A year in; Reflections on Vasikana Vedu

“Dashed hopes and good intentions.”- Edward Albee

It started with some tears. Kemi’s tears. A friend was getting married. Young, bright and quite unwilling. But her family had no money to send her to school. Or to feed her. And 18 years is past adulthood. 


Fast forward a few months later we were in Zimbabwe, working 40 young women. Not Kemi’s Friend. But still young women on the brink of something. On the brink of womanhood. The kind that comes too early. Thrust upon you in the form of expectations and reality. What are you to be good for in life? A hefty bride price? We could do with some extra income this month. A doctor? Because if you are going to go to school, you make sure you become somebody.

We spent just about 7 weeks, nearly every day with these young women, telling them that if they worked hard at this,  that if they could dare to dream, they could have a shot of turning simple skills into a different life. They could make their own money, they could be their own people. Because the one thing that people respect, coming in right below a woman with a “good husband” is a woman with a good paycheck. We took them to the city. Told them one day they too could live here. Patience is all it takes. Patience and some hard work. They believed it and so did we.


And then we left.


And as they say “Things Fall Apart”. And when they do, do you pack the house out and leave?

It’s almost been year. Some of them have graduated. They are adults. Living adult lives. Whatever that means. I am living mine. But I am haunted by the dreams that I sold them. The dreams that they bought. With all they had in their pockets and in their hearts.


Now I find myself gathering those pennies and that hope that they gave me. I will bring you that thing I promised. Patience, Trust and a whole lot of Faith. That thing that I promised will come one day.

“The substance of faith is a hope in the unseen.” A version of Hebrews 11: 1




Africa’s little problem

I am in a Development Studies (DS) class on “The Political Economy of African Development”. It’s an interesting class for many reasons most important one being that it’s an examination of the continent that I grew up in. It utilizes a theoretical approach, engaging work from social science, economics and political science, all to find out “Why Africa is so poor”. From the colonial past, to geographical and demographical reasons, the class really does show a wide range of views that might help us answer the perennial question of the “continent’s apparent curse”. I think it is, almost all, BS (here, please don’t excuse my French.)

I grew up under what many would consider the prime example of the “failed African state”. Zimbabwe’s president has been in power for more time than 70% of the population has been alive (Fun fact: majority of Zimbabwean are between the ages of 15 and 35). President Mugabe has been accused several times of rigging elections and his party has used violence especially in the run-up to elections.

In 2008, the country went through one of the worst economic times in any country’s history. Hyperinflation was the buzzword of the year, said left right and center, I doubt with much understanding of what it even meant. Store shelves were empty and people died of hunger.

Our HIV/AIDS rate competes with other “developing countries’ high rates. We have had a critical cholera outbreak. We suffer from “brain drain” (I myself ironically writing this is the basement of an American school dorm).

So if you can think of some of the worst things that you have heard happen in “Africa” (yes, Africa the one big landmass where we all just know each other from Cape to Cairo and gather to dance tribal dances around campfires), it has probably happened to Zimbabwe.

I make fun of the misconception of Africa as this one small place that goes through this uniform experience of disease, war and famine because it comes up all the time. Ask anyone who has fielded questions like “I have a friend in Kenya, do you know her” despite the fact that you said you are from Botswana. But the issue is bigger than just ignorant people who have never looked at a map other than to look at the global west.

I’ll go back to the title of my DS class, “The Political Economy of African Development”. Now how can we look at the politics and economies of 54 countries in just 12 weeks which is more or less the length of this semester? Now you might say, but Gwen, people do teach classes on the history of Europe which has 50 countries. And that’s true. But imagine the entire history of Europe being looked at ALL the time from a broad, all-encompassing perspective. It would obviously mean that a lot of things have to be left out because no one simply has that kind of time to both write and read a book that long.

