SAVING LIVES AND DEFENDING THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH ALBINISM
“Am I afraid of being killed? I live with that fear every day.”
In 2015 he was selected as the inaugural award winner of the Bari-Bari Prize for Outstanding Albinism Advocacy. In 2018 he was selected together with 9 others from around the world, including Zimbabwean musician, Prudence Mabhena, as a recipient of the American Henry Viscardi Achievement Award for persons with disabilities who are exemplary leaders in their communities. A 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative fellow, Bonface Massah is a true modern hero. He took time off his hectic schedule to narrate his story to us.
I was born in Northern Malawi in Rumphi District, a semi-rural area. At that time my dad was working for an agricultural company so we used to travel a lot across the country. In our family, the first born has albinism, followed by twin-sisters, of which one has albinism. My sister who came after the twins does not have albinism, followed by myself and the last born does not have albinism. So my parents had 3 children with albinism and 3 without. When I was born, my mother was so stressed out when she saw me that she fainted and I had to be separated from her for a while until she recovered from the shock and received counselling. She simply couldn’t believe that she had given birth to a third child with albinism, but through counselling and support from the hospital staff she was able to accept me. Fortunately one of the nurses at the hospital also had a child with albinism so she gave my mum strength and encouragement.
While growing up, my parents already had experience of raising two children with albinism, so when I came along, a system was already in place of how to look after us. My parents were also already used to the rejection and discrimination from the community and from close relatives, especially on my dad’s side. My parents and older siblings were loving and very supportive of me while growing up. Our parents wanted the absolute best for us and they made sure that we got the best care and education. Growing up in a typical African setup whereby you have to provide for your family and for extended family as well, our relatives did not understand why my parents were only focusing on us and not sending their children to school as well.
My mother is a nurse by profession so she understood the dynamics of having children who needed to be cared for differently. She and my dad would go around to the schools which my brothers and I attended and raise awareness about our condition. I experienced bullying and name-calling at primary school and sometimes I would cry, but for the most part, I did not care much for it and I did not let it get to me because I did not know what albinism was. As far as I was concerned, I was just like any other child. It was only when I started secondary school and we started doing Biology that I started learning about this condition called albinism and how it came about. That is when it finally dawned on me that my condition is actually albinism.
As a young boy growing up with albinism, I did face challenges such as severe sunburn. Sunscreen was not readily available, unless there were donations at the hospital where my mother worked. My parents always have sunhats available for me, but wearing sunglasses all the time was a big inconvenience, I think mainly because my parents just made me wear them without explaining what they were for.
|Due to the lack of pigment in the eyes, individuals with albinism will have a number of vision difficulties such as reduced visual acuity, light sensitivity (Photophobia), rapid eye movements (Nystagmus) and misaligned eyes (strabismus).|
The high school I attended was very protective and they did not tolerate any bullying or name-calling. My brother was also there when I started form one so the whole school was already used to having someone with albinism. I then attended university at the Bunda College of Agriculture in Lilongwe where I did my first degree in Agronomy. My first year there was quite an interesting experience because you would hear second and third year students saying, “Aah, the university is now admitting white people!”
Whilst in high school I was able to take part in a lot of sports, but when I got to university, the academic pressure was too much and because of my vision, it meant that I had to spend most of my spare time studying in the library and catching up on notes in my room. I was not socially awkward at university as I did have girls that would talk to me here and there, but my fellow male students would see me and be in shock that even I had girls that talk to me. For some reason, those types of comments would make the girls withdraw from close relationships with me, though they remained acquaintances. That didn’t affect me much though because by then I had so many friends at the university and everyone was now used to me.
At the University of Stellenbosch where I went to do my Master’s Degree in Development Studies, focusing on Rehabilitation, Disability, Gender and Development, my peers there all assumed I was a white person. They refused to believe that I was a person with albinism from Malawi, so I also just rode on that wave and left them thinking that I was a white South African, which is what they strongly believed.
I am currently back in Malawi where I live with my wife and two kids, who all do not have albinism. However, when our kids were born, especially our youngest who is very light-skinned just like my mother, my wife’s friends and our parents’ friends would call but only to find out if the children had albinism like me. To me, this only shows me how they perceived us as people with albinism and it shows that the stigma is still there. My wife has been with me through thick and thin and she was able to handle the comments very well. She even took those times as opportunities to educate some people about the condition.
