Wrapping my head around privilege
reflections on my journey thus far
As part of African Leadership Academy's decennial celebrations, I and a couple of other alumni of the academy were asked to share our stories. We used to do this even when I was back at the academy. The process of sharing your entire life's story requires an extreme level of vulnerability and I was never brave enough to be that vulnerable. That was then. This time when I was asked, I wanted to share! The request found me at a place where I was already reflecting on my whole existence. Sharing my story gave me a great space to contextualise that existence and so, I reflected.
There were two things that kept popping up in my brain as I reflected, opportunity and privilege. Hold on to those ideas, I will come back to them.
My story starts a year before I was born. My parents were working at the Ministry of Land, Housing and Human Settlements Development in Dodoma, the capital city of Tanzania. My father as an architect, my mother as a city planner. 1994, the year I speak of, both my parents were fired as part of the government’s workers reduction program. 3 children and 1 on the way, they had to restart their lives all over again.
My father immediately moved to Dar es Salaam, the economic capital of the country, and started freelancing his architectural services and my mother stayed with us in Dodoma so that my 2 sisters and my brother can continue with their education. Our food came from her tailoring and mending clothes for friends and my siblings' school fees were from the little money my father would send from the city.
When I turned 2 my father had made enough money to bring us all to the city. We went and stayed with him in Kijitonyama, a crowded neighbourhood, sort of like the townships in South Africa. It is the area which in Colonial times was called Uswahilini (still is called that), where the Swahili people (aka the black people) live. It was a two-room house, I and my siblings slept in the “living room” and my parents in the bedroom. We cooked outside and shared an outdoor toilet and bathroom with 3 other families of about the same size as ours.
3-year-old Beta, what my family used to call me, pees and poops in a little paint bucket in the living room and showers in front of the house because her legs are too short to squat in the outside bathroom, and she is too clumsy and tiny, so mother is afraid she will fall into the toilet.
4-year-old Beta gathers toys from the nearby dumpster where mother works. Mother has started a land reclamation company. It collects trash from house to house and dumps it at an area with eroded land to create safe spaces for children to play and employs young men who are recovering from drug abuse.
5-year-old Beta follows Iki, a naked mentally ill man, around town for 5 hours before they both return to the dumpster near home where they started their journey.
6-year-old Beta splits her time between touching the neighbour’s MimosaPudica plants until the whole garden folds, talking back to English speaking cartoons in Swahili on TV, and asking “what does that mean?” to every English word spoken in her presence.
7-year-old Beta and her 12-year-old brother are being chased by a 3-legged stray dog at 4:00 am on their way to Mapambano primary school which is 2 hours away from their home.
Fast forward to 2018, I go by Bernie now. I am doing a homestay weekend with my American classmates in Gugulethu, a township in Cape Town to "immerse myself" in South African living. I am munching on my Woolworths wasabi spiced seaweed snacks as I am introduced to Two Tanzanian men whose house I was warned is a drug house. They ask, Unaitwa nani? What’s your name? Unafanya nini afrika kusini? What are you doing in South Africa? Umekuja lini? When did you get here? Hawa wazungu ni marafiki zako? Are these white people your friends? Unawajuaje? How do you know them?
I breathe heavily before I answer: I am Bernie. I am a junior at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, USA. I study International Studies with a concentration in African Studies. I know an African Studying African Studies in America, wild. No, it is not the same as International relations. I take classes on Gender and Development in Africa. I study culture, identity and art, so I will probably end up in an NGO somewhere.… I want to use my knowledge of Africa to transform the lives of women in the continent.
They say, almost defeated, “Soma bwana, si unaona maisha tunayoishi kaka zako. Study, you see the kind of life us your brothers are living.”
At no point in my life had I imagined I would ever be the most privileged person in the room and here I was, a wasabi eating, English speaking, township touring Tanzanian. The opportunities that I had previously considered simply a product of my hard work were being presented to me as just that, opportunities, circumstances that make it possible for a person to do things. If I wasn’t presented with those circumstances, I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that I have done.
If I didn’t get a chance to learn English from a TV at 6 years old, I would have never gone to ALA because I would have never been able to read the application form.
If I had not gone to ALA, I would have never had the chance to work at African Leadership College in Mauritius at 20 years old. I would have never met my two best friends, Chebet and Natasha, and travel to Kenya, to the UK just to visit them. And most of all I would have never been able to even find Trinity.
Without getting into Trinity I would not have just lived in France for 4 months to immerse myself in French language & culture. I wouldn’t be in Cape Town doing an area studies immersion for an entire year either.
Yet here I am! The opportunities that I have had have exposed me to realities that I had never imagined possible. Don’t get me wrong, I dreamt great thing for myself even when I was playing in dumpsters in Kijitonyama… but they were never as big as trying to create an Afro-feminist Fashion empire in Africa because that is the kind of dream I am privileged to have today.
So, I am grateful for every single opportunity I have had. I absolutely do not take any of them for granted… and I most certainly understand that privilege comes with responsibilities. And I am committed to acting.