Taalu 2022: Let’s Tend to our Garden

The African Leadership Academy community welcomed the return of life to our campus and arrival of the Year 1s with one of our most anticipated celebrations of the calendar: our colorful, vibrant ceremony Taalu.

This year, we welcomed 118 new students, from over 40 countries in Africa, Asia, and North America into our family. We sang and we danced in our colorful costumes to mark the launch of the new academic year. As is customary, Hatim Eltayeb, the outgoing Dean of the Academy, now Acting Chief Executive Officer, welcomed the new and returning students with a rousing speech. The incoming Dean Uzoamaka Agyare-Kumi also delivered remarks.

CEO Hatim Eltayeb’s Taalu Speech

Good afternoon community, 

My, oh my, oh my, how resplendent you all look. If we achieve nothing else, if all our efforts come to naught and if this cathedral of conviction comes crashing down one day. If we fail to turn the arc of history towards justice and if none of us truly take on the mantles of ethical leadership, if nothing else, history will remember, at the very least, that we were an exceedingly attractive community. 

Today, Taalu, is my favorite time of the year. In part this is because it typically marks the beginning of a new season of Dean’s messages; after a winter of respite, I get excited about hearing my own voice again. For this, and for many more meaningful reasons, let us begin as we always should with gratitude. Take moment, each, to give thanks however you best give thanks for the confluence of fate, fortune and favor which makes this gathering possible. Thank you. 

What is this gathering anyway? The word Taalu (Ta-a Lu) means very simply come, in the plural, so come together. Taalu, come together young Africans who have heard the call of a compelling mission. Taalu from Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Ethiopia in the East. Taalu from Johannesburg and Cape Town and Qberha. Taalu from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya in the North. Taalu from the center, Taalu from the west. Taalu from the far-flung islands. Taalu, further still, from Boston, from Mexico City, from Seattle. Taalu, there is work to be done. 

Taalu this year, for me, hits a little different. This is the start of my 10th year at ALA, and the end of my sojourn as dean. Today I’ll formally hand over the privileges and responsibilities of the deanship to my much more capable successor [Uzoamaka Agyare-Kumi]. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to meander along one more metaphor, and close with a familiar adage.  

Taalu ceremony 2022

Last week I had the opportunity to write to the staff community and share ALA’s organizational objectives for this year. The first of these is a commitment to Tend the Garden. As a community, we are emerging from a period of significant tumult, upheaval, and neglect. We have been battered by the pandemic and roiled by change. While we’ve survived, there is much about our campus and our work that needs tending to. We need to go back to basics, to the daily labor that enables a fertile ground from which ideas and achievement sprout. We need to tend the garden.  

Some weeks ago, after first sharing this metaphor with colleagues I was challenged to admit that I had not “invented” this metaphor. Of course not. Much more eloquent minds than mine have long mined this metaphor for meaning. In particular, this colleague pointed out that tending, or cultivating the garden is the powerful closing lesson of Voltaire’s Candide – a text which I’m sure many of our francophone community members have studied (although I have not). In a closing scene, the protagonist reflects on the peaceful life of a Turkish household that sails smoothly along in spite of turbulent Ottoman politics. « Il faut cultiver notre jardin », he reflects: We must cultivate our garden.  

The message, I think, is that we can find inner and outer peace through work, good simple honest work.  We cannot control the world, but we can tend our gardens. We can literally tend gardens that bear fruit. We can also figuratively tend our inner gardens, gardens of the mind, from which ideas can blossom. We are gardeners, but we are gardens too. 

Taalu ceremony 2022

As spring arrives in the Southern Hemisphere, in Johannesburg, on this campus, in our step and in our spirits, I have been reflecting on gardens of another sort. I had the chance during the long vacation to reconnect and spend time with many old friends. Some of these friendships are more than 20 years old now. I find that each time I spend time with an old friend, and I wonder if you find this too, each time it is like visiting a piece of myself which I have left in their care. If we are all gardens, then relationships are the way by which we exchange and cultivate new varieties. In long meandering conversations, in laughter, in love, in stories, in these human interactions we are trading cuttings of ourselves for others. Blossoms of our soul and blooms of our spirit. I plant a flower in my friend’s garden, they plant a flower in mine. Good friends tend to these, we tend to theirs in return. 

Friends, this campus is a botanical cornucopia. Each of you carries remarkable lessons and promises. I invite you into this season of cross-pollination, of tending to your gardens and tending to one another. I want to acknowledge of course that diversity, authentically practiced, is not easy. Like garden work it can get messy and among the thorns we can also get hurt. New friends will stumble on your name, they will ask ignorant questions, they will react with surprise at beliefs you hold dear. You, too, will stumble, you will fall, you will hurt others and you will embarrass yourself. Diversity is scary.  

But remember why you are here. Greed has no creed. Corruption has no country and hunger has no homeland. The challenges that confront the continent and that confront humanity don’t care what you look like, how you sound or who you pray to. Our response, our leadership in resolving these challenges must be the same. What are not one, but we are together.  

We are together here. All of us, because we believe the world can and should be better and we want to take responsibility for making it so. If you are wondering what your place is in this garden, I’ll offer this mantra one last time: You deserve to be here, and here deserves you to be.  