I have worked for many organisations which fight for the rights of persons with disabilities, such as the Association of Persons with Albinism in Lilongwe. Currently, I am working as the Country Director for Standing Voice, an international NGO based in Tanzania, Malawi and the UK, which also defends the rights of persons with albinism. We also promote access to healthcare and education, advocacy with the UN and governments, and comprehensive treatment of skin cancer and eye-care. As the Country Director, my job is to develop partnerships, strengthen collaborations with government, co-ordinate all the activities, active delivery of our skin cancer and vision programmes across Malawi and managing the referrals and coordination for the team of doctors which come from the UK, among other things. I was also recently appointed as one of the Commissioners of the Malawi Human Rights Commission where I’m working on the protection of rights of people with disabilities.
There are so many challenges which come with being a man with albinism in a country like Malawi. For example, relatives see you as less of a man who is not able to look after his family, more so looking after extended family. I have so many friends with albinism who have ended up going through divorce because of family which sees them as less manly.
Malawi has become known as a very dangerous country for people with albinism. This is another challenge which affects all people with albinism. I work with organisations which investigate the abductions and killings of people with albinism and provide care and protection for survivors. In most cases where the perpetrators were arrested, they would state that they wanted body parts of persons with albinism so that they could use them to make charms to get rich. Some fishermen actually use body parts of persons with albinism as bait to catch more fish. Initially when these abductions started in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, they would just chop off your hand or your leg using a machete and run away. Over the years however, the patterns have changed and the abductions have become even more gruesome and brutal as they now kill the victims and mutilate the bodies. Anybody part of a person with albinism is now considered useful in making these get-rich-quick charms. We also have cases of politicians who say they use the body parts to attract large crowds to their political rallies or gatherings. They also believe that the charms will make them win elections. The perpetrators of these atrocities are both in rural and urban places and it is hard to find out who the buyers of the body parts are.
My family and I have been fortunate enough to not experience these kind of attacks thus far, but there have been times where I see strange cars parked outside my house or people knocking at my door with threats and warnings. As a human rights defender I always expected these kinds of experiences. To stay safe I would have to often change cars and not stay in one location for too long. There was even a point where my wife said to me, “Bon, this is enough!” Eventually though, she said to me, “I realise that this is your calling and you must go on with your work.” She understood that this was something that I needed to do, even it meant using my own resources. Having grown up in a loving and caring environment, I felt the need to show the same love to victims of these attacks. Till today I always ask myself, “If I don’t do it, then who will?”
Doing this kind of work is not easy. In Malawi we have over 164 reported cases of these attacks and over 25 people were killed from 2013 till now. We also have ten persons with albinism who are still missing for 5 years or more, so we count them as having been killed. I think one of the most agonizing experiences which is the latest one was the disappearance of a twelve year old boy in one of the villages. He was taken in May this year from his village by his uncle after he convinced the parents that it was better for the boy to live with him at his home. Around August when the parents tried to get in touch with the child, the uncle suddenly had excuses all the time saying the boy was not around. The parents became suspicious and reported the matter to the police. On conducting investigations, it was found that the boy had been sold by the uncle and killed in Mozambique in May. The uncle was arrested together with other family members and other suspects, but the uncle was found to have been the mastermind of the whole plan.
In Malawi, we reviewed our penal code just for albinism in 2016. For murdering a person with albinism, one now gets life imprisonment. For trafficking a person with albinism, one gets life imprisonment as well. So in this particular case it was both trafficking and murder.
I would not say that our governments in Sub-Saharan Africa have done enough to curb the spread of these attacks. A lot more still needs to be done in terms of raising awareness and changing mindsets. Issues of witchcraft, myths and superstitions are deep-rooted in African individuals, including those who are in power. It is so complicated to get leaders to demystify their beliefs and possibly that is why they do not do much to address these issues. Some of them are religious but they still believe in these superstitious charms. It is even more complicated to demystify the beliefs that people with albinism do not have gold in their bones or magnets inside their bodies.
