What can we learn in Africa?

In a previous blog I wrote about brain wave cycles and ways to calm our busy minds to give space to creativity, intuition, empathy and potentially breakthrough ideas.
The Mountain Wisdom Expedition to Senegal clearly offered such a space. 16 business leaders had followed the rather cryptic invitation to explore our origins in Africa. 

The deep dive triggered a lot of personal and intimate experiences and I wanted to share some of mine.

  • The stories in our minds
    As we travel to Africa we come with loaded minds; how will we face poverty? What should we give and to whom? How can we not appear as the white rich uncle from Europe? And subconsciously, we might also experience guilt and shame in relation to colonialism, slavery and white supremacy. It is quite a heavy load of thoughts as we approach an elementary school in Senegal. And as soon as the kids notice us, there is running and screaming, they come and take us by the hand, ask for our names, they want to show what they have learned. Their energy, curiosity and enthusiasm force us into the present moment. We talk and listen, and I feel that we connect. While the heavier thoughts don’t go away completely they take a back seat. It is the human connection that counts.
  • Service and connection
    Doug, our host, had organized some community work for us. We were invited to work alongside some Senegalese workers on the tiling of a class room at the primary school. The first 30’ felt a bit weird: a bunch of executives trying to be useful mixing sand, cement and water (while thinking: shouldn’t we buy them a mixer..). But slowly we got into it, managed the quantities of sand, cement and water, learned more effective and faster ways to mix it, then distribute on the ground and work on the surface. As we worked we chatted with the locals and could see how our work grew into something good and tangible. None of us will probably become a professional concrete mixer, but the service was well received, we experienced our own learning curve, got some calluses in our hands and made some friends while working together. And the applause that we received on Monday morning when visiting the school was priceless.

  • Family lives
    Abéné is a fishermen’s village in the South of Senegal and our compound with simple bungalows was directly located on the beach so we could observe the fishermen’s lives. What fascinated us most was the collaboration between the fishermen (taking the boats out and brining the fish back) and the families processing the fish, repairing the nets and preparing the meals. Everything happens in a relatively small area, and they are together all the time. Many of us reflected on our own busy travel and work schedules…
  • Rhythm, music, dance and colours
    Rhythm is everywhere and if you allow it, it captures your body. Dancing to the beats where highlights of the event as well as ’speaking djembe’ ourselves. Drumming requires good listening, getting into synch; and it is a powerful experience to feel the group. The expressive colors are a treat for our eyes, the smell and taste of nature and food is like a symphony for nose and mouth. All senses are stimulated, it is raw, original, simple, and speaks to our human nature.

  • The heroes of this trip
    We met so many amazing people during this immersion into Africa, and there are three people who stood out for me:
    • Ndoumbe: she is a nurse managing on her own a medical center in Abéné; the place is clean and well-kept and at the same time is lacking everything. Ndoumbe is available 24/7, giving birth to about 20 kids per month and covering the medical needs of 3'000 people, just on her own. She had to do three caesareans again just on her own. She is calm, friendly, focused. And she has not been paid (EUR 100 per month) for the last 5 months. Villagers give her credit in the local shops. She has three children who live with her at the medical center; the marriage did not survive her dedication and commitment to the patients. See her picture with the phrase on the wall: ’the woman is the future of mankind’.
    • Vieux Touré in his sixties is one of the elders of Abéné; he is married and has 5 girls. They live in a shack shared with a couple of animals. He always smiles. We gathered around him, asked him questions to learn how the village was working. One of the wisdoms he shared with us: life is about sharing. Whenever I have something I share it. And he asked his daughter to gather some oranges from his orchard for us as a gift. Doug, our host, told me the story that last time he was here he brought him a 50kg bag of rice. When Vieux Touré received the gift, he started crying and then told Doug that two days ago he had noticed that their food supplies were coming to an end. They had three more days to find a way to feed the family and he had prayed the last days until now Doug showed up with food for the next weeks.
    • Doug is a long time Mountain Wisdom friend. A former BBC documentary producer he fell in love with Africa and in particular with Djembe, the African drum. He very successfully runs Sewabeats an ensemble of drummers and works with corporations on collaboration and leadership. He is about to launch ‘Djembe – the show’ in Chicago in a couple of weeks. Doug bought a place in Abéné and goes there a couple of times per year. He had orchestrated this whole trip for us and wherever we showed up there was praise about the difference that Doug has been making to the village. He has been supporting the school, the medical center, has brought groups and donations, is developing musicians etc. He is the ‘good white man’ in Abéné.

  • Deep conversations
    As we got into the rhythm and synch with the place, our group started to engage in deeper conversations; we allowed vulnerability and addressed the critical topics that we were facing in our lives. Our friends offered both listening and caring challenge which was of great value for our personal journeys. The raw experiences in a simple and natural context provided a powerful playground to explore human nature: who are we? What is our gift to world? What really matters? How do we relate to each other? What is my purpose in life?
  • African identity and self-esteem
    It is visible that the continent is trying to create a new story about Africa leaving the dark chapters of colonialism, slavery and underdevelopment behind. In Dakar a brand-new Museum on black civilizations (mcn) was opened in December. It goes back to humanity’s origins in Africa, early contributions to language, science and art, and also shows a very impressive collection of contemporary African art. The museum is housed in a traditional round house with a ’tree of humanity’ in the middle. Interestingly enough the museum has been funded by the Chinese. Another prominent monument in Dakar, the monument of the African Renaissance, shows a huge statue of an African family on the Western tip of Senegal overlooking the ocean and signaling towards North America (some say towards the Statue of Liberty in New York). Africa is making an effort to link humanity’s origins on the continent with the promising future.


The immersion into Africa left us all deeply touched. Somehow inspired by Harari’s ’Sapiens’ we dived into a multifaceted experience of human nature. Our small group felt a bit like a tribe, experimenting with raw body experiences like drumming and dancing, fishing, and collecting.
We spent a lot of social time, getting into deeper and deeper conversations exploring our identity and purpose. Food was simple and natural, no alcohol, and a lot of natural movement. Rituals gave some structure to our days. We tasted elements of a simple and natural life and got a glimpse of the essence of humanity. Meeting some heroes inspired our own purpose quest and most of us came back with some bold ideas on how to change our lives and bring their gifts to the world.

Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • How close is your current life to your human nature?
  • What are you doing to bring it closer to human nature?
  • What have you done recently to serve the community?
  • Where do you get the rhythm?
  • Are you fully nurturing all your senses?
  • Any plans for a trip? To yourself? To Africa?