And yet, year in and out, you’ll hear about “African development”, “African economies”, “Africa is rising” as if we all live in the same Africa. Even within the small country I am from, there are people living in very different Africas. Some live the “good life”: mansions in suburbs, vacations in other countries, shopping in Paris, education in the UK, US or Australia and yet others really do live on less than a dollar a day. Some children walk more than 24 kilometers a day just to go to school.

So when I see a statistic that claims that “Per capita, electricity in Africa (excluding South Africa) averages only 124 kilowatt-hours a year… This is hardly enough to power one light bulb per person for six hours a day.” (Agupusi, Okereke, 2014) While this is an important statistic that shows that electricity generation in Africa still has a long way to go, it achieves this by creating the impression that electricity distribution in Africa (with the exception of South Africa of course :p) is distributed in that way. But the truth is there are many nuances that have been excluded that people thinking about policies should really be thinking about. Take for example the fact that in urban Zimbabwe some places go for twelve hours, give or take without electricity and others never experience electricity “load shedding” i.e. have power 24/7.

All this to get to the first thing I would recommend to (s)he who decides what is in fashion for all these developmental economists and theorists. Start thinking and theorizing in depth about specific countries within Africa. It might yield more results than “development” has seen so far.

What do you think? Particularly within academia which is often what impacts policies on International Organizational level. I would love to hear from you.

The Stranger among us

He came here to save his life. “You can make it here”, he was told. So he set up a little tuck-shop, what they call Spaza shops here, selling small things. Sure enough, with what he earned, he could make a living and send some money home to his family.

There are many like him in neighborhoods around the country. Mofolo, Soweto, a place with a fair number of Somalis, not far from where he lives in Kya Sands to the north of Johannesburg. Mozambicans, Malawians, Congolese, Ethiopians, Nigerians, this place has become a place for refuge for a huge number of Africans fleeing their countries for reasons that include war, famine, and failing economies. South Africa is actually a country where one could dream of improving his lot.

But what happens when the economy of the place you run to does not support the people who have a national entitlement to it? When over 40% of South Africans find themselves unemployed and struggling? Many of them living in shanty towns with, alongside foreigners like him. When they question themselves about how to fix things, they look first to find the stranger among them.

“They are stealing our jobs”, they say. He wants to point out the foreigners are often either self-employed, or working jobs that the locals themselves don’t want. Wants to say that in the cases where foreigners get well paid jobs they are often well qualified. That is to say that that job is unlikely to go to the local who does not have the adequate skills.

He shudders as he remembers the image of the Mozambican Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave who was burnt alive, wrapped in his own blankets, back in the attacks of 2008. “The flaming man”, they called him. Apparently someone has been burnt in the same manner recently. Except they use the necklacing method now. They put a car tire around you and doused in a flammable liquid, they set you alight. It is a slow painful death that can take up to twenty minutes.

There have been attacks in Isipingo, Chatsworth, Umlazi, KwaMashu and Sydenham all areas in Durban. Six people have been killed. The violence has spread here to Joburg too. Last night he was in Jeppestown, meeting with his brother in law and discussing whether or not they should leave. They were mobs in the street, waving their knives and machetes, throwing stones and yelling “The foreigners must leave.”

There have apparently been transit camps set up for those who have fled their homes in fear of harm to their lives. But where are they are in transit to? Apparently the Malawian government has offered to repatriate its people. Zimbabwe is making plans. But has the situation they fled from in their native country changed for the better? No, he shall remain here. There is nothing for him at home.

His people have a saying “Kusiri kufa ndekupi?” Literally, “Which is not death?”

Mandishora, my dear

“You’re a boy. It’s different for you”, you had argued to me when you were only eleven years old. I was thirteen. I would like to think that it was my youth and a dash of self-preservation that prevented me from acknowledging what it is that you were referring to.

“You are called Makomborero and I, Mandishora. I think it is no mistake that you are likened to blessings and I, when I was born, Mama felt like God had scorned her. Not that it matters what they named me. No one ever remembers my name anyway.”

I protested that you were being irrational but I knew what you meant.

