Appreciating My Blackness As An African

The first time I was introduced to the Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) identity was in my sabbatical year. Being the only black sabbatical officer during my tenure meant that I was the only full-time officer who could deal with the BME campaign. I was expected to work and support the elected part-time BME officers in furthering the aims of the campaign.

I was reluctant at first, for two reasons. I had only ever defined myself as an international student. Being black had never been part of my conscious identity. In Kenya, we are gender, tribe, class- but race? We don’t quite understand what it means to be black. Most poignantly, there was a stigma attached to being black- becoming black would also mean I had to embrace the burden of being black. I didn’t want that.

As a black international student, you quickly notice there’s a shame associated with being black. It’s apparent in the questions about where you’re from and who pays your fees. So whenever you have the chance, you want to disassociate yourself. You want to wriggle yourself out of the negative immigrant stereotype. That’s why you’ll hear so many international students boldly remind everyone how much they pay in fees whenever Teresa May announces new immigration rules. As if your deep pockets make you more worthy of crossing the border. I’m irritated by this school of thought but also reminded that I too, thought like this not too long ago.

This desire to place others beneath us to enhance our own status is a theme I remember reading about in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, many years ago. In the book, light-skinned and black Maureen is placed a level above darker-skinned and black Pecola. In the hierarchy of immigration, international students are Maureen.

In Africa, our hierarchy is based on gender, tribe and class. The conversation on race is mostly irrelevant (with some exceptions- hi, South Africa). I’m still trying to figure out whether being black means anything to Africa.

Living abroad has helped me discover and appreciate new identities. Despite the fact that I was hesitant to identify as black, I finally did. I have the Black Students Winter Conference 2014 to credit for that. The conversations and interactions at the conference made me realize that the perceived shame and stigma associated with being black was externally imposed- through structural oppression, colonialism and reinforced stereotypes. They were not intrinsic characteristics of black people.

The conference helped me feel empowered and comfortable enough to be a representative and voice for BME students on campus, despite my previous feeling of inadequacy. Today when I look back at my sabbatical year, I am most proud of my work with BME students. I no longer feel embarrassed to speak up on increasing black representation, protecting black-only spaces and tackling structural oppression. My identity is multi-faceted and I feel proud to be a black, African woman!

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

Rome Wasn’t Built In One Day- And Neither Will The Arena

Building something from the ground up is difficult. It requires:

– an unshakeable foundation

– builders, architects, interior designers, quantity surveyors

– functioning systems (think water, electricity, sewage pipes etc.)

When we started The Arena it all seemed so simple. We wanted to create a space for young people to interact and learn from one another. So we put together a programme, invited amazing guest speakers and hosted hundreds of young people at our events.

But with time, it’s become redundant. This became apparent to me earlier this year after we won a business start-up competition- what exactly are we trying to do? What’s the outcome? How are we measuring the success of our work? And most importantly, how do the people we serve have input into the work we do?

Criticism of your own work is a difficult task. But it must be done. Otherwise, how do you progress?

We’ve done well. We acknowledge that. But we’re at a stage now where we want to do more. We need to do more. And not so much quantitatively- but qualitatively.

Arena 100 main pic

So we’re hosting The Arena 100– an intimate buzz session to listen to your thoughts and ideas on the development and vision of The Arena. We want to know (among other things):

What are you working towards?
What steps have you made towards that vision?
What do you need as part of that journey?

We’re calling on young people in Kenya to join us as we build this Arena. To build an unshakeable foundation and functioning systems, we need you- our builders, architects, interior designers and quantity surveyors. We all have a part to play in creating this space and platform that will soon be a force to reckon with- not just in our country, but across Africa. 

It’s exciting and I hope you can make the time to join us! RSVP here.

T

© Tessy Maritim

 

 

Obama, I’d Love To Let You Finish But-

What a weekend. Obama touched down and brought home all the goodies- the entrepreneurship summit, praises for Kenya’s progress, promises of investment and (by default) a traffic-less Nairobi city.

Most poignantly, Obama blessed us with a message still ringing in the minds of Kenyans- work hard and you can do and be anything you want.

Let’s not lie- we’ve all heard this before. But coming from Obama? It sounded magical. So sexy. I wish it was that simple- for all of us.