The only thing we can do to raise awareness is to continue with civic education. The main thing however which we must continue to strive for is the empowerment of persons with albinism because that makes us more visible. For example, people cannot just attack me right now because I am very well-known as an Activist and a Commissioner. They would have to be very strategic and plan the attack meticulously, because attacking a high-profile person would raise a lot of attention around the country and the world. You find that even in the rural areas, if a person with albinism owns a business, people will support and respect him or her. I am proud of how we as people with albinism in Malawi have invested ourselves to champion our own rights. That initiative of self-advocacy has raised the profile and awareness across the board. I also take it upon myself to visit families who have children with albinism and encourage them to accept their children and treat them the same way they do their children who do not have albinism. When they see me and hear of what I have achieved, they are encouraged that their children who have albinism can also grow up to become successful and productive people in life. My whole family including my mum and my siblings also help me in this advocacy of helping families who have rejected their children who have albinism.
Being an African with albinism, one always faces the dilemma of trying to figure out, “Am I black or am I white?” Another question that you may find yourself battling with is, “Am I African enough?” The only thing we ask from fellow Africans is for everyone to accept us as ‘Africans with albinism’. What we have is just a condition. Our parents are black so why is it hard to accept these products of black people? The pattern has shifted from strangers killing us to our own family members killing us. Africa really needs to accept and love us despite our condition which makes us look different but we are no less African.
“Am I afraid of being killed?” I live with that fear every day. I know that I can also be killed. Through my work I have seen bodies of murdered victims. I have been present during post-mortems and seen doctors examining body parts of persons with albinism. I have been at scenes where I am comforting the victims of attacks and the relatives of murder victims. I am at a point where I no longer cry when an attack has happened. The fear of being in these situations is gone now. I would not mind if I die doing this work, because I know that I have contributed well towards it. As I said before, “If we don’t do it, who will do it for us?” My motivation for continuing in this line of work is knowing that I can change things. I believe that I am a light for other people around me. Through love and support of people with albinism we can effect that mindset shift.
Working with survivors of albinism attacks, we provide psychosocial counselling, we send them back to school and pay their fees. In Malawi we rejected the safe-home approach because that is exclusionary. Our approach is to deal with the stigma in that same village and remove barriers for persons with albinism. I have seen tangible results of victims coming to realise that after the rejection and the attacks, there is life, there is peace and there is success.
In my work with people with various disabilities besides albinism, one thing that I work hard to eliminate is the spirit of dependence. A lot of disabled people are now used to receiving charity from people and they do not see the need to work. Even if they do work, they still expect donations and feel entitled to them. we need to work harder to empower people with disabilities to eliminate these behaviours and people with disabilities also need to accept themselves as they are and find their strengths and gifts which they can use to generate income.
My postgraduate studies at the University of Stellenbosch impacted directly on my work with persons with disabilities because I focused on public health, development and rehabilitation of people with disabilities into mainstream society. I do a lot of work developing policies and coming up with strategic programmes for people with disabilities so the studies wedged directly on the work that I had already been doing. I am still a farmer though, this year I am doing 25 hectares of maize and I have a piggery farm.
Going to Stellenbosch, receiving various awards and receiving international recognition has given me international exposure in my field of work. I thank God in everything I achieve and I actually share this recognition with the people that I have worked with, especially my parents whom I still work with in so many things. I have faced many challenges in my work and many times I have just felt like giving up. I keep on pushing because these awards have helped me to increase the visibility of people with albinism and awareness of the condition.
My advice to a young disadvantaged African child living with a disability who aspires to make it out of their situation and live a better life, is to have self-awareness of what God’s purpose in your life is. That is very critical. For example, I may have albinism, I may be blind, I may be deaf, but God put me here for a purpose. That helps you to accept yourself, your inner you. That also helps you to deal with the negative messages and attitudes from society. Self-acceptance and self-awareness has helped me to deal with everything that I have faced. I also give the same message to parents – they should accept their children with disabilities as they are. That will help them and their child to realise his or her full potential.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
The DRC’s Youngest Commercial Pilot
Meet Mudahama Mwema Yves-Yvan, who just qualified as the DRC’s youngest commercial pilot at just 19 years old.
