Hadeel Ibrahim is the 30-year-old force of nature behind the Africa Center in New York City.
For the last year, Hadeel Ibrahim has talked, almost nonstop, about an empty building. She discusses the building with anyone who will listen, from friends and family to strangers she meets at parties and on her frequent airplane trips between London (where she lives) and New York (where she spends about a third of her time) and Africa (where her heart lies). When she’s seated next to a lawyer, she figures maybe that lawyer can help with the building. When she meets a Moroccan art dealer, she starts wondering if there’s Moroccan art that could go into the building. She is constantly gathering ideas and soliciting opinions. When it comes to the building, she says, “There’s almost no one we don’t need.”
Ibrahim is 30 years old. She is coltishly slim, wears dark-framed Chanel glasses, and keeps her hair pulled back in an unfussy bun. If she didn’t smile so often, if she didn’t have a laugh that could climb the registers and explode across a crowded room, she might seem stern for her age and a little intimidating. Ibrahim was just 22 when she became the executive director of a multinational foundation launched by her father, billionaire and former telecom executive Mo Ibrahim, aimed at helping African leaders govern their countries more efficiently. She can speak avidly and in detail not just about the politics of her family’s home country—Sudan—but of each of the other 53 countries on the continent of Africa. She devours the Financial Times and several other news outlets daily, loves a ferocious political debate, and never fails to leave a gathering without having made at least several new friends. The address book on her BlackBerry is loaded with contact information for everyone from Bill Clinton to Bono.
And then there’s the building, a partially finished 75,000-square-foot space that languishes along the northeast corner of Central Park in New York, at the edge of Harlem. On a breezy April afternoon, Ibrahim unlocks a heavy-looking security door on One-hundred-ninth Street and pushes it open. She steps into the dimly lit construction zone of bare concrete walls upon which she has pinned her hopes. One of the first things Ibrahim will tell you is that the Africa Center is not a museum. Or rather, it is partly a museum, since if all goes according to plan, the center will exhibit art on two of its three floors. But it’s more than that, she says. She envisions the institution as a gateway between Africa and the U.S., a place where international business and policy meetings go on, where members of the African diaspora congregate, and where people of all backgrounds come to connect with the enormously vibrant, enormously complicated continent she herself knows so well.
We wander through the building, which is as cool and still as an icebox. Passing large areas blocked off by orange construction netting, Ibrahim bubbles with ideas: Not only will there be art, she says—“and more than the masks and baskets people always expect from Africa”—but the center will host lectures and performances, and house a policy center. There will be an on-site radio station and a screening room for films. There will be a hip African restaurant and hip African dance parties. It will be where young people want to hang out, where culture is celebrated, where business gets done. “It’s a center in every sense of the word,” she tells me. “It’s going to help people to be smart and think differently about Africa.” Her plans are admittedly grand—and to realize them she still needs to raise about $20 million, to go with the $10 million she’s managed to secure so far. Depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty type, you will think she has either made a lot of progress (starting from nothing, as she did) or got a very long way to go (a portion of the money she’s raised has been donated by her own family). Possibly it’s both. Which is why Ibrahim is perpetually pressing her cause. Before the rudimentary emergency lighting was installed a few months earlier, she gave tours like this—as many as five a day—by flashlight.