“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
– Verna Myers, American author
Imagine moving from one vibrant country to another equally vibrant one. Being amidst young people from all over the world, part of a richly diverse student body eager to have those much-awaited life-changing experiences. And then, the only times your homeland is referenced on campus is during discussions about poverty and strife, subpar healthcare and civil wars.
This was the frustration that brought together the Africans on the hill. To restore a sense of glory and intellectual curiosity for Africa. A continent often reduced to a monolith, in formal and informal discourse. But perhaps the greater legacy of a beautifully planned and executed Regional Week would be the difficult conversation it allowed to happen.
“The fact that so many people confuse our names is a splendid example of why there was a need to move beyond the obvious requirements of a Regional Week,” says William (Uganda, Class of ’20). ”Many of the African male students often have their names interchanged. I have been called Andy, Kennedy, Patrick, Daniel (who no longer even goes to MUWCI) and Yves so many times because of people’s general disinterestedness in who we are and where we come from.” For some there were smaller, albeit equally important priorities. “I was really hoping that this cause would bring together all the African students on the hill,” says Alida (Kenya, Class of ’20) “It was for me, an opportunity to create a space for members of the community who would not generally make themselves heard in larger, more public forums.”
ARW began in mid-September and saw a flurry of activity. There was a fashion show, film screenings, cultural performances, an art gallery was set up in the AQ. There was a lovely attention to detail in all aspects. Every e-mail about the ARW was sent out in a different language from the continent with tiny tidbits towards the tail-end of the mail providing context about the language or dialect. It was also an adventurous teaching week for the faculty. Be it polyrhythms in Math SL (divisions of a musical beat in multiple superimposed ways; a thousand year-old West African invention) or a deep dive into Rwanda and the African Union in History and Economics respectively.
The unanimous highlight of the week however, was a series of TED talks. Just a cursory glance at the topics covered in these talks gives an insight into the wide range of educational opportunities created during ARW. “African hair”, Languages, creoles and the space of native languages”, “Africa, France, the World Cup and Trevor Noah”, “Post-conflict Rwanda”, “Tribalism”, “Wakanda”, “How Africa is shaping world politics”, “Diego Garcia: the last British colony in Africa.”
“The day after the TED Talks, we were on a high. We believed that we had actually initiated the change we wanted to see in our community,” recalls William. “We’d finally been able to preach to a congregation in a safe space, without fear of comebacks or interruptions.” This high however, was a short-lived one. “I checked my phone and saw that a meme had been posted.” It was a picture of the cutout of the African map pinned outside the caf. The caption claiming that Africa was after all, one (homogeneous) country.
“I was infuriated not so much because I was offended by what this person had said, but because it appeared to be an intentional degradation of all the hard work all of us had put into organizing the entire week.” On a campus as racially diverse and politically engaged as MUWCI, the tenets of cultural sensitivity and political correctness are always in flux. This particular post quickly became fodder for emotionally charged arguments, online (with alumni writing in with their experiences) as well as on campus. “At first, some people were eager to dismiss it as just another bad joke. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was a vile sentiment underlying this particular bad joke.”
Whether this meme was an ill timed irreverent joke or a symptom of a culture of racial insensitivity to Africans was hotly debated. In the following week, a session was conceptualized to engage with the question: How does the desire to build a multicultural democracy tie in with political correctness, freedom of speech, and the way we conduct politics on campus? It provided a space for a serious conversation to begin.