I am privileged. I benefit from education, a loving family, food and shelter, global exposure and working parents. Each of these privileges in themselves come with their own set of fringe privileges. I don’t want to discredit the fact that I work hard. I do. But the environment I have grown up in has had a tremendous influence on my ability to do so. I am painfully aware of the role privilege plays in enabling me to work hard and flourish.

To his credit, Obama acknowledged this, and said as much. To say that you simply need to work hard to be successful is an insult to the many people who face social inequalities and structural oppression. These injustices fueled by tribalism, sexism, economic inequalities, among other issues, trounce the ability to work hard for many Kenyans.

People with privilege often have a very myopic view of how society works. I found this comic that puts my point across perfectly.

Being successful is not purely your own doing. The ability to work hard, in itself, is a privilege influenced by external circumstances.

This narrative of ‘hard work’ is a political tool used to maintain status quo and uphold the power structures that continue to oppress the marginalised in our society. This power play applies in a global context as well. Kenya, and Africa at large, can work hard to progress economically, socially and politically, but the playing field is definitely not level. We are still often at the mercy of the West. We have colonialism to thank for that.

This isn’t about Obama or privileged people- it’s the ideology I have a problem with. There are people who when reminded of their privilege begin a pretentious, ‘it’s not my fault I was born in wealth’ tirade to deny the fact that they benefit from these inequalities. Awh, poor you. Do me a favour please- check your privilege.

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

Kenya, I can’t wait to be back

If the conference I attended this past weekend is anything to go by, Kenya is an African powerhouse. The President of Ghana referenced Kenya as the potential Silicon Valley of Africa and many others paid tribute to the groundbreaking innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity taking place in Kenya.

And why wouldn’t they? With people like Sam Gichuru at Nailab, Peggy Mativo of PACE and Boniface Mwangi at PAWA254, Kenya has a lot to be proud of.

Coming from abroad, it’s easy to feel like an overseas education will give you the best answers to overcoming key issues in the country and continent. You go back home with the diaspora saviour complex, but the reality is that people in Kenya and the wider African continent are already creating solutions to these problems.

We have global exposure and experience but should never assume that this is necessarily better than local insight and experience.

Leaving Kenya has been the greatest gift. It’s enabled me to broaden my mindset and envision my role in African growth and development. For some, this involves being abroad. For me, it is undoubtedly living and working on the continent. I want to tour Africa. I want to learn more about our East African neighbours, discover West Africa and traverse Southern Africa.

At the conference, I attended panel discussions on education systems, civil society, social entrepreneurship, migration and energy. There is so much great work happening, I almost feel like I am missing out by being abroad.

I can’t wait to be back- permanently.

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

 

Puzzle Pieces of Purpose

Someone asked Mark Zuckerberg a question and his response struck a chord with me.

FullSizeRender (3)

Zuckerberg has undoubtedly found his purpose in life- he wants to connect the world. His means? Facebook Inc. Facebook does not exist in a vacuum. It exists to fulfill a much larger purpose.

Many of us have jobs and many of us are doing degrees. But many don’t understand that they should be used as tools towards a vision. Jobs and degrees in themselves don’t offer much. But they become meaningful when they are pieces of a bigger puzzle.

A purpose requires you to go much further than simply working a 9-5 job. When you’re not at the office, you’re reading to enhance your knowledge, having conversations about ideas or even dreaming about it. Your whole life revolves around your vision- in a healthy way.

I’ve seen it here at my Students’ Union. Many students spend their time outside university hours in planning meetings, organizing, campaigning and working tirelessly for causes they believe in. They have powerful convictions and channel relentless energy towards them. They have taught me what it means to be dedicated.

Your life purpose will require you to find all the puzzle pieces that enable you to paint the bigger picture. These pieces many be jobs, degrees, hobbies, activities, people, conversations- the list is endless. Keep a hawk eye for opportunities that fall in line with your vision.

I have an idea about what my purpose is. It involves young people, Africa, communities, activism, politics and education. Any job, degree, hobby, activity, person or conversation that is related to any of the aforementioned, I openly embrace because they contribute, one way or the other, towards the bigger vision.

I want everything I engage in to honour the purpose that God has given my life. There’s not a second to waste.

