iC Dingbat

Meeting of the MINDS

You know that funky feeling in the pit of your stomach before you embark on a great adventure? Yeah, I had that toward the end of the second semester last year. Between my sophomore and junior years, I was going to be an intern at the Mandela (yes, as in Nelson Mandela) Institute for Development Studies, AKA MINDS, in Johannesburg, South Africa. MINDS is a leading pan-African think-tank on developmental issues on my home continent.  

Since high school, it has bothered me how we as Africans almost always resorted to looking elsewhere for solutions. Time and experience have proven that these borrowed practices rarely succeeded in Africa. I spent countless hours in African studies classes at the African Leadership Academy, where I attended high school, trying to understand what perpetuated this vicious cycle. 

Rumbizai (Rumbie) Gondo ’14 Mandela Institute internship
Rumbie Gondo ’14, fourth from left, discusses the future of Africa with the staff of the Mandela Institute in Johannesburg.

When I learned about the Mandela Institute’s philosophy, it was indeed a meeting of the MINDS. The institute has long realized that Africa’s developmental challenges where not being addressed in the appropriate way. Recognizing that solutions from elsewhere juxtaposed on Africa were not well received, MINDS contends it is high time Africa and Africans looked to their own cultures, heritage, and history to inform their policies.   

My job description was to look at how other countries had gone about modernizing without losing their identities. I was asked to start thinking on what factors might influence African countries to avoid that trap. The scope of the research gradually expanded. We wanted to develop an African Heritage Index—a tool for gauging ways African governments are tapping into cultural know-how to influence their policies.

As I became more familiar with the Mandela Institute, it became obvious that Africa desperately needs its people to embrace their identities; the alternative could result in living up to the despised name applied to Africa for so long: “The Dark Continent.” 

A lot of important issues came up during dialogue meetings and lunch dates, but one particular thought has stayed with me: the impact that colonialism had on the contemporary Africans’ psyches. Colonialism has clearly done more damage than we care to admit, and we can’t as a continent progress before we confront our past, which is riddled with unresolved issues.

I have concluded that colonialism led to the inferiority complexes that play out too often in black Africans. It’s a problem at the individual level as well as at a larger scale and has, in fact, resulted in Africa not being as competitive on the global front as it could and should be. Scientific racism and so-called studies like those by Georges Cuvier placed the white race at the top and the black at the bottom. This left scars on the pre-independence generation, and these time-old wounds are passed along to children and grandchildren.

Before this, I hadn’t thought much about statements like “zvakauya nengarava,” literally “It came on the ships.” This Shona phrase is commonly used when something is complicated to the point that only white people must be able to figure it out, as they brought it to Africa on the colonial ships that sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in the late 15th century. It’s a jocular and seemingly innocent statement, and one I myself have used. But it’s heavily loaded.

This black inferiority complex is not restricted to figures of speech. Its tentacles show up in unlikely places. I was standing in a short queue at the U.S. Embassy in Johannesburg waiting to renew my American visa to return to Colby. I had printed the appointment confirmation from my e-mail, which I discovered was not what had been instructed.

The security guard, a black South African, noted my mistake. Fine. Then he told me to stand aside and hand over my passport. Turns out a white woman behind me had done the very same thing. This time it was all, “No ma’am. It’s fine ma’am,” with her. She appeared to be in the same age bracket, so it was not a matter of age, nor was it gender related. I am convinced that I was treated differently because of my race, even though it was a black person doing the discriminating—that the inferiority complex produced better service and more respect for the white woman. I might expect the opposite, especially in South Africa, where apartheid wounds are still fresh and apparent. Yet black Africans have it engrained that white people are ‘sirs and ma’ams.’ We are the same, so why extend the same level of courtesy?

Don’t despair, there is an up-side to my “summer” break (which happened to be winter in South Africa—we even had occasional snow). I got to work with awesome people with great minds. Nkosana Moyo is the founder of the Mandela Institute. He’s former vice president and COO of the African Development Bank and former minister of industry and international trade for Zimbabwe. Michelle Ndiaye-Ntab, managing director of the institute, was regional director of AMARC AFRICA. Graca Machel, a founding trustee, affectionately known as “Mama Machel,” frequented the office. She’s an international advocate for women’s and children's rights, among other causes, and has been first lady of Mozambique and South Africa.

But after eight weeks of engaging, debating, and sometimes arguing, both with my colleagues at work and with friends I had not seen in a long time, I realized that nothing will change if we keep ignoring the colonial baggage that has become part of our societies and is stagnating our progress.

To say the least, I was challenged to find my niche in this ecosystem. I believe I made progress on that journey—resolving my own feelings, engaging with others passionate about the future of Africa, and addressing some of my continent’s challenges through social science. These are not the most comfortable of topics, but they are discussions that must continue, whether around a small table in Dana dining hall at Colby, in a big lecture hall at the University of Edinburgh (where I’m currently on a semester abroad), or in the halls of the Mandela Institute challenged by some of Africa’s gifted intellects.

Here is hoping I can bring some of the thoughts and passions elevated by my internship and my experience in Scotland back to Mayflower Hill. We all need to better understand how much our past shapes our future.

 

Rumbidzai (Rumbie) Gondo ’14, is a proud Zimbabwean of Shona/Ndebele heritage and is double majoring in environmental studies with a policy concentration and global studies with a focus on Africa. She had the world’s fifth-best score in the Cambridge A-level history exam in 2010, and she is a student career development advisor in the Colby Career Center.