I too, had seen how all the tetes would sing my praises as “Mhofu” whenever we were at a family gathering. I remembered how, on one occasion, Tete Mai Rosiwe forgot your name. “Iwe. Iwee.  Hanzvadzi yaMako.” I don’t know what was worse; being referred to as “You”-as if you were but a stranger- or having me used as your point of reference.

Try as I might, I still remember the pained expression you wore. The corners of your eyes scrunched up, your thick dark lips slightly open as if you were about to say something, or maybe trying to swallow the imperceptible hurt she had hurled at you. Your body rocking ever so slightly. I remember how I couldn’t quite look you in your eyes. Scared that I would see the disappointment I felt would be mirrored in your pools of pain. Disappointment that I could stand up to the neighborhood bullies who teased you about your smooth yet dark skin, but could do nothing about the ones you really needed protection from; the ones who made you believe you were invisible.

I dreamt about you last night. We were back in Mbare. Back in our childhood home; “Flat 13, Matapi blocks, Madale Dales” as mother always jokingly said.

Ha! How it used to irritate you, seeing as we did not live in the posh suburbs as she pretended. The tight, dilapidated apartments that had seen no improvements since Smith’s time, with their broken boarded up windows and laundry hanging outside every window were a far cry from the lives we had never seen but were sure people on the other side of the railway lived.

That’s where you wanted to be. The other side. You would look out of the window to our apartment at the dumping site Mbare had become and talk about how you were going to one day leave this place and become “someone who mattered”.

In this dream, I’m sitting by Bro Tindo’s makeshift barbershop. The tiny aluminum box is blinding even in fluid vision. You appear at the corner, clutching your only doll to your chest. All of a sudden, you’re not 14 anymore, but an older, less recognizable version of yourself. And I; I’m suddenly jogging on a paved road that looks to stretch endlessly to the eye. I’m trying to outrun you. I manage to get away but your cries “Mako, Makomborero” pervade the dream; I wake up muttering my own name.

I have woken Cynthia up.  She makes as if she understands but I know she really doesn’t. She wears that sympathetic ‘I-understand-what-you’re-going-through’ smile of hers. The kind of sympathy that people extend at funerals; in between catching up on family gossip and speculating on what sexually transmitted disease the deceased suffered from.

But she cannot understand. Till now, I’m not sure I fully do.

It happened soon after you turned 15. It was a Wednesday. I remember because I can still picture myself in my too-small khaki uniform, that one with the scuffed collar. I only wore that on Wednesdays when we didn’t have assembly.

“Mandi! Hurry up mhen. You’re gonna make me late again. Mandi” I shout “Are you telling me you can’t hear me? Nxa”

You are sitting at the edge of your bed with your back to me. I inch closer. You’re muttering under your breath.

Manje ini handidi” .

“You don’t want what Mandi?

Bu your attention is directed to the green-black mold in the corner of the ceiling. It is only at my touch that you become acknowledge my presence.

Hona avo,” you say pointing at the ceiling. Apart from evidence of neglect, I see nothing.

“Who, Mandi?” I ask, my curiosity piqued.

A minute elapses with you looking at the ceiling in silence

“Ha Mako! Did I tell you? Cynthia went and got herself knocked up. All those brains down the drain! Heheh For what? A combi tout too! And with the way that she used to think she was all that in a bag of chips!”

“Mandi…Ahhh come and eat breakfast. This is not time for your gossip! We are going to be late for schoo mhen. I thought you had serious issues”

“But we have just eaten”

“8 hours ago, maybe. Are you not having porridge today? Too good for our food Miss High-and-Mighty?” I tease.

Waisei nhai Mako?” The serious expression on your face reveals that this is no joke to you. “What did you put in the food?? You and your mother!  You want to kill me. It will not work manje! I, Mandishora, I know a lot.”

We never went to school that day. Do you still remember the fuss you caused? I do.

