by Guest Contributor Nanjala Nyabola, originally published at Comment Is Free
Cecil Rhodes is a name that has and will perhaps continue to inflame passions around the world. It was therefore interesting to me that some of the recurring comments following an article written by Abdulrahman El-Sayed weren’t so much based on the content of his writing, but on his status as a Rhodes scholar aspiring to work in public health policy.
As a fellow Rhodes scholar and an African woman, I frequently get asked why, in the face of Rhodes’s bloody and destructive quest to subjugate an entire generation of my people, I would accept money from a trust set up in his name. Why would I study at a university whose history is so intertwined with the legacy of colonial oppression, in a country that has never truly made peace with the atrocities perpetuated in the name of the empire?
In my opinion, the legacy of the Rhodes scholarships speaks to the heart of the legacy of empire in general, and the short answer to all the questions raised above is: it’s complicated. For many Africans, accepting any perceived largesse derived directly from the proceeds of colonialism is an agonising process. I very nearly didn’t. I genuinely believe that the legacy of colonialism is to blame for so many of the woes facing the African continent today, and that former colonising countries can and should do more to address the global inequality that was built on the backs of slavery and colonialism.
Nevertheless, what’s the alternative? When I graduated, I had planned to take 10 years off – and this was the optimistic estimate – to work and save up to do a master’s degree. There is no other way on this earth that I would ever have been able to afford to come to Oxford without this scholarship. Would it have served Kenya better if I hadn’t accepted this scholarship? In the one year that I’ve been here, I’ve met and talked with Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen about his position on entitlements and how this relates to development policy in Africa; discussed the quantification of fear in the planning of organisations working in conflict regions with former UN special representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi; I’ve questioned the chief financial officer at Google, Patrick Pichette, about his company’s policy in Africa. Would any of these things have been possible if I hadn’t been at Oxford?
As an education activist myself, I recognise that the monopoly universities in the west have on quality of education is, in part, derived from perpetuating inequalities in access to information, cornering the market on high-quality facilities and pricing universities in the developing world out of the market for quality educators. Would my turning down this scholarship have done anything to address these structural issues? Or am I better placed to understand these issues more and work towards addressing them now that I know first-hand how the system works?
This relates the question of what being a Rhodes scholar really involves. I assure you that it is not the same as receiving a blank cheque at the end of every month. Many of us arrive in Oxford with the expectations of families, friends and some even entire countries piled upon our shoulders. That level of expectation can be all at once enthralling and frustrating.
Just ask Myron Rolle what it’s like to have ESPN follow you around for one day, asking you if accepting the scholarship spelt the end of your career as a professional American football player. Or another scholar what it’s like to run a charity based in Sri Lanka, primarily funded in the US, while studying full time in Oxford. Or another, who’s looking into developing technology that would revolutionise the way disabled people in India are able to access information, what it’s like to wonder if the technology will translate in India. Or ask yours truly, the first woman in her family to graduate from university and start a master’s degree what it’s like to choose between doing a DPhil and starting your own organisation or finally getting a real job.
Every decision you make suddenly takes on a weight that you had previously never ever had to consider. For me, being a Rhodes scholar is not a mark of accomplishment. It’s a step towards something bigger, a platform from which I can launch into bigger and better things in the future. It’s a comma, not a full-stop. But it’s also a responsibility. A recognition that so much has been given to me and so much more will be expected of me.
One of the best answers to the original question was given by one of the wonderful students that I met when I arrived. When asked why she accepted the scholarship, she said: “Cecil Rhodes had no intention for us as black women to ever see his money. I can’t think of a better way of saying fuck you than taking it.”
This article was reprinted with permission.
(Image Credit: 1913 Religious Map of Africa from University of Texas)