Mudahama Mwema Yves-Yvan
Meet Mudahama Mwema Yves-Yvan, who just qualified as the DRC’s youngest commercial pilot at just 19 years old. Passionate about aviation from the age of 4, it is no surprise that this ambitious young man is reaching such milestones at such a tender age.
Yves comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, precisely Kinshasa. His family is very close and he is the oldest followed by his little sister. He attended Coreen Primary School in Kinshasa at the age of 5. He says a big part of his family works in the aviation industry and his uncle is an airline pilot. When he was younger, his uncle used to show him videos of himself flying and he would take him to the airports where he worked and made him sit there for hours in the lobby and watch planes take off and land and interact with crews. Says Yves, “All of this just confirmed my feeling of wanting to become a pilot.” Yves went on to graduate from high school at the age of 17 with a Math and Physics Diploma.
“As mentioned previously, I’ve always been around aviation enthusiasts and most of the time we would hold aviation related conversations. At the age of 6, my dad bought me a flight simulator and a joystick, and I have it till today. If I was to count how many hours I have on the simulator, it would be around 10 to 11 thousand hours.”
Although Yves had already had his first flight at the age of 14, his flight school journey started in March 2019 with a local flight school in Daytona Beach, Florida, called TFA (Training Flight Academy), where he obtained his private pilot license just after 2 months of training. “It was fantastic learning how to fly, and knowing you are achieving your goal is just mesmerizing.” After obtaining his private pilot license he went to another flight school near the old one, called Aviators Academy, where he got his IR (Instrument Rating). He then went on to get his Commercial Multi-Engine and did a Commercial Single-Engine add-on. All of that was done in 6 months with more than 250 hours, and now he is working towards getting his Flight Instructor License, which would make him the youngest flight instructor in the country and that would be another milestone.
Says Yves, “My total flight training took me around 1 year and 6 months. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice. When you hear that some people did not make it, yet they were so close to their goal, you start to question yourself if you’re going to be in the same position; but only passion, dedication, and focus can get you through the storm and help you cross the finish line. The biggest challenge I faced was thinking that I was not good enough to one day become the pilot that I wanted to be. Challenges are everywhere in this world and you can’t avoid them.”
Yves’ flight school journey was a memorable one and he says it is an amazing place when you bond with others. “True, everything is about aviation there but when you get to know some people beyond the aviation industry, you find out how incredible they are. For example, going out with your instructor to have lunch gives you time to learn about how they think and in turn, they also get to learn how you think. This makes everything easier in your training because now know each other more and he or she gets to know your preferences, weak points and strengths.”
Flight school cannot be easy and academic pressure can lead to fatigue, depression and the like. To combat these negative feeling, Yves says that passion is key. “When you think about depression, failure and all those things, you will not succeed. But when you keep your eyes on the goal of becoming the pilot you’ve always dreamed of becoming, you will be ready to face anything and you will notice that you can overcome these negative feelings; you are bigger than failure, you are bigger than your fears.”
For one to excel in their studies and to qualify as the youngest pilot in the DRC, Yves says it makes him really happy to know that he can considered as the youngest commercial pilot in his country. He says that it is an honour to prove that Africans can do it too, and that out there, there are young, ambitious hard workers. Being part of those hard workers and being an inspiration for other young Africans only brings him joy.
Yves is grateful to his parents who always supported him and always wanted him to become a pilot. At some point however, they decided otherwise, and started pressuring him to go towards another field. Yves refused and decided to stick to his aviation goal, and today that he has completed it, you cannot imagine how proud they are to know that he is achieving all of these things at a very young age, while also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautics.
To the young African out there, Yves says, “Don’t be afraid to take risks, don’t be scared to fail, don’t be scared of challenges. You know what you are capable of; you know what you can achieve; you have thoughts that they can’t understand nor see; you know yourself; believe in yourself!”
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Women in Law
I believe that my biggest achievement in life has been to adapt. No matter what obstacle was thrown my way, in terms of my career or even my education, I have always adapted and kept moving.
Tanveer Rashid Jeewa
At only 24 years of age, Mauritian citizen Tanveer has broken barriers and worked extremely hard to make a name for herself in the South African legal space. From assisting refugees with translation services, to assisting fellow UCT students with academic legal problems, as well as working as a Judge’s clerk at the Constitutional Court, among many other things, Tanveer is a force to reckon with. Don’t be fooled though by the focused career lady who sounds like all she does is work 24/7. Tanveer has a heart of gold and she has the bubbliest personality, and the most contagious laugh. Volunteerism is a way of life for her and her kindness is unmatched.
