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Geci Karuri-Sebina speaks on "Innovating Past Our Visible Selves" 

Good evening, Dumelang, Saninbonani, Molweni, Avuxeni, Ndaa.
…But since my vocabulary and time are both limited, please accept that I see and recognise you all.
- Lord Williams, Master of Magdalene College
- Corinne Lloyd, the Development Director of Magdalene College
- Chris von Christierson, Mandela Magdalene Memorial Foundation
- Allen Zimbler, Archbishop Tutu Leadership Programme
- Scholars and alumni of the Magdalene College
- Other Esteemed Guests and Friends;

It is a real honour for me to be here, speaking to you this evening:
I was asked to speak here as a young leader. I am not sure that I’m all that young any more (even though we seem to have rather flexible limits to our definition of “youth” in SA!), but I am at least still young enough to have been excited about this invitation.


When you are approached with an amazing opportunity to speak on a platform such as this – with the brilliance of the present company, a world-leading university with a history of over 800 years, and a platform carrying the lofty name of our very own hero and global icon Madiba – one experiences at first a great excitement, quickly followed by a looming horror. For me, the excitement manifested in a cocky and prompt acceptance to speak, and a great clarity about all the very, very clever things I would want to say. But then reality sinks soon after… For me, the horror that followed unfolded in a process not dissimilar to the 5 stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, ultimately, acceptance.

It is in that final stage of acceptance, when the horror had lifted, that I thought – actually this is good. This is what I love doing. Reflecting, sharing, and learning with the others with whom i share space and time on this fragile raft called life. I had been asked to share my thoughts on African innovation and leadership, and these are certainly subjects that occupy much of my time and thought. The occasion of recognising the great achievements and future of the Mandela Magdalene Memorial Foundation is also one that is close to my heart as an ardent champion of education and learning.


So the question now was: how. How to say something useful here; something that is my truth, but also that makes sure that I don’t put them off from inviting young Africans to speak here again in future (what a burden!)? I think I found a way, and it goes something like this.

The Story of one Invisible African Girl


I start with the story of an invisible African girl:


“She was born invisible. Her mother was invisible too, and that was why she could see her. Her people lived contented lives, working on the farms, under the familiar sunlight. Their lives stretched back into the invisible centuries and all that had come down from those differently coloured ages were legends and rich traditions, unwritten and therefore remembered. They were remembered because they were lived.


She grew up without contradiction in the sunlight of the unwritten ages, and as a girl she dreamt of becoming a shepherd. She was sent to school, where she learnt strange notions, odd alphabets, and where she discovered that time can be written down in words.


It was in books that she first learned of her invisibility. She searched for herself and her people in all the history books she read an discovered to her youthful astonishment that she didn’t exist. This troubled her so much that she resolved, as soon as she was old enough, to leave her land find the people who did exist, to see what they looked like.


She kept her discovery of her recent invisibility to herself and soon forgot her dream of becoming a shepherd. But in the end, she didn’t have to wait till she was old enough…”


She fled from home and travelled for several years, doing all the jobs that came her way, learnt many languages, learnt many kinds of silences; listened to all the things than men and nature had to say… saw many cities and witnessed many kinds of evil that can sprout from the hearts of men…


“…when anyone asked her why she journeyed and what her destination was, she always gave two answers. One answer was for the ear of her questioner. The second answer was for her own heart.


The first answer went like this:
‘I don’t know why I am traveling. I don’t know where I am going.’


And the second answer went like this:
‘I am traveling to know why I am invisible. My quest is for the secret of visibility.’


Those who worked with her in those years saw her as a simple woman. Actually, they didn’t see her at all.”1
Okay, I have borrowed here and taken a measure of artistic license to adapt a favourite passage to my own story - Some of you may have recognised this as the opening pages of Ben Okri’s “Astonishing the Gods,” spun to weave in my own truths.


I read this lovely modern fable by Okri recently for the first time. And I am not just using his beautiful words to cover up for my own inadequacies in prose (although for sure my skills cannot compare to this Cambridge giant’s!); I honestly read his words and saw myself in them.


For I grew up thinking that everything was clear and finite. For me, not necessarily in a life of shepherding goats and cows, but quite similarly in how a middle-class girl from the city should grow to be of service to her people. How she could serve a great truth that was knowable and known, and that would make meaning of her life for her society. And the path was clear: go to school, and do your best scoring the best marks to make your family proud; get a job, making your community proud through meaningful work and the wealth that should come with that; get married, ostensibly so that you could make new little people who would do all of the same; and eventually die to become a respected ancestor on whose shoulders the future generations could stand. And our society would develop through all of this.

 

Download the full speech HERE