A Tale Of Two Queues - The Knowledge Gap


I was at the immigration queue at JFK yesterday which was especially long as it was an Emirates flight. Each person had to be given "special treatment" by the TSA. The time we spent on the queue allowed me to learn a lot more about the people around me from the conversations they were having. 

Four young South Africans in front of me were having a rather animated discussion about a lot of things ranging from encryption to sub-atomic particles. I saw a couple of Google Nexus 7 tablets with them as they were talking about Google's encryption protocols and also Bosons, Leptons, Fermions and Quarks. I probably got more education just from eavesdropping in that conversation than I have had from years following and seeing chatter from my mostly Sub-Saharan African friends in social media.

It happened that they were from the University of Cape Town and were on a exchange/internship program named "Cultural Vistas". I took out my iPad there on the queue and Googled it then became part of their conversation too. This is a program I think a lot of young people in Sub-Saharan Africa should be part of and I think even working in other parts of Africa will be a great idea as well.

This brings me to the second queue in Dubai where we were waiting for a taxi at Dubai Mall after the movie theatre had closed. There were some young Nigerians in front of me and their conversation was mostly about fashion, Nollywood and music.... 

It may have been wrong timing and it may also be unfair generalization but overhearing the conversations from two different sets of young people on both queues got me thinking if our real problems in Sub-Saharan Africa are not the same that is plaguing Black America? Chris Rock said Shaquille O'Neal is "rich" but the guy who pays his salary weekly is "wealthy". At the rate we are going, the South Africans will keep paying us our salaries, they already pay mine. The young South Africans were on the Cultural Vistas program to seek more knowledge and experience while the Nigerians were in Dubai to shop for clothes for the new academic session.

While we were undergrads and shortly before our graduation in 1988, my late friend Obi Osakwe whom we fondly knew as “Obi Live” made a prophetic statement. He said that if we keep drinking beer and chasing after young women, we would be helping to increase the gap between the developed and developing world. He further explained that an 18 year old American or European probably had visited several countries and knew how to fly a plane but all we knew then was how to drink a lot of beer and get under the skirts of the ladies very quickly. He was a very handsome and outgoing fellow so he knew very much what he was talking about. He challenged us to do something different and it made me think of a career in technology rather than banking or accounting, which were the fad professions at that time.

The knowledge gap is increasing and sadly "Obi Live" did not live long enough to see his prophecy come true. He died in a road accident shortly after graduiation. We lost a visionary and a potentially great leader. When I speak at the Paradigm Initiative Nigeria's TENT gathering at Ife next month, I will be reminding everyone of Obi’s warning. I see hope in the new generation but they just have to be exposed to other things beyond fads.

My friend Andrew Turpin a South African living in Pretoria and one of the founders of House4Hack.co.za (together with his father Andrew Turpin Snr) built an airplane from scratch and flies it. Details here. I am still battling with flight simulators and I’m here in the USA on Black Friday to look for bargains on equipment.

Obi Live was right, we should have left the beer and girls alone.

11 responses
From now on, I'm only making friends with people who can pass the "Bosons, Leptons, Fermions and Quarks" test. :|
LOL! @mrbankole you made me laugh and spill my breakfast :)
Great post. Exposure is one thing, attitude/hardwork is another - but the two have to walk together.

I think that we can make up and get a lot more exposure if we work harder - if startups here make hard work part of their culture - This means trying to find work more attractive than pleasure.

I think this juxtaposing work and pleasure is the big difference between the Nigerian in Dubai and the South Africans you met - The South Africans saw 'work' as pleasure-so they basically erased the so -called work-life balance, the Nigerians probably did not see anything pleasing about Work (Bosons, Fermions, etc) so they run away from it

I'm looking for people who love the challenge of doing a startup - who love the taste of blood in their mouth, as Jason C would say

Somehow I find myself expecting technology startups to understand and live this. Yet you find a local champion resting easy in a global competition.

Your experience from SA resonates with what I saw at DEMOAfrica - and It is a stark difference from what I expected from SA, at least what the media portrayed.

Their attitude complemented their exposure - the SA techies I hung out with at DEMO were so focused on execution, that I felt so ashamed of our local (Nigerian) tech space.

Most times people underestimate what it takes to do a tech startup at the global level. My friend @OoTheNigerian would say that now is the time - we are young, strong so let's JFDI. Let's add JFE(execute) <->

If you are doing a startup or thinking of one - let me break it to you, I'm sorry kid there is no work-life balance, period. There's no balance you are just trying to stay on top. But some dude here gets a pay day (small) and it's clubbing time and girlfriends, duh! <->

I wont lay it all at the feet of exposure - you can get exposure by dribbling, HNing, even dreaming. It all in the attitude, Ann Miura Ko of Floodgate Partners (VC) would ask her stanford students if she wrote them a $5M cheque would they focus and execute to get it to $1B or would they rather take a few weeks off in the Bahamas?

