It’s the end of July and Peter John Opio is ready to return to Africa. To his home country of Uganda. To his wife and infant son, just born in December.
His gentle eyes and voice reflect his eagerness to once again experience the profound gifts and wisdom of his beloved continent. From his wide travels as an academician — most recently as a guest professor of management at the Mendoza College of Business — he knows reconnecting will take time. But he learned as a child to balance patience with enthusiasm, and welcomes the assimilation process.
“I’ve been educated in the West and spent so much time here that when I go home, I have to relearn what life really is all about, what is the purpose of life, what constitutes the basis of life,” he explains. “And I’m amazed at how people who seem to have so little can have so much joy. How people can live so humbly and yet be so open and generous in sharing.”
This spirit of sharing and community inspires Opio’s life’s work — to do what he can to help Africa and her people reach their full potential on a global scale.
Guiding Young African Leaders
It turns out that Notre Dame, nearly 8,000 miles away from home, put him in a position to guide the next generation of African leaders, young people just as passionate for Africa as he is. By chance — or by a higher design that fits with his lifelong Catholic faith — Opio’s tenure at Mendoza aligned with the inaugural Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in summer 2014 and the second round in 2015.
Launched by the U.S. Department of State as part of the Young Africa Leaders Initiative (YALI), the fellowship provides six weeks of education and training to 500 young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa at one of 20 U.S. higher education institutions. Mendoza was invited to educate 25 fellows in entrepreneurship.
Opio was a natural fit to assume the role of Mendoza’s curriculum coordinator. He developed curriculum as a former dean at two universities in Uganda, a provost, and a department head at a business school in London, U.K. His time at Notre Dame — teaching business strategy, corporate citizenship and ethical leadership at Mendoza since 2012 along with a concurrent visiting fellowship with the Kellogg Institute for International Studies — meant he was well familiar with the resources, players and mission of Notre Dame and Mendoza.
So he was overjoyed to create the entrepreneurship curriculum. “I knew they would benefit greatly from Mendoza’s resources and technology, but I also wanted them to develop a personal development plan with their own goals, their own vision,” he says. “This was born from my experience in Africa and witnessing leaders who do not have clear vision, who do not have a clear set of goals and objectives. And this has led to many, many initiatives just falling by the wayside.
“I wanted the fellows to have the opportunity every week to think back about key takeaways of whatever they are learning in class, and through site visits and engagements.”
Several Mendoza professors wholeheartedly committed to participate in the summer program when Opio called upon them. Their expertise in business, strategy and ethics changed the lives of the fellows and, by extension, likely will affect the course of Africa’s future, he says.
The thought and care that Opio put into developing his curriculum made an impression on the State Department, whose representatives gave glowing reviews.
He cannot emphasize enough the program’s potential. “These fellows are the future of Africa,” he says. “Africa has got the youngest population of any continent. Africa is on the verge of great transformation and transition. And the promise for Africa is harnessing the skills of these amazing young people. They have all kinds of initiatives, skills, modern skills, information skills, technological skills. And they give you everything. This is where Africa’s transformation is going to take place. They’re going to be the political leaders and they’re going to be at the helm of social transformation.”
Beyond All Odds
Opio is especially excited for the fellows because he knows firsthand how few and far between opportunities can be. As a child growing up in the northern Ugandan village of Nyaravur, he never forgets that he received an education beyond all odds.
His family was poor, and even as a child, Opio knew he was extremely fortunate to attend first grade, especially because many children in his village never attended school or had to drop out. At school, he discovered the sheer joy of learning and immediately became one of the top students. And he loved making friends.
But he did not complain when his family could not afford him to send him to second grade. Instead, determined to finance his own education, he spent that year planting, tending and harvesting his own cotton field, which was not unusual for children his age.
“In the morning, I would work with the family on the family field,” he says. “Then in the afternoon, I would work on my own field. My friends also had their fields, so it was fun to see whose field was doing best who would make the most money. We were proud of what we harvested.”
He skipped second and fourth grades to work in the fields. Despite these setbacks in schooling, his passion and aptitude for learning inspired those around him. For the fifth and sixth grades, his teachers pooled their meager resources and paid his tuition, a gesture he still finds profound.
“My education has been — and I want to choose the right words — a grace from God,” he says. “My brother and three sisters have great intellectual gifts, but I was the only one fortunate enough to go to school.”
Grace and hard work saw him through high school at Apostles of Jesus Seminary in Uganda. He cleaned and organized classrooms to pay his tuition and rarely got a chance to return home because he worked through breaks and holidays. But he fell in love with theology and philosophy, fields that would inform his future studies. And he fell in love with Africa as he gained a wider understanding of and appreciation for the continent beyond Uganda.
Ultimately deciding against becoming a priest, Opio applied for a performance-based master’s scholarship to Louvain University in Belgium. He received it and left Africa for the first time.
His master’s and doctoral programs in philosophy and economics focused on poverty development and famine. Questions about how to address these problems led him to earn an MBA at the University of Hull in London. “I felt that it was good to have discourse on these topics, but my question was how can we manage our resources effectively and strategically? Because as an African, I felt the reason there’s poverty is because of lack of effective managerial skills to handle resources,” he says. “I’ve never believed Africa is poor. Africa is wealthy; it’s rich.”
The basis for business in Africa has meaning beyond dollars and cents. “What we call ‘impact investing’ or ‘social investing’ in the West is something that happens naturally in Africa; it is not considered an add-on. Investing has a social dimension because sociality, solidarity, commonality are the defining elements of African society. Most business people will tell you their motivation is not just to make money, but to transform their country.
“That’s why I think the Catholic social principle of stewardship fits very well within Africa. There is a compelling force within me to share what I have.”
In returning to Africa in early August, Opio planned to explore an offer to become an administrator at a Ugandan university. He will conduct research and plans to initiate a community-based NGO focused on helping people learn agriculture and related business skills.
But he also emphasizes this is not the end of his relationship with Mendoza. He plans to stay in touch with the YALI team at Notre Dame and hopes to continue to lend his expertise to the Mandela Washington Fellowship in some capacity. And wheels are turning in his head of ways to further connect Mendoza with the transformation of Africa.
“Getting Africa to be an efficient, effective and competitive player is extremely important for the sustainability of the global economy,” he says. “So I want to be back in Africa, partly because I want to see how I can put to use the insight I have gained from Notre Dame.
“There is a great ray of hope for Africa, and it makes me so happy. And it’s not hope based on the old paradigm of help for Africa, but based on the paradigm of facilitating people who will bring Africa to the level where it should be — a global partner. This is exciting indeed.”