She took time off her extremely busy schedule to tell us more about herself and her career choices.
Can you tell us about your current occupation and what it entails?
I am a lawyer who is currently doing a few different things. I am a Managing Editor and Researcher at the African Legal Information Institute where I am currently working on a project to facilitate access to the Constitution and constitutional law in general. This means I am in charge of making constitutional rights available in a more accessible language, especially for people who do not have a legal background. I also do research for the African Court of Human Rights on upcoming cases and legal issues which have not been dealt with by the Court yet.
I am also a reporter for the International Law in Domestic Courts at Oxford University Press, where I identify cases in South African law where international law has been applied. I then critique the court’s approach to the law on the identified issues.
In addition to this work, I am an LLM candidate in Public Law at the University of Cape Town and a Graduate Diploma in Law student at the University of Law in the United Kingdom.
Where were you born and what kind of a family were you born into?
I was born in Mauritius, in a close-knit family of six, including my sister, parents and paternal grandparents.
Is Mauritius a conservative or liberal country? How would you rate gender equality / inequality when it comes to employment and empowerment of women and girls in your country?
While this might seem controversial, I find Mauritius to be a conservative country. We have strong ties to India, the country where most indentured labourers come from, and I have observed that these ties also come with the conservative values associated to the culture. Unfortunately, gender equality is not as far as I would hope for it to have been at this stage. Although activists work hard for issues around gender to be more mainstreamed, it often remains a taboo – especially discussions around sexuality.
On the bright side, girls have been known to perform extremely well and sometimes even better than boys in exams. Yet, there are still courses taught only to girls (for example: cooking and sewing) and some for boys only (for example: technical design).
Can you describe the environment you grew up in? What activities did you enjoy engaging in during your early years?
I was lucky to grow up in a supportive environment, my parents were very invested in my sister and I’s education. They would go to great lengths to make sure we had access to numerous tutors for us to have the best chance of obtaining good grades and studying further.
As a child, I really enjoyed reading. This might actually be an understatement since I was obsessed with our public library. I was in such a hurry for them to move me from the children’s section to the adult section because I would finally have access to lengthier non-fiction books. I still remember that the first non-fiction book I read was a book about comodo dragons. I do not remember why I picked it, but what I do remember is how proud I was when I finished the whole book – which had no images in it!
Where did you attend primary school and how was your primary school experience?
I went to Emilienne Rochecouste Government School and had a lovely experience there. My primary teacher built the foundation for my love for studying at the time. She believed in me, and always had high expectations for me. In addition to that, school was also fun because my sister attended the same institution!
Where did you attend high school and what did you enjoy most about high school? Which subjects did you enjoy and/or excel in most?
I attended Queen Elizabeth College and I met a lot of good friends there. I met my best friend, who I still talk to every day, and some other friends who, although I do not talk to as often, still have a special place in my heart. I know that they will all change the world for the better, one way or another.
My favourite subject was sociology. It opened my eyes to a different way of thinking as it was the first time that I learnt about feminism, Marxism and other notions which would end up affecting my daily adult life in a concrete way. It was different from other subjects and required another level of intellectual engagement which I had craved in high school. I was never one to enjoy rote learning and sociology was the opposite.
Did you face any challenges while growing up (personal / family / communal) and if yes, how did you strive to overcome those challenges?
Growing up, I faced different challenges than most of my friends. My grandfather was old, blind and his lower body was paralysed. So often, I would take care of him. I never regretted doing that and would not change it for the world. But this often meant that I did not have as much time as my friends to study or get some rest. It was hard for me to overcome these challenges, and I also started having some health issues myself. Due to this, I would struggle to fall asleep and would be quite fatigued. In all honesty, I never overcame these challenges but instead, I just tried to do my best with the hand of cards I was dealt.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer from an early age? If not, what did you aspire to become when you grew up?
