Diversity In Action: African Regional Week sparks off debate at MUWCI

“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. 

“We often times forget to fully account for the history and culture that people are bringing with them when they step into MUWCI, they’re not blank slates,”

says Aparna, who as Head of Residential Life oversees the physical, emotional and social well-being of the students. “People’s approach to conflict especially is colored by their cultural backgrounds. Most times we deal with these fallouts by asking people to talk it out, as if these were small personal tiffs. Which is why one of the components of the MUWCI Core, is to weave these conversations into the program and move away from the reactionary approach we end up following.”

“As the adults on campus, we can see things at a remove and be more cognizant of our reactions. But at sixteen, as a young person engaging with their political and racial identity for possibly the first time, it is bound to be overwhelming. In our approach to leveraging diversity on campus, we’re constantly torn between wanting people to be different yet agree with each other and maintain a sense of harmony. There are beautiful conversations and experiences that happen organically just by virtue of sharing your space with people from four different countries. But reckoning with this diversity as a larger community, is a constant work in progress.”

“I feel like there has been a shift in what people say about race and how they say it,” William adds, “however, a caveat of this is that people now prefer to not talk about race or privilege whenever African students are around, out of fear of “triggering” them. Most of us seem to have been labeled as being overly sensitive when it comes to these issues. But I have also spoken to a lot of people since ARW who are genuinely interested in knowing more about Africa. I’ve had multiple discussions with people about white privilege, white saviourism and colourism. These are issues that affect almost everyone who lives on campus and I feel like ARW was the starting point for a range of conversations regarding race to pick up. There’s only so much that can be achieved in a single week. I hope that race stops being such a taboo topic now.” 

As with any discussion around inclusion, that brings us to the question of who does this responsibility lie with? Alida attempts an answer, “I’m not too sure. To some extent, I believe that it is our responsibility as UWC students to sustain this conversation. But I also believe that campus culture and context matter so much. So if its not intentionally built into the MUWCI context, then how would these conversations even be provoked and facilitated?”

Planning for an upcoming American Regional Week have already glimpsed discussions around the existing power structures between the North and South Americas. Here’s hoping for another week that celebrates and educates in equal measure.


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