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

(p.s. When I’m not writing on this blog, I’m on my facebook page which I update regularly- would love to see you there 🙂 )

One Small Decision

I’ve got some good news today! Three weeks ago I submitted an idea into a competition our university runs called ‘Venture Further‘. It gives students and recent graduates an opportunity to submit an idea and win £10,000 to implement the idea. I didn’t have plans to submit an idea until three days before the end of the competition, when someone nudged me to submit an idea I had been researching about into the competition. After 30 mins of uhmming and ahhhing, I realised there was really nothing to lose by entering the competition.

So with a couple of days before the end of competition, I hurriedly put together the entry and submitted it- 10 minutes before the deadline.

A week and a half later, I received an email with the news that the idea had been selected as a finalist in the competition! I was in shock. It took me about 20 mins of staring at the email to finally understand what was happening, without fear that it was a hoax or a case of mistaken identity.

Small decisions can shed light on a bigger story, as they have for me.

Connecting the dots The funny thing is that two years ago I entered this very competition with a different idea. It was rejected in the first instance and the idea died at that point. Timing is a great thing because this many years later, I submitted an idea that I know I will work on, even if we don’t win the competition. Things needed to be in place for me to have a strong entry that will go beyond the competition. Everything in its own time; everything in God’s time.

Try. Always try I know I repeat this message but its because I can’t emphasise enough how its changed my life. Last week a good friend of mine asked me what gives me the courage to try and my answer was simple- every time you accept a challenge, you are making a decision to take your life forward. Staying comfortable doesn’t do anyone any good. Keep your ears to the ground and when a challenge presents itself and requires you to try, say yes!

No-one is ever 100% ready Following on from the decision to try, I think it’s so important to remember that no-one is ever 100% ready. You may be waiting for the perfect moment to apply for a job, start a project or make a move on someone you care about, but if you wait until you are ready, you will wait forever. I thought my entry from the competition was far from perfect, but I sent it anyway. You don’t have to be all the way ready; there’s room to figure things out on the way.

All you need is love As I’ve shared my idea with a few friends, some have disappointed me with their responses. I’m reminded that I need to surround myself with love. I don’t have time for naysayers on the sidelines as I play my game. I need cheerleaders- friends who send love, thoughts, prayers and encouragement when I need it most. If you find that the people sitting front row at your game are not doing the aforementioned, don’t be afraid to take away their courtside tickets- they don’t deserve them.

Tomorrow, we find out who the winner of the Venture Further competition is. I’m excited and anxious, all at the same time! I’d appreciate your prayers and positive thoughts.

p.s. If you’re interested, more details on the competition can be found here. The idea I submitted is called ‘My Nairobi’. 

UPDATE- Our idea won second place in the competition! We’ve been awarded £2500 to implement the idea. More details here. Here’s a pic from the awards night!

Awards dinner pic

T

© Tessy Maritim

No patriarchy, no feminism

Last week, I shared a video on my timeline that opened up a very interesting conversation about feminism from an African perspective. As expected, there were many who agreed and many who disagreed- the most amusing criticism being that the equality of women be advocated for ‘to a certain limit’. Sigh.

I’m writing this post to highlight a few other points I didn’t manage to address in my video.

I’ve heard many make a claim that feminism unfairly advantages women over men. If you think about feminism in a vacuum, you would probably think that. But feminism is a response to a societal problem- it exists to counter the patriarchy. As I said in my video, there’s no better place to see the patriarchy play out than in African society(s). Stripping women on the streets- men having the prerogative to decide what is deemed decent or indecent for a woman and then proceeding to punish her publicly if they feel she violates this- is a symptom of the patriarchy. The legal system- that means that men can be sentenced to cutting grass for raping a woman– is a symptom of patriarchy. Cultural norms- such as FGM (female genital mutilation) and forced early marriage- are a symptom of the patriarchy. For years, women have been set back by structural oppression. So it’s a vacuous criticism to say that feminism is ‘unfair’.

This illustration says it all.

FullSizeRender (3)

The image on the left conveys many people’s idea of equality- giving all the same ‘leg-up’. But that changes nothing. You can’t continue to empower those who are already structurally privileged. This is why feminism is important- it provides a platform for women’s achievements, rights and struggles to be affirmed. For as long as the patriarchy exists, there must be a movement fighting against it- and it must be led by women.