You went over to Mai Junipah’s tuckshop and demanded that she give you 10 packets of maputi, a packet of candles and a 2 liter bottle of cooking oil. She managed to convince you that you didn’t need cooking oil at that moment but you wouldn’t be talked out of your snack.

You must have walked the entire streets of Mbare that day, clutching to the twenty-pack of maputi. I would know because I followed you around until you got so tired you could be convinced to come home.

The next day Mama got on a bus and took you kumusha, far from the madding crowd, or rather from prying eyes. But gogo soon sent you back. She didn’t think the rural areas were the right place for a girl “not quite right in her mind”. Or maybe it was that she was too old. I can’t be too sure anymore. All I remember was that for some time you were bounced back between relatives until they all decided you were too much of a burden.

I still question myself how much I really could have done. The best answer so far is more. Just that. More.

I could have done more than stand by when they treated you like nuclear waste material, people deciding what would be the ideal disposing place.

I could have done more than accept it when Mama said you had run away and there was little point to looking for you.

I could have done more to protect you.

I could still do more…

I know where you make your home these days. I have seen you walking up and down Strathaven shopping centre; your hair in braids that have matted up with time and dirt. I don’t recognize the clothes you wear these days, but the years have passed have they not? Though you still hold onto that little raggedy doll you got the one Christmas Baba got a bonus, the years have started to show on you.

I have been thinking that it would be good one of these days, for me to come get you, get you to meet Cynthia. That’s after I tell her the whole story about you.

Soon my dear. Till then, I’m just glad you made your own way to the other side of the tracks.

Thanksgiving; Mainely people, food and snow

Thanksgiving is a big holiday here. First of all because of its historical importance (controversial as it might be). It is said that in 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. Despite the fact that the history of today often ignores that contact between the two groups led to the decimation of millions of Native peoples this holiday is still celebrated today with the classic combination of Food, Family and Football.

As a newcomer to almost all things American, I must say Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday so far. The food is spectaucular and plentiful. The company is merry. I had my first taste of Thanksgiving this year with a friend from my Middle Eastern Studies Class, a resident of Maine who managed to convince two of us poor Brown Freshmen living far away from home that this holiday was better spent in his home state. For those who are not familiar with this beautiful state, it is in the north-east New England region. It is undoubtedly one of the most naturally beautiful places I have seen in my life.

20141127_133806 (view from the house)

Maine also happens to be one of the freezing colder places in the US. It welcomed me with snowfall on Wednesday morning, the first I have of my life. Noone had warned me that snow falling would be such a brutal experience. I walked out of the house with nothing but tennis shoes and when I walked back in only about 45 minutes later, my feet were an almost numb solid, with some of my toes actually physically stuck together.  On the second day, I was more prepared (so I thought) I brought out my snow boots and went for my first sledding experience.

That went well enough.

At the end of it, all my body parts were functional and maintained some sense of feeling in them. We did however, decide to go to the water (the house is about two block away from the waterfront). I got so excited at the sight of water in its non-solid state ie NOT SNOW that I put my feet in the water and got my feet wet. And now I had no boots and a bad case of sneezing (from the cold that had now permeated to my bones and possibly my soul).

The actualization of good food after months of sometimes just terrible dining food was enough to distract me from my weather troubles.


The fact that I was seated close enough to wood stove definitely helped (my hosts had heard of my non affinity to cold and had graciously placed me in the right spot. Meeting different people and being allowed to share in family/friends experiences is definitely one of the better ways to get to know the culture of a people.

For exmple, I know that if you live in Maine, you barely need a refrigerator, just pop your beverages in the snow and you’re good to go. I also learnt that you should never waste an opportunity for a good pun.

I am really thankful to my amazing friend and his wonderful family for this beautiful experience; Snow, sneezes and all.


Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?