As a child, I kept on changing my mind about what my occupation would be as an adult. From a lawyer to a veterinarian or neurosurgeon, I had not made my mind up. However, my mother is an attorney, so I had been surrounded by lawyers as I was growing up. I would often hear my mother’s friends say that I would be a good lawyer because I never kept quiet. (Little did I know that is not what makes a good lawyer!) The idea of finding loopholes in arguments and being in a courtroom to present said arguments really enticed me. When I went to court with my mother and watched cross-examinations (or sometimes watching Law and Order on television), I started subconsciously picturing myself as an advocate. What convinced me that law was the way for me, was when I realized that there were going to be a lot of times in life where I will have to face authorities, or be in a position where someone else has the upper hand, and I could not stand the thought of not knowing what my legal resources would be. In my mind, I was left with no choice, I needed to become an advocate.
Tell us about your tertiary education journey; where it started, up to where you are now.
I started studying law at the age of 18 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. At first, I personally found the journey to be tough, probably because I was not so familiar with using only English as a medium of language and instruction. Especially in law, this proved to be harder as the language used was often more complicated than your daily-spoken English. Once I became more familiar with the language, the work started getting easier.
Yet, there were still areas where I struggled and honestly, at some stages I did not even understand assignment questions. It is only when a tutor sat me down, and broke down how questions surrounding the law usually work that I understood what I had been doing wrong. This really changed how I approached law school and it made the experience much better.
After graduating with my LLB, I enrolled for an LLM in Public Law, still at the University of Cape Town. I found the engagement at post-graduate level to be even better and really enjoyed my time doing coursework and debating current issues.
Can you tell us about the challenges you have faced (if any) of being a Muslim woman of colour in the legal fraternity?
I unfortunately found that the challenges one faces as a woman of colour are more or less similar regardless of the country you are in. In many contexts, I have had men undermine me and talk over me during conversations. Even in conversations where I would present my own work, men would stop me and doubt me, despite having produced sound and thorough research. I can name many different instances in which this happened. My ability is often doubted, despite my qualifications and experience. I have found that this happens less often to men and even less often to white male colleagues.
How did you or how do you continue to deal with those challenges?
This has been a hard challenge to overcome because if, as a brown woman, you bring this up, you are told that you are reading too much into things or that you are being aggressive. I have learnt to be firmer and to point out when I have not finished explaining something, or when someone just repeated an idea that I have brought up. I have also learnt that women must not try and be extremely humble in spaces where they are doubted. This kind of behaviour must be nipped in the bud.
What are your biggest achievements in life so far?
I do not like pointing out to tangible things that I have done and identify them as the biggest achievement. I believe that my biggest achievement in life has been to adapt. No matter what obstacle was thrown my way, in terms of my career or even my education, I have always adapted and kept moving. Sometimes I am surprised that I have come this far because I do remember some sad moments when I genuinely thought that I would not achieve anything, not even my LLB. But regardless of how I felt, I kept moving forward and I think that in itself is my biggest achievement.
Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 years?
In the next five years, I want to call to the bar and finally be an advocate. This has always been my goal but it has taken long to realise. I also see myself being a PhD candidate by then, InshAllah.
Academic journeys can be very lonely and stressful and in some cases they may even lead to depression and other mental disorders. How do you deal with that kind of pressure?
I was actually diagnosed with depression in 2017 and even before that I strongly suspect that I had some mental health issues. The journey has been very hard but I believe that it was easier to deal with some of the pressure with a strong supportive system. The people that I keep close in my life are people who want the best for me, and I want the best for them too.
I was also privileged enough to secure an income so that I can now afford to see a therapist and that has been helping me tremendously to deal with the pressures that come with studying and working.
Connect with Tanveer on Twitter @TanveerJeewa and on LinkedIn – Tanveer Jeewa.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Struggles of an African University Student During the Covid-19 Pandemic
For African students in foreign universities, never has it been clearer that they were indeed in foreign lands.
It is no coincidence that systematic inequalities reared their ugly head when our tertiary institutions were put to the test. For less privileged institutions, the Covid-19 pandemic confirmed that the institutions were on crutches and the pandemic basically took those crutches away. They were left with no leg to stand on. For various African students scattered all over the world, life touched them differently. Some encountered nuisances at close proximity with some people protesting a virus. In the same world where others could do this, some were begging to return to contact learning where online learning systems were nonexistent.