 

2022 Taalu ceremony

Six years ago, when I re-entered ALA as a newly-minted Dean, wet behind the ears and carrying all sort of fears real and imagined, I had a garden in deep need of tending. In those long first months of stumbling and mistakes, I had an hour each week which I would spend with a new friend. We would trade wounds, exchange blossoms, and tend one another’s gardens. Many of the most loving leaves in my spiritual garden were tended by this friend and without her I know for certain I would not have survived. It gives me immense gratitude to be able to introduce her to you today, my friend, a gardener of souls, a mother of music and words, the 4th and now again the 6th Dean of the African Leadership Academy. Uzo Agyare-Kumi. 

Dean Uzoamaka Agyare-Kumi’s speech

To all our visitors and guests, our parents, alumni, to our precious Staffulty, our awesome student body, I say good afternoon and happy Taalu to us all.  Permit me to start off my speech with a poem that forms the basis of what I would like to talk about today – the power of Choice.

Invictus

BY WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

I was an English literature student in my high school and I loved writing and poetry. I still do. My teacher Ms Halloway was my favorite. She taught Literature with a fire and a passion that made my friends and I believe that she must drink some kind of juice every morning and got high… she was that passionate.  She would make us sit in a circle and we would take turns reading aloud, different poems and then write out our reflections, our thoughts, our dreams.

2022 Taalu ceremony

The poem I just read was my favorite one then. The author is a gentleman by name William Ernest Henley. When he was 16 years old, his left leg required amputation owing to complications arising from tuberculosis.:In the early 1870s, he developed similar complications in his other leg and the solution by his doctors, was for a second amputation to be done. He chose instead to seek the help of a famous surgeon Joseph Lister who was able to save his other leg. But it came at a price and required he undergo several operations. It was during his recovery that he penned this poem. A poem that has gone on to serve as an anchor for others including myself. I am not surprised that this poem was another icon and legend’s favorite: Tata Mandela shared that during his time in prison, when he felt all hope was lost, he would recite William Henley’s poem and it would give him what he needed to move on. He relied on it for strength. Like an anchor… When I studied this poem in high school in the late 80’s, Mandela was still in prison. What lessons does this poem remind me of when I am losing courage, trying to find the strength to move on? Here are four lessons that I have to share.

  1. Well, the first lesson is that the power of choice is firmly in my hands. I can choose what I focus on; I can choose what things mean and I can choose what to do. I believe that the choices we make in each moment determine our frame of mind and our frame of mind, determines which experiences stand out.

Year ones, you have chosen to come to ALA, it is an impressive choice…you are welcome. As Hatim has said, ‘you deserve to be here, here deserves you to be’. When the going gets tough and it will, remember those words and be inspired, be reminded of today, your day and the reasons you chose to come here.

  1. My choices have shown me, myself; JK Rowling said ‘it is our choices that show what we are truly’. We are far more than just our abilities. I may say I have certain beliefs. I may think I hold certain values. I may intend to take a certain way. But my choices reveal who I really am. Your choices will do the same for you.
  2. Many choices I have had to make were not easy. Leadership is complex and whenever you are in front, breaking new ground, you are in uncharted territory. The stakes for you are high as the choices you make will impact not only yourself but everyone else too.
  3. The choices I have made in life continue to change who I am today. I am stand here humbled and grateful to be able to serve you and the mission of ALA in this capacity of Acting Dean. I recognize it was not an easy decision to make and I will do all in my power to exceed my expectations. It is what this role demands and what I expect. CS Lewis once said, ‘every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you – the part that chooses – into someone a little different than it was before. The consequences of my decision will play out daily and I look forward to making wise ones.

My dear Year ones, like we would say in Lasgidi: “we did not come here to play.” Strive to exceed all the expectations you set for yourself. You deserve to be the best ever you. A word of caution though: this does not mean that you will not make mistakes. You will, and you must. There is an intentionality about what our choices should be that you must learn. Where you might have made good choices, what was its impact on you and those around you? When you made poor choices, did you try to make amends, or did you try to blame someone or something?  An ethical leader requires you know what you stand for and what you will stand up to. The choices you will make individually and collectively here will truly make us – for the better or for the worse. So, let us choose wisely.

Hatim talked about tending our gardens and I would love to talk more about what that means for us as community daily.  I want us to be the gardens and the gardeners of our destinies and to enable the destinies of others, the captains of our souls, the lighthouses whose lights, no one can dim. Lets normalize seeing the good in ourselves in order to see it in another. Lets normalize kindness and respect for ourselves and others. Lets normalize the values this community is founded upon – excellence, integrity, humility, compassion, diversity and curiosity.

On a final note, Academy, at certain points in our lives, we will encounter challenging circumstances or people. We can either regard our dilemmas with anger, bitterness, or frustration. Or we can look deep within and find the source that is beyond all circumstances. We can find some inspiration, from the works of others, the Bible, the Koran, a poem, a movie, and then pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move forward knowing all things will work in our favor.

Let us tend to our gardens together. you are here because you made this choice to be. Happy Taalu and thank you.

To see more of our Taalu ceremony, visit our Instagram page.

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