FOR one day every year, for over a decade, I have walked into my kitchen, donned my chef whites, and tyrannised Africa’s leaders of the future. Allow me to explain.
I am the principal at Cookery School at Little Portland Street, one of London’s most aptly named attractions. We love food. And we love teaching people how to cook. But we also believe that the humble kitchen holds secret powers. At this point you may be raising an eyebrow. But if my years behind the stove have taught me anything it is this: the cooking experience has an uncanny tendency to unveil hidden truths about ourselves and our world.
Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.
Every year we hold an event with the ‘Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme’, a course designed to cultivate ‘high potential’ African leaders. The lucky few accepted onto the programme complete a series of unusual leadership learning exercises. That’s where Cookery School, armed with its unusual perspective on the power of the kitchen, enters the picture.
With the help of the organisational psychologists who oversee the course, we give the stars of African society an unforgettable cookery experience. In order to explore their team dynamics, we usually do everything possible to create an atmosphere loaded with tension and ambiguity. Then the psychologists identify challenges that are of particular concern to the African people present, and we interweave these into the exercise. We usually explore dictatorship and corruption, for instance, so I duly transform myself into an unjust authoritarian and we see how the leaders react.
As the heat in the kitchen rises, more and more is revealed. The course participants are debriefed by Dr. Caryn Solomon, one of the programme’s excellent principle architects. She takes them through the day’s process, needling out all the leadership lessons. They are always stunned as the insights wash over them. But they aren’t the only ones who find the process enlightening in unforeseeable ways.
This year, for instance, we decided to explore an issue fraught with controversy: the growing influence of China in Africa. Accordingly, we tasked the participants with pioneering a Sino-African meal. This is, needless to say, a task of considerable complexity.
The results were fascinating. Far from resigning themselves to failure, the participants hit the ground running. Many of them were culinary novices, but through a combination of nimble collaboration and sheer imagination, they made it work. The meal was wonderful. A Sino-African cuisine had been duly invented.
This opened my eyes to something vital. Having looked into the Sino-African relationship prior to the event, I recognised that two fairly clear schools of thought had developed around the issue. For those who don’t know, the Chinese have rapidly escalated their interaction with Africa in recent years. All in all, they have pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into African governments and infrastructure. In return, they have become Africa’s most important trading partner, and have reaped a fortune in commodities.
Some commentators are negative about all this, casting the Chinese as neo-imperialist exploiters. They point out that this show of affection is grounded in self-interest. Since the turn of the 21st century, China has enjoyed one of the most ferocious industrialisations in human history, and this has generated an insatiable appetite for resources. Commentators from the second school of thought are much more positive. The Chinese – they claim – are helping the continent to mature and prosper.
Watching the course participants in my kitchen improvise and innovate, I soon recognised the poverty of both perspectives. Both commit one fatal error: they portray the African people as passive victims in a one-sided relationship. Africa becomes putty in the hands of the Chinese. This mistake is hardly surprising. Since the days of colonisation, when religious missionaries poured into the continent, the idea of Africa as an infantile backwater has been ingrained into the Western psyche.
In reality, Africa is teeming with energy, and the African people are proactive agents – masters of their own destinies. Just as they expertly concocted the perfect blend of Sino-African ingredients in my kitchen, they are currently in Africa, proactively negotiating every aspect of their relationship with the Chinese.
The faster the West abandons its retrograde view of Africa the better. Far from a wasteland of desperate souls, all crying out for a saviour, Africa is one of the most rapidly urbanising, economically energetic and youthful continents. If all the time I’ve spent playing an authoritarian in my kitchen has taught me anything, it is that the people of Africa are not manipulated easily.
All this insight gained from an hour in a cookery school. Who said the kitchen is just for making dinner?