The elitism in tertiary education became clearer when universities that were historically privileged/ formally white institutions managed to transition easily from hybrid learning to online learning. This was a result of years of more allocation of resources being directed towards financing more privileged race groups. This is not an incident of history in the South African context, which means that at any given point pre-pandemic, students at historically white institutions had more resources.
When it became clear that students were not going to be having any contact lectures, the more privileged universities managed to loan laptops to students who did not have access to them. For countries that had more money to spare, data was provided for students to enable them to continue with online learning. This model of assisting the student assumed that if the student did not have a gadget for online learning, once they had it, they would be in a place with good network and electricity to power those gadgets. It assumed that a student had a smart phone to be able to use the free data that they received.
For African students in foreign universities, never has it been clearer that they were indeed in foreign lands. In cases where aid was available to them, for example, data allocation, for those who had returned to their home countries, such amenities were no longer available to them. For some students who are doing post-graduate studies, more time at home meant that they managed to think about what they could do with their degrees. It was a time to work on the hobbies that they took for granted that presented financial gain. This was particularly useful in fields like content creation where experience gained from practicing one’s craft is essential. Understand that while African students go to foreign universities for better employment prospects, legislation in those places is set up in a way that jobs prioritise locals. One has to be the best of the best to justify being chosen over a local. This pandemic frustrated students in their path of achieving greatness as many on-campus opportunities were paused, for example, societies that could have been valid work experience for their résumés.
In the haste to move out of university residences where many assumed that they were just leaving for two weeks and returning, many left their academic resources. Learning became difficult when they could not access these resources. Some had to rely on online library resources which had a time limit and some did not have access to online library resources at all.
For historically privileged universities where the poorest student would be in close proximity to wealth, they returned home to be reminded of all that they did not have. Back at the university, the access gap could be bridged through the use of on-site resources. However, when they returned home, the future was bleak once again. “No student will be left behind”, it was claimed. The truth is that despite all these efforts to equalise students, it was not easy.
For countries with less to no money at all, learning stopped indefinitely. For countries like Zimbabwe where the rural areas are places where there is no internet connection whatsoever and even where there is access to the internet, one would need to sell an organ to buy data. The online learning model itself being something that was created mid-pandemic, still a work in progress. No one was prepared for it; not the students who had to absorb the information, nor the lecturers who had to learn to teach using online resources. This is a time where tertiary institutions learnt that they were ill equipped for a pandemic. Who can blame them, considering they are located in Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs), where a vast majority of the population is living on less than a dollar a day? The situation was hopeless and all they could do was fold their arms and hope that people live through the pandemic to tell the tale.
“Even if it was baking banana bread for 100 days and having a sudden interest in colouring books – if you found something to do with yourself, that was a win.”
Amidst all this stress and confusion as to when the academic calendar would start and end, a lot of people’s mental health was on a downward spiral. The acknowledgement of their mental state and what they are feeling was dependent on their surrounding environments being conducive for them to express their feelings. Amidst financial stresses and the sense of uncertainty that came with not knowing what the future held, while faced with death and Zoom funerals amongst other tragedies, a lot of people felt as if their lives were falling apart. It took awareness to acknowledge how and what they were feeling. For some universities, mental health support was accessible through dialing in to 24-hour hotlines. While this was good in maintaining the functionality of the system virtually, it is sad to note that this wasn’t something that most institutions could provide.
What is the future of prioritising mental health in our institutions? Is mental health treated as urgently as other sicknesses that people can see like a bruise? It might look like institutions are failing students in this regard, but the fact on the ground is that there is still a lot of stigma surrounding the subject of mental health itself. There is a lack of understanding around why taking care of one’s mind is important.
It was not all doom though, many people had time to broaden their horizons in terms of reconnecting with old hobbies and starting new ones. Even if it was baking banana bread for 100 days and having a sudden interest in coloring books – if you found something to do with yourself, that was a win. Even if all you did was manage to get up, take a shower and look out the window, that is still fine. You do not have to change the world every day.
In this phase of our lives where nothing is in our hands, we learnt that tomorrow was not promised. We slowed down – and it might have come at a large financial and emotional cost, but we were lucky to survive it all.
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