“I’ve neva done better cos I'm smarter. It’s cos I worked a whole lot harder. Ppl will succeed cos they work harder. That’s 90% of it”- Ann Miura Ko

Thanks Francis! SA has always been a place filled with serious people. Please don't listen to what the media says at all.
Really enligthening. I have had that same problem especially when I visit some tech sites or watch tech videos, the way way they answer tech questions make me feel luke a novice despite the fact that I have been coding for some years. Last week I start running a course on MIT OpenCourseWare and am wondering if Nigerian undergrads go there for lectures. Never been to a computer science class and am amazed as to how they teach programing. Made up my mind to do more courses there but anybody I tell about it ask me if I will get a cartificate at the end?!!? What happened to learning. Great post.
Thanks Obinna. The beginning of wisdom is seeking knowledge when you are not forced to. I only wish our people will begin to see the potential of the age we are in now where knowledge no longer has any barriers because of the internet. The only barriers we place on knowledge are the barriers in our minds.
I schooled in the US and in my four years of college there I saw lots of Americans indulge in pizza, chicken wings, beer, women and video games with MTV music (BET for the black folks) and shows like the Real World running practically non-stop. But what does that mean in the greater scheme of things? It means that youth tastes whether Nigerian or American tend to be practically the same.

So one has to look at different things as to why countries differ in output when it comes to science and technology.

For the americans they have far better grounding in basic education and far more practical exposure than Nigeria. They have libraries in every community of every town with a population > 2000 (an area where Africans including SA massively lag behind). Their schools and universities invest in equipment and infrastructure. The internet was widely used in the academic community for a long time before it entered the mainstream.They have specialist hobby/technology magazines (how many do we have?) and local user groups where people with similar tastes share and exchange ideas and information. They are challenged early to produce projects in university that are novel or that push the boundaries. They have internships where they get real world experience. They have research programs in post graduate where they work at the cutting edge.

All of this translates into a typical young American having more knowledge and more experience in the sciences and in technology than a Nigerian. You see a similar thing with the South African education system which follows the same western model of progress.

For Nigerians, the fact is that the powers that be are generally not serious about education. We have underinvested for the better part of 25 years (a whole generation) and now the chickens are coming home to roost. Standards in secondary schools and universities are worse now than 30 years ago. I cannot forget a CVL event a year or so ago where Pat Utomi, Oby Ezekwesili, Nasir El-Rufai were on the panel discussing the educational decay and fittingly one ex-don used members of the audience (mostly university students) to showcase the fact that many could not even speak clearly or ask questions precisely.

I personally have interviewed university graduates and the ignorance and incapability is startling. I interviewed two economics graduates of UNN who did not even know who the Minister of Finance was. 90% of graduates I interviewed cannot even do a basic calculation of 15 x 13 in their heads.

Of course, Nigerians in typical optimistic fashion will point out to a Nigerian somewhere (most usually in the diaspora) who got first class or performed some academic feat. Certainly they do because there are more than 5 million Nigerians in the diaspora and more than 50,000 Nigerians who at any period in time are attending first class private schools in Nigeria. They have access to the same type of equipment and learning standards that are used in the west even minus the practical experience. But on average they are like a twinkle of light in the dark abyss that is Nigerian education.

In the age of the internet having cheap access to the vast pool of global knowledge will change the fortunes of many backward countries like Nigeria the same way it did for Marco Polo who sailed to China and brought back to Europe the vast pool of knowledge and inventions (such as the plate,cups and umbrella we use today). Nigerians are already world travellers and traders (whether conventional or illicit) and the internet will usher in a massive importation of ideas, techniques and processes. But to go from importation to imitation to innovation to invention will require lots and lots of investment in education and training and I hope that where the government of Nigeria has failed (with few exceptions like Rivers State) the private sector will make up the difference.

For the startup community here, the key word is practice, practice, practice. Malcolm Gladwell talks in one of his books about the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in any field. 10,000 hours is equivalent to roughly 5-7 years of work experience. Its why people like Bill Gates who learnt how to program at age 13 could startup a company by the age of 19 after logging in more than 10,000 hours of programming.

Franklin Nnebe, again your observations are on point! I really worry about the future because it is these same people who out of desperation will find their way to positions of authority and power. I hope we have not created a self perpetuating system that gets worse with each iteration.

The people with means are providing their children with the tools to compete with those in the West and they end up living and working there instead of going back home and nobody can blame them because there is really nothing much to go back to.

It is easy to throw up our hands in despair but I believe we are facing a drastic situation that deserves drastic action with more urgency than it is currently being accorded. We should devote all our energy to making education the civil rights issue of our time.

Victor, your write up and all comments here are very correct. However, except we do something fast, we may remain like this for a long while, i mean playing catch up with the west.

Can we think more in terms of solutions? lets crowd source the solution to our collective problem. So @ all what is the 1, 2,3,4 ......things we need to do to solve this problem? and please, i wish we could just leave the government out of this, they have not done much thus far.

I'm pretty sure those South Africans are not black South Africans.
Oyinbos have a different value system, and are more exposed. They also have solid mentoring.

I think we'll eventually get there. We just need more people like you who will keep drawing the attention of young people to the things that really matter.

I see my son doing most of the things you mentioned young Nigerians guys do instead of engaging their time and energy enjoying workplace the way they do night clubs,,, maybe I can get him to link up with you through this site,,,I find it the discussion rather interesting,,,