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Voices from the African-Canadian community

by Sandra Hercegova March 27, 2018
Voices from the African-Canadian community

From left: Bliss Morgan, Maurice Ngwakum-Akisa, Raphael Nzirubusa, Layial El-Hadi, Charles Onu and Moses Gashirabake. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

African Students’ Association and CEED Concordia welcome influential leaders in African development

For the first time, the African Students’ Association of Concordia (ASAC) teamed up with non-profit organization CEED Concordia to present “Roots: Growth on the African Continent” on March 23. The conference featured four speakers from different African countries, who shared anecdotes and experiences about their identities and the responsibility they feel to give back to their countries of origin. The panelists spoke about their career paths and the development they have seen in Africa over the past few years, as well as how they have contributed to that growth through various projects. The moderator, Maurice Ngwakum-Akisa, emphasized the importance of connecting with the audience during the panel. “We wanted to find a way for everyone to feel that they learned something and to feel inspired to learn more,” he said.

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Layial El-Hadi was the first panelist to introduce herself. She works as an assistant professor and program director for the graduate certificate in innovation, technology and society at Concordia. It was important for El-Hadi to discuss her grandparents’ and parents’ journeys before she shared her own. Her grandparents had the opportunity to study abroad and returned to Sudan afterwards. “They were supposed to come back and teach people in Sudan what they have learned,” El-Hadi explained. However, circumstances were different for her parents’ generation. El-Hadi’s parents obtained international education as well, but quickly realized the opportunities for their children in Sudan were scarce.

El-Hadi moved to Canada at a young age, and identifies as Sudanese-Canadian. “My parents knew very clearly that they were Sudanese […] but I am Sudanese-Canadian. What that meant and what that journey meant was very difficult,” El-Hadi said. “I’ve now come to terms with the fact that I’m very equally and loyally proud of both cultures that I’m from.”

El-Hadi graduated from the University of Calgary with a degree in political science and urban studies, and completed her MBA at HEC Montréal. As a Canadian who had all these opportunities, she asked herself what her role and responsibility was to Sudan. “Now that I had the opportunity to be Canadian, and with the time duration away from my country and my culture, the question is what is my role,” she told the audience. “Do I have the right to tell people there what they should or should not do?”

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The next panelist was Charles Onu, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher, software engineer and social innovator. Onu spent the first 25 years of his life in Nigeria but moved to Canada two years ago. He was born in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. “I remember feeling this need, leaving Nigeria, to learn and use my education and learning to somehow help people back there who are less fortunate than I was,” he said.

Currently, Onu is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at McGill and is a research assistant at the university. His focus is the applications of AI and machine learning on medical diagnoses. Onu is also the creator of Ubenwa, a software that uses AI, mobile technology and the sound of a newborn’s cry to diagnose birth asphyxia. Onu created this application in Nigeria, and Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Centre has helped with its development since Onu moved to Canada.

According to Onu, birth asphyxia is a global problem responsible for one million newborn deaths annually. “It is one of the top three causes of infant mortality,” he said. The reason asphyxia is such a big problem, particularly in Nigeria, is because it is difficult to diagnose. According to Onu, the equipment and procedures required to make a diagnosis are expensive and require medical expertise. This causes a lot of undiagnosed and untreated cases. “There needs to be access to treatment for everybody; but in many communities, they have no doctors, they have no hospitals and the roads are so bad that travelling to the nearest clinic can result in the patient’s death,” Onu explained.

He also acknowledged an even bigger problem that has yet to be addressed. “There is a big leadership crisis in African countries,” Onu said. “Our leadership in Nigeria especially has not provided fundamental and basic human needs [such as] power, roads and water. It’s going to be extremely hard to innovate a way around these very basic needs.”

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Growing up in a village in Burundi, Raphael Nzirubusa was inspired by his uncle, who was a jurist and worked for the country’s Supreme Court. Curious, Nzirubusa asked his uncle how he had earned his car and lifestyle, and his uncle answered: “I just went to school.” It was at that moment Nzirubusa decided he wanted to be like his uncle. “I wanted to go on a plane and I also wanted to come back to provide some happiness to the village,” Nzirubusa said.

According to Nzirubusa, in Burundi, there is a national exam administered in elementary schools to determine which students get to attend high school, since there are very few spaces available. “Maybe 10 per cent of graduating elementary students go to high school,” he said. Nzirubusa took the test and received the highest grade in the history of the region and ended up in one of the best high schools in the country. “You go through experiences in life that push you to work hard,” he said. “If you get a place in school, in a classroom, it’s a privilege.”

According to Nzirubusa, if you are from a village or small slum in Africa, “that triggers the will to change your life to do better, to look better, to eat better. It compels you to say, ‘I don’t want to be hungry; I want to live in a house with electricity,’” he said. Today, Nzirubusa is a founding member of the Coalition for Peace and Justice in Burundi and the executive director at J.P. Morgan. “I put an emphasis on education because I believe in it,” he said.

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“I was born in Rwanda, and I ended up in Canada because of circumstances, not by choice. And I consciously decided to make the best out of it,” said Moses Gashirabake, an environmental lawyer at Fasken, an international law firm. Gashirabake left Rwanda because of the 1994 genocide and moved to Kenya where he lived as a stateless refugee for 13 years. He then moved to Canada, studied political science at Concordia University and received his two law degrees from McGill University in 2017. “I came from being a refugee to helping elect the current prime minister of Canada,” Gashirabake said. When he started his law degree at McGill, Gashirabake realized a positive change could be made in Africa. “The reason why I ended up in a law firm is because I believe that conflicts in Africa are going to end if we help economies grow,” he explained. According to Gashirabake, Africa has started to change in the last decade. “It’s because of millennials and young people who have decided to take a risk,” he said. As an environmental lawyer, Gashirabake gives African countries economic advice to help them review their mining codes and environmental laws. “I am extremely passionate about giving back to society,” he said.

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Towards the end of the discussion, moderator Ngwakum-Akisa asked the panelists an important question: “How do we paint Africa in a more positive light?”  El-Hadi said the current narrative about Africa in the media is old and tired. “We are not going to put up with that type of narrative anymore,” she said. According to El-Hadi, there are no more excuses; we are the ones who must illicite the change we want to see in the world. “Create a movement, create a social system that brings light to what is happening, educate people around you.”

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