Waste is perhaps the single greatest hindrance to development in Africa. It keeps Africa hostage. Just take a walk in any African city, let’s say Maputo, and you will see burst water pipes spilling the precious liquid for months and nobody gives a damn. The buildings, many of them built during the colonial era, have never seen maintenance since my people occupied them in the 1970s. Not even painting, which is perhaps the easiest maintenance you can do on a building. The elevators in the high rises stopped working decades ago. All the elevator systems have completely wasted in the rust due to lack of maintenance. And guess what? Nobody cares. Try to cross any border between any two African countries, be sure they will waste at least three hours of your time. Try to go to any service delivery point – it makes no difference whether it is private or public – they will waste your time – and for what? Absolutely nothing! That is your life going to waste right there. You will never get it back. It is gone for good.
You have heard of brain drain, but how about brain waste, the most damaging type of waste? That’s right! Brain waste! Not just any brains but the freshest and youngest brains of the continent – the worst fate to befall a people. The slogan of the United Negro College Fund nails the problem on its head: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. There is no greater waste. It’s tragic – really tragic. No brain wants to feel wasted. Brain waste at home is the real cause for the brain flight to other parts of the world.
Waste the verb, noun and adjective
Let us look at how Waste is defined – just for the hang of it. It might also give us some perspective on how we treat our brains. The dictionary definition of Waste has three categories: Verb, Noun and Adjective.
(1) Waste as Verb: To use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose (synonyms: squander, misspend, misuse, fritter away, throw away, lavish, dissipate, throw around); to bestow or expend on an unappreciative recipient; to fail to make full or good use of something; in reference to a person or a part of the body, to become progressively weaker and more emaciated (synonyms: grow weak, grow thin, shrink, decline, wilt, fade, flag, deteriorate, degenerate, languish. Waste can also be used as a literary device, for example: To devastate or ruin (a place); to kill or severely injure (someone); in reference time, to pass away; to be spent.
(2) Waste as Noun: An act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose (synonyms: misuse, misapplication, misemployment, abuse); the gradual loss or diminution of something; material that is not wanted; the unusable remains or by-products of something (synonyms: garbage, rubbish, trash, refuse, litter, debris, flotsam and jetsam, dross, junk, detritus, crap); a large area of barren, typically uninhabited land (synonyms: desert, wasteland, wilderness, wilds,emptiness). As a noun, waste can also be a legal term meaning damage to an estate caused by an act or by neglect, especially by a life-tenant.
(3) Waste as Adjective: In reference to material, substance, or by-product, to eliminated or discarded as no longer useful or required after the completion of a process (synonyms:unwanted, excess, superfluous, left over, scrap, useless and worthless); in reference to an area of land, typically in a city or town, not used, cultivated, or built on (synonyms:uncultivated, barren, desert, arid, barren).
Whichever definition of waste you choose – verb, or noun, or adjective – you lose no matter what. The three definitions of waste – waste as verb, as noun, as adjective – describe the varied fateful states of affairs of the brains of our youth, the ways in which we (dis)value, disuse, misuse and squander them. The irony of the status quo should not be lost. Naturally the young should be the most active among us. But ironically, while Africa has the youngest population on the planet, this population is perhaps the most wasted of the planet.
From waithood to wastehood
The official term for this problem, often used by aid workers, politicians, policy makers and researchers, is youth unemployment. Indeed the body of research on Africa’s youth unemployment is growing. One of the researchers is Alcinda Honwana who describes this fateful condition of Africa’s youth as waithood:
[A] portmanteau term of “wait” and “-hood”, meaning ‘waiting for adulthood’, to refer to this period of suspension between childhood and adulthood. On the one hand, young people are no longer children in need of care, but on the other, they are still unable to become independent adults. While chronological age defines them as adults, socially they are not recognized as such. Rather than defining youth on the basis of age categories (for example 15-25 or 15-35)… youth [is] defined by social expectations and responsibilities and [includes] all those who, despite their age, have not yet been able to attain social adulthood as youth.
Waithood, this period of suspension, might as well be called Wastehood, meaning wasting away in disuse while waiting to be useful. If we consider all the youth languishing in suspension throughout the continent, we are looking at colossal brain power going to waste. This is the brain mass we should tap for creativity, innovation and progress. But until we discover the value of this priceless and precious resource, in memory of Marley’s lyrics, the dream of development will remain a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never attained. Donor dollars may flow as they have been – mineral resources may be extracted as they have been – but as long as youth brain waste continues – it is all vanity.