Are we preordained to be poor? Dr. Kandeh Yumkella ponders

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 November 2013

kandeh yumkellaDr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella – Special Representative of the UN Secretary- General  and Chief Executive of Sustainable Energy for All, will be speaking today at the 60th anniversary of Christ the King College, in Bo, Sierra Leone.

In the fast moving global debate about climate change and Sierra Leone’s uncertain path to economic prosperity, Kandeh will reflect on his schooling days at his Alma Mater, as well as focus on his own development and readiness for leadership.

This is what he will say to his audience, which will include; former Vice President of Sierra Leone – Solomon Berewa, traditional rulers, the mayor and elders of Bo, former ministers, and members of the clergy:

“Today brings back a lot of memories such as my first day in the boarding home in 1971 at age 11; or the day I interrupted the prayer session in 1977 to mobilize the students to join national demonstrations under the No-College-No-School protest (started by the late Hindolo-Trye and others); or the last prayer session I led as Senior Prefect in 1978.

But the best of course is the day I proposed to one of the daughters of Bo, my wife Philomena Nicholas, daughter of the late Madam Nancy Nicholas (Mama Nicho) former Mayor of Bo.

I was told that many people are curious about my speech. There are even speculations about what I may or may not say. Some even wonder why I would come to Bo for this event.

CKC BOIn order to keep my commitment to COBA and get here in time for this event, I traveled for 24 hours, through different flight connections, to be here for 48 hours. I did this because I owe a lot to CKC; more importantly, when I give my word, I stand by it.

The bottom line is that I am here to celebrate with my kith and kin. I am here to inspire the young generation that they can be better than me and others before them. So I will speak from my heart about how CKC prepared me for my journey through life.

I firmly believe that one must have a strong sense of responsibility and a commitment to a set of core values in order to achieve success.  CKC taught me to have a sense of responsibility at a very early age. The teachers and Priests of the Holy Ghost Order shaped my values at the formative period of age 11-18 years (of course I had also received a lot of do(s) and don’t(s) from my parents and the extended family).

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”.  Therefore, I will draw from my own personal journey in life to show how CKC gave me the tools, core foundation and sense of Responsibility and Values that have contributed to my few achievements during the past three decades.

Sense of responsibility

One of the turning points of my youth, was when I was made school monitor to ring the bell for change of classes, and in the boarding home to announce study time, play time, meal time, bed time etc. This meant that by age 12, I had to manage when things happened in the whole school.

It also meant that I had to be more responsible and conscious of time than my peers, because if I am late then everybody will be late. This also taught me personal sacrifice and public service because I had to stop doing things I liked in order to be ahead of other students and ring the bell.

That meant I had to stop playing before others, I had to eat quickly ahead of others, I had to stop hanging out ahead of others.

In form three, I was put in charge of the dispensary in the Boarding Masters office. I had to clean the wounds of those with soccer injuries, to dispense WL-Laxative to those who had constipation from too much garri (till today I don’t know why the medicine was called WL).

This experience taught me humility and public service. The Priests were teaching me to “wash the feet of others”.  From then till I reached upper-six, I was a Prefect or Monitor for all sorts of things. So early in life, CKC taught me Responsibility, Service and Humility.

A sense of proportion

In life, one must know ones limits. One must accept that as good as you are, there are others who are better, and to get ahead you must cooperate with others. There is a saying that goes like this, “Alone you can go FAST, but together, we can go FAR.”

CKC taught me to build partnerships and alliances with the best of the best. When I was in form one, I was top of the class. But this was form 1B; then we went to form 2A to meet the best of the best. In the first term in form 2A, I was placed seventh (7th) in the end of term exam.  Can you imagine from being top to being 7th?

In fact, the man who was 1st continued to be first in class for the next 5 years.  So I learnt that though I was smart, there were others who were far smarter, and if I had to be as good as them, I had to partner with them, study like them, and play like them.

My friends coached me in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. I coached them on how to cram history, literature, bible knowledge and biology. I remember some students use to call me “photographic brain”, because I could cram very well.

To cut a long story short, my friend Sam was always first, Joseph was always second, and I was always comfortable at 3rd place.  But the two of them showed me how to be analytical, they sharpened my numeracy, and helped me think hard and connect the dots. We were best of friends and in form six we slept in the same small room.

A readiness to leadership

In 1996 when we got to lower-six, the teachers decided for the first time that the students should select their senior prefect from a short-list of three nominees provided by the principal and staff. Three best friends, KKY, Sam and Joseph, sleeping in the same 8×8 room, had to compete, campaign and debate in front of the students.

How can I compete against two guys who were smarter than me and always first and second in class, I asked myself?  Wow, I was introduced to politics; I had to dig deep into myself to find out and my competitive edge and why I believed I should lead the students? In the end, I won the elections.

One year later, I had to join our friends in Bo school (Harry Selenga, Baba Musa Danjaji, Eric Jumu, J.B. Laggah, and others), to organize the Bo version of “No College-No School” demonstrations.  I also became president of the Bo United Nations Students Association (BUNSA).

God’s Time is the Best

My association with the United Nations started in 1977-78, at 17-18 years, when I was elected President BUNSA. The Vice President was the senior prefect of the Bo school.  You fast forward to 1989 I wanted to be a young professional in the UN and World Bank; I lobbied some people but it did not happen.