Two months into college, summer has gone, and so too has that desperate “grab-a-person-and-call-him-your-friend” period that follows orientation season. Those animated and extra smiley hi’s and inquisitions-“Where are you from?” “What are you thinking of majoring in”- of the first month have turned into forced half smiles or just simply head turns in the opposite direction when you pass each other on the street. This idea of pretending we have never met is an interesting phenomenon not because I am used to making lifelong friends on the first encounter, but because it seems to me that here, everyone prides themselves on being super friendly. But if your super friendly is replaced by super not the first day, the word superficial comes into play.

For certain international students like myself, this ‘friendship issue’ is one of those cultural differences that are hard to understand. What is the definition of friendship? What qualifies me to be your friend? Is it the number of parties we crash together, or the shots we take together, or the selfies that end up on your Facebook page; an affirmation to the outside world that you have made “friends” in college?

Just yesterday, my comparative literature professor suggested that when you’re from a different culture, it is inevitable perhaps that you find yourself comparing the culture you’re experiencing to your own. I am inclined to believe this because especially when it comes to these issues of relationships, I can’t help but compare. I think that back home, you cannot call everyone a friend. You can only have so many. And so you have those friends that are really people you can spend time with not just in one sphere of your life. That’s to say if we only saw each other in class, it is unlikely we would call each other friends. We would probably just be acquaintances. I have been astonished then to find myself introduced as someone’s friend only because we have a class together. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of having many friends, it makes one feel important. But if on Friday night we are friends and come Monday you pretend we never met, I’d rather have no friends. (OK. Maybe not “no friends” but definitely few friends :))

Point is, I’d like to have real friends and to know who they are. Maybe I’m asking for too much, or maybe it’s the culture shock talking, or maybe I just want to know who is and who isn’t going to remember me come Monday morning.


*Disclaimer;though this is written in first person, it is by no means a reflection of myself. Read it more like an open letter from internationals who feel the way I do. No mother, I have not been taking shots, other than the ones given out at the health centre*




Dummy’s guide to surviving freshman year; The early bird

Today began like any other day. I relatively slept in ie  till 0800. I reread the passage we had to go over for Portuguese class till 0900. Took a quick shower and too long a time deciding what I was going to wear. Before I knew it, it was 0940 and I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I resorted I would go after class and quickly packed my books and rushed to Wilson Hall.

On getting there, I notice something strange. There are so few people in sight. That never happens before my Portuguese class. “Where is everyone?” I wonder. I spot a girl from my Portuguese class (we will call her Dummy 2) and together we climb to the first floor to room 204, one of the two classrooms we use interchangeably. The door is closed but through the looking glass, we can see that the class sitting in those chairs, is not our usual Portuguese bunch.

“I kinda budged in there earlier… Definitely not our group”, she says, face turning slightly pink with embarrassment.

We laugh and go downstairs to room 104, aforementioned ‘other classroom’.

The door is wide open and nothing but empty desks and chairs. A wild thought runs through my head. “The rapture has just happened. Yep, I got left behind. I probably shouldn’t have texted during church. I should have been more sincere in my prayers too!”

It’s now 1004.

“Class is supposed to start at 1000 isn’t it?”, I ask my colleague, puzzled. (The Rapture might have just happened and I am thinking about Portuguese??? I need to get my priorities straight!)

Her face mirrors the confusion I feel.

“Let’s go check room 204 again” I suggest, as if the people in there could have transfigured into Portuguese learners in the time we were gone.

We end up checking all the classes on the second floor. And the third. Luckily Wilson doesn’t have a fourth floor. We might have checked that too. Just in case. It’s 1010, and defeated, we come down and somewhere between the first floor staircase and the foyer, my newly found freshman friend (all alliteration is unintended) hits her hand to her head.

“It’s Thursday.” Dummy 2 says

It takes a while to register. Then it dawns on me. Of course. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Portuguese class starts at 1030 and not 1000 like the other three days.

It’s 1015 by then. I figure I should run to the Ratty (dining hall) and grab some energy. You know, make up for all energy lost. At 1030, I’m in Wilson Hall room 204, and so is the rest of my Portuguese class. Clarissa and I look at each other and smile knowingly.

The freshman struggle is real!