The word ‘feminist’ isn’t saying that women are better than men. It’s an explicit and powerful acknowledgement of their oppression in society- it’s a political statement.

I’m a strong believer that there’s a place for men in feminism. To me, this means standing up and speaking against manifestations of patriarchy which could include catcalling, groping, rape, victim blaming, and most importantly, letting women lead their own liberation.

It’s difficult to be a feminist. There’s a lot of resistance. But its important that you make a political stance when taking on a monster like patriarchy. We can’t afford to be nonchalant- women’s lives are at stake.

For anyone who hasn’t already watched this (I doubt there’ll be many of you), please check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism. She speaks about feminism from an African perspective with some hilarious and very relatable anecdotes.

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

(UPDATE- As I edited this post yesterday, I read the best news I’ve seen in a while- three men have been convicted and found guilty of gang-rape and causing grievious bodily harm to ‘Liz’ and as a result sentenced to 15 and 7 years in jail respectively. They had previously been ordered to cut grass as punishment. Read more about that here. Also check out the petition and protests that pressured courts to catch the perpetrators- feminism and activism at its’ best!)

 

#faves – African changemakers

It was only when I came to study in the UK that I began to identify as ‘African‘. Before that, I was just Kenyan. I never saw myself in the context of the wider world and I guess that’s one of the benefits of studying abroad- you discover a lot of new things but also begin to see old things from new perspective(s).

I’ve watched myself become fiercely protective of African identity (if there is one at all). I recognise the difference between when an African speaks about Africa and when a non-African speaks about Africa. The former is usually from a place of understanding the many similarities between African nations while the latter is more often that not, bound with ignorance. I’m reminded of a time when someone asked me “Are you planning on going back to Africa?” Excuse me, but what do you mean?

Things are changing and there are people who are at the forefront of this process- undefining stereotypes and challenging global perceptions about Africa in small and big ways. For today’s #faves post, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite African changemakers. Here we go!

Africans are activists – Boniface Mwangi

Boniface-Mwangi-Web-Profile

(picture courtesy of bonifacemwangi.com)

Boniface Mwangi is a Kenyan activist and a photographer by profession. For me, he defines what it means to be a patriot. This past year working in student politics has taught me the importance of grassroots activism and community organising. When politicians misuse and manipulate systems to benefit themselves, the most powerful course of action is to take the streets and make our voices too loud to ignore. Boniface has pioneered and set the pace for other young Kenyans to take a stance and not let powerful politicians get away with setting our country back. His courage is inspiring!

Africans are creators– Sharon Mundia

This-Is-Ess-Sophisticated-Style-_MG_3802

(picture courtesy of thisisess.com)

Internet and connectivity is opening up opportunities for many to have a space of their own which they can use to express their creativity. Sharon Mundia’s ‘This is Ess’ is my favourite example of this. She’s created a brand from a simple idea, consistency and quality delivery. It’s a worldwide phenomenon but in Kenya and other African countries, there’s still a slow response to the huge platform that bloggers provide for brands. People like Sharon are changing this- one blog post at a time.

Africans are educators– Patrick Awuah

Patrick-Awuah

(picture courtesy of myafricanow.com)

Patrick Awuah left a career at Microsoft to set up Ashesi University– an independent, co-educational, public benefit education institution operating on a not-for-profit basis. I think it’s wonderful that there are some visionary leaders setting up educational institutions with a focus on how people can use their skills and knowledge to transform the continent. It’s so important that these universities exist to challenge the perception that one must get a Western education to succeed in life.

Africans are entrepreneurs– Tara Fela-Durotoye

Tara-Fela

(picture courtesy of globalblackhistory.com)

If you’re African you know the stigma that was once attached to careers that are not medicine, engineering or law. But things have changed and we have people like Tara Fela-Durotoye to thank for that! Tara is the Founder of House of Tara, a cosmetics company with a focus on make-up. It’s tough enough to be an entrepreneur, let alone in the untapped beauty industry. House of Tara is a reminder that Africans can succeed and pioneer, even in fields that are perceived ‘non-African’.

As a continent, we are nowhere near reaching our capacity. We are an awakening giant. Slowly but surely transforming our communities, our brands, our economies and our world.

I love you Africa!

Share some of your #fave African changemakers below!

 

T

© Tessy Maritim