I went on to be Assistant to the Dean University of Illinois College of Agriculture, and then Assistant Professor at Michigan State. Well God’s time is the best! In 1996, two decades later, I landed a job in the UN but at much higher level (a director level at age 36).

I learnt another lesson, that one must always work hard, train properly and prepare oneself so that when the Almighty opens the door of opportunity, you can sprint through it to success.

Remember I was a long distance runner for St John’s Hall in athletics (400 meters, 800 meters and the mile); I know that to win in long distance competition, you train, you pace yourself and be ready for the dash at the finish line.

When I ran for the election to the post of Director General, I was dismissed by my opponents because I was the youngest candidate and they said my country did not have international clout.

Well, as I did for the senior prefect election, I ran a smart global campaign, focusing on my superior knowledge and practical experience within the UN; and I won by a landslide. So sometimes the Almighty might not answer your prayers immediately, he prepares you through detours and rough terrain; and then, the Eureka moment,  all factors suddenly come together easily and smoothly. Some call it luck, I call it Devine intervention having a date with solid preparation and hard work.

salone poverty2The Future

Mr. Principal, distinguished Alumni, Elders ladies and gentlemen,
What we do now sometimes determines our future. The choices we will make in the next 3-4 years will determine the fate of our country, your fate, for the next two decades. We can be the Niger Delta, or we can be like Dubai. I believe that the best way to predict the future is to create the future.

Many days and nights I ask myself; in the abundance of the natural wealth we have discovered in the past 8 years, wealth provided by the Almighty for 6 million souls; in the presence of abundant open-source knowledge systems in this digital age, why must the next generation of Sierra Leoneans (our children and grandchildren) be poor, destitute, and ignorant? It was Bob Marley who said “In the Abundance of water, only the fool is thirsty).

Are we preordained to be poor? Why should another generation of Sierra Leoneans become economic refugees in London or New York? Our children and grandchildren deserve better. As a man who has defied the odds, worked hard to find a place on the global stage, I believe we can shape our destiny if we have some shared values and a strong sense of responsibility, coupled with determination to be amongst the best.

Since we live in a globalized world, we must think global and act local. We must learn how others are creating wealth and spreading prosperity for their citizens and generations yet unborn.

You, the current students of CKC (the next generation of Sierra Leonean Leaders), and your parents as well, should understand that to make Sierra Leone a prosperous nation, to ensure that you do not continue to hug the bottom tier of the development ladder (as we have done for the past two and half decades), you must be ready to compete with other youth from other nations.

Competitiveness of nations and the prosperity of the citizens require knowledge, skills and a core set of values (a culture) that molds the people into a formidable professional cadre or productive labour force.

It requires leadership that puts the interest of the common people first; it requires leadership that understands how private sector led-growth buttressed with smart macro-economic and trade policies can propel a nation to double digit growth and structural change.

school children - Sierra Leone CARWe must invest in functional literacy.  Functional literacy rate refers to the percentage of literates imbued with enhanced adaptive capabilities to use modern technology and devices and to commercialize new knowledge.

To this end, the future workforce should be empowered with adaptive thinking and skills to blend with and adapt to the rapidly changing facets of industrialization.

Functional literacy rate facilitates creative and innovative thinking skills in order to remain dynamically relevant to face the challenges and seize opportunities from emerging challenges.

A friend once told me this story.  At the Crystal Palace Industrial Exhibition in 1851, American goods were at the center of attraction. The surprised British industrial stakeholders, whose forefathers emerged as the pioneers of industrial revolution a century ago, went to the US to find out the reasons. They realized that the productive functional literacy rate in the US was higher than that of England.

In the 1980s when Japanese goods successfully penetrated the European and North American markets, the surprised industrial magnates of the US, whose forefathers transformed a great agrarian economy into a mighty industrial power after the civil war, went to Japan to find that functional literacy rate in Japan was higher than that of the US.

Over the past ten years I have supported the promotion of functional literacy in Sierra Leone.

I encouraged UNIDO to build 11 growth centers in communities all over the country, with the largest one in Bo Town. Two years ago we started building the fisheries training institute (which the rebels had burnt down) at Ferry Junction; I am happy to say that in four weeks on December 18th the President will inaugurate the new fisheries training institute.

Today, on behalf of my family, I pledge to help establish the computer lab in CKC. In addition, we will provide 10 tuition scholarships for the school, one 4-year college tuition scholarship (to Njala University or Fourah Bay College) for the student with the best WASSE result. He or She will be required to maintain a high Grade point average while in college.

We will also make a contribution towards the new school block, and are willing to assist COBA to raise funds for its construction.

I hope in the years to come I can help you shape our country’s future. As I always said, there are no red or green Sierra Leoneans. There are only one people with a common destiny and a dream for a better tomorrow.

I hope that all my stories today will convince you that you can compete. In fact, you must compete otherwise you will remain poor, begging for aid and help all the time.

A strong sense of responsibility, a sense of proportion, commitment to partnerships, a readiness to serve others, commitment to hard work, a solid education, and unwavering faith in the power of the almighty, are the keys to success and prosperity for you and me.

As one of our brothers in the diaspora says in his blog: “Leh We Dae Go Nor Mor………..”

Thank you for your kind attention.

Long Live CKC!

Long Live Sierra Leone!”