back quietly with a smile on his face so that we would not even realise he was in the room until much later. Such goodness of heart is as uncommon as it is indescribable. 

The managers of the program, Gerald and Ingrina are two of the best people I met at LSE. As the late poet, Maya Angelou once said, people will never forget the way you made them feel even if they forget everything else. I will certainly not forget them both for they treated us all with warmth and from the very first time I met them, it was already as if I had known them forever. 

I often found myself looking forward to PfAL events. Once, someone asked me how I was able to balance the demanding schedule of the LSE and still remain actively involved in PfAL. I found that a rather odd question for as I said to him, “I am able to balance my rigorous schedule at LSE BECAUSE of PfAL and not in spite of it.” The conversations shared at PfAL events were always stimulating for they focused on relevant issues and causes grounded in the reality and experiences of the cohorts. The amazing thing was that despite the diversity in the experiences of these young people, I never got the sense that one person necessarily considered their views superior to that of others. It was unspoken but acknowledged by all that everyone had superior knowledge on something that others did not. This meant that conversations, no matter how heated they would get, remained deeply respectful of other people’s viewpoints. I suppose it was also helpful that everyone was highly intelligent as well. 

As a final lesson, one thing that I take away from PfAL and the LSE is the need to constantly deconstruct and unpack whole summaries to prod at the parts. It is often too easy to view the whole as representative of the parts and vice versa. As someone who comes from a country with over 200 languages and just as many ethnic groups, I understand this better than most. The idea of Africa’s development does not subscribe and should never be subjected to broad based assumptions and lazy theorization. Now, I no longer see Africa as one homogenous geographical bloc but as a colourful continent of people who are strong and determined. I have always been passionate about my home country, Nigeria and I came to PfAL to see that passion replicated many times over in other young Africans from all corners of the continent. 

Despite all I have learned on the hurdles of African development, there has never been a time when I have been more optimistic about our future for I have seen the currency of Africa and it is reflected in the people who call it home. The gift of PfAL is that I see growth ahead and I believe in it, for all of us.