Washington, DC — I have been working in Africa for decades – and they have been eventful ones.
Democratic revolutions have accompanied the rise of a middle class. African brands are going global, along with fashion, art, literature and films. There has been regional integration, and leaders have endorsed common positions on peace, security and human rights. You can now fly across the huge continent from east to west, without going back to Europe en route, and you can connect via the Internet on the most remote of safaris.
Africa, while still beset by many challenges, is emerging, although at times unevenly.
But some things have not changed – and that's the richness of the personal narratives. If you have traveled anywhere in Africa, you'll know that everyone has a compelling story to tell.
This week, as Washington, DC opens its doors to young African leaders, followed next week by 45 or more African heads of state and to African business and civil society leaders, the focus will be on the meetings, the policies, the negotiations, the transactions and the networking. But if you're fortunate enough to be among those who encounter the visitors, take time to really meet them – the people behind the professions.
You might run into a west African minister of finance who spent six years in a refugee camp, frightened and alone, after his parents were killed escaping a raging civil war. As a teenage child, he found himself mentored by a U.S. charity worker and won a scholarship to attend school in the United States. He returned to his country and to government with a Harvard Degree.
Or maybe you'll meet a member of the Nigerian Diaspora who went home in 2000 and started a software business from a garage in Lagos, and became the largest provider of IT solutions in the region.
You might encounter a former member of South Africa's liberation movement, who after years of preaching uncompromising positions and the pursuing armed struggle, decided it was time to accept the responsibilities of governance and went on to be a leader in business and civil society.
You could meet a father of six of Berber, Arab, African and European descent who runs his own theatre company where the classics come to life, including Shakespeare, in several different languages and dialects – and you'll find he is also a brilliant French teacher.
If you make it to Capitol Hill, you might find yourself talking to a U.S. Senator who did missionary work in southern Africa and never lost his love for the continent or for adventure. Or you could run into a senior Congressional staffer who has been involved in every major African milestone for the past 20 years, fighting for Africa's budget and aid allocation when no one else was paying attention.
At a lecture or reception you could encounter the Peace Corps worker who spent two years teaching English on the edge of the Sahara and wouldn't trade her experience for anything.
Although you couldn't tell by looking, you might meet an orphan turned child soldier, who has emerged as a top diplomat and peace maker representing the next generation of leaders for a young nation.
And finally, if you are really, really lucky, you could run into the most beloved of Africans, those who have put themselves on the front line of Africa's healthcare struggle, traveling to the most remote regions to heal the sick and save lives, and in doing so, confronting some of the world's most frightening diseases.
So next week, as people are collecting business cards, emails and cell phone numbers, Skype and social media contacts, you might take the time to collect some stories too.
K. Riva Levinson is Managing Director, KRL International LLC, a consultancy working in the world's emerging markets.