Sunday, July 26, 2015

Vision 30/15

This year I am turning thirty. Unlike most of my friends, the prospect doesn’t terrify me, I don’t expect vultures to start circling my house the minute the clock strikes 00:00 on my birthday eve. Quite the contrary; I expect my skin to stop erupting in pimples, my hair to get its act together and the mysteries of the universe to reveal themselves to me. My greatest expectation however, is that from 30 on I will gain wisdom from past experiences and hopefully avoid any of the negativity that came with them.

Sometimes as I walk, my stepping forward on autopilot while my mind revisits places past, I grimace and feel the deep anguish and I wrestle with my own emotions. “Why did I ever do that? Why didn’t I do that instead?” What makes it so devastating is knowing that most of my heartache was self-inflicted. One such incident happened when I was in highschool. I was new and going through that adolescent phase of contemplating my existence; where I belonged in the pecking order. I had a crush on a boy with model perfect looks. While walking down a flight of stairs, I skipped a few and ended up tumbling down jack & Jill style.   I was armed  with  a  fruit  filled  lunch  box  for  recess and my crush stood at the bottom of the stairs awaiting my ungainly descent. I went down somersaulting head first, my uniform skirt flew up (almost over my head) like an inverted parachute revealing  Disney’s beauty  and  the  beast  underwear. I don’t think I need to explain the implications of a highschool student dawning Disney underwear. My hands were flapping and flailing everywhere  trying  to  break  my  fall  but  alas,  I  went  crashing  to  the floor.  My lunchbox   lay empty and the floor was strewn  with  grapes,  apples,  a banana  and  crumpled Oreos.  I hurriedly raised myself up and tried to remain as cool and composed as  possible.  I gathered up my lunchbox and fruit I could before evaporating from the scene leaving behind roaring  laughter in my wake. I felt my insides liquefy and hoped for death- surely that would be less awful an experience.

Now, fifteen-ish years on, not much has changed. I am still shamefully clumsy and any situation could turn potentially awkward or embarrassing, but I’m still proverbially standing. I left my miniscule hometown where the rumor mill never stops turning, and built a new life on another continent. The problem was and often times still is getting caught up in my own thoughts, thinking things were awkward when they weren’t, thinking signs meant things that they didn’t or mistakenly thinking people were friends when they were not. My greatest expectation however, is that from 30 on I will be mindful of the wisdom I gained from past experiences. I always hope to avoid any of the negativity that comes with attaining this wisdom and I venture to think I am not alone in this. Nobody enjoys going through the lows of life but it is where we gain something: experience, knowledge, strength, etc. We always gain something needed in preparation for whatever the future needs us to face.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Networking as a Tiny Fish in a Big Pond

There’s a place in my head where I am able to meet people at events and contact them later without being awkward and inappropriate. This place is called Tendayi’s Networking Fantasy. Here I am a networking queen with streams of grace flowing from my shiny professional robes; my speech is eloquent and all hang on my every word and gesture.  

It is a mythical place that I hope to one day demystify and reap the full benefits thereof. Unfortunately, I live in the real world and in this world, I meet people, get their contact details and rarely know how to follow-up or make some kind of meaningful connection. I have in fact shared some lugubriously embarrassing ‘network’ follow-ups like wishing someone a happy Valentine’s Day (which unsurprisingly didn’t get a response). A woman once agreed to be a mentor and then when the time came to make good on her word, she stepped into quicksand. I am still waiting to hear back from her if she finally wells up from some bottomless pit. So, can you imagine my horror when one of my favourite authors advised me (on my quest to getting published) to attend events and network? Her exact words were: “Also, I would start going to conferences.  I followed up on a referral to an editor by finding him at a literary conference. That contact ultimately led to my first book getting published.” I vomited a little in my mouth as I read that.

It sounds so simple; just show up and let your winning personality and sharp intellect do the rest. The truth, as I have deduced it however, is that people don’t like feeling networked and seem to be repelled by enthusiasm to keep connected. Those who would be good contacts often don't have the time or the penchant to reply. Author Elizabeth James said it best: "Truly useful contacts are few as are firm friends." I list the three types of repulsion below:

1.     Enthusiasm, in the moment, from the person you hope to make a connection with. You exchange contact info. A few days later, you reach out as if into the void- never hearing anything back. (I have stacks upon stacks of business cards as testament to this.)
2.     You swap business cards. A day or two later, you finally pluck up the courage (or a well rehearsed ice-breaker + plausible and professional reason for contacting them) to reach out. You get a response that basically informs you that they are not the right person to contact about whatever. They sign off with a standard pleasantry and never look back.
3.     You have their details, you contact them, they seem reciprocal however, after a few exchanges, they get swallowed up by dark matter never to be heard from (by you) again.

This is problematic for many reasons; let me explain: When I started my graduate studies, the president of my university said something I will never forget. She said, “You are each other’s best resource.” Throughout my time in the graduate program I found that this was the case. Most of my opportunities came from someone I knew in the program. There was a strong sense of we’re in this together. I am not criticising industry leaders and professionals for not practicing knowledge sharing, but I have to ask what good all this talk of networking is if the ones who need to be connected with are not interested in being networked?

So the real question is how do you network without giving someone the impression that the only reason you’re talking to him or her is because you want something from him or her? Here are a few of my suggestions for a smoother networking debut that are open for discussion, dispute, amendment and suggestion:

1.     Don’t seem like too much of an eager beaver- I don’t know why but for some reason this irks folks out. They will usually purposefully ignore you. Something about over eagerness screams unprofessional.
2.     Don’t try and be the smartest person in the room- this is just a general life rule. Why? Because there’s always something someone knows more about or that you know nothing about (John Snow) and folks never miss an opportunity to micromanage everything you say to try and make you look stupid (because this is primary school and someone will get a lolly-pop for being the bestest- I am giving you the helpful finger in my mind).
3.     Know when to shut up (this little nugget of wisdom is brought to you by my mum)- If you are always talking you’ll never get a chance to hear what this person you’re hoping to form a connection with has to say or what they think.
4.     This last one is fairly obvious but often underestimated… Bring your business cards with you.

If you have had better luck with networking, please share your experience and be a resource for all us awkward neophytes.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Behind the Mask

A round of applause is due when a ‘respectable’ news publication makes the kind of gaffe made by Namibia’s Allgemeine Zeitung, because somebody needs to celebrate their stupidity. The German language newspaper captured images of the annual Kuska-Maskenball held over the weekend in the largest coastal town, Swakopmund. Clearly seen in the images are three people dressed as Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members and in another photo we see a tag-team costume with a slave owner and some workers in blackface. 

At first glance it might be easy to assume that this happened somewhere in the U.S. or in Europe but the truth is far sadder as this was in Africa in present day Namibia. Namibia is a rich and very progressive African country and recently celebrated 25 years of independence from German colonial occupation and apartheid. It is one of the few African countries with a mixed population as many of the descendants of former colonialists call it home. Unfortunately, this fossilized community has flourished in what can only be described as a time bubble, harbouring the racist and supremacist ideals of old in a world that has since moved on and if not, has the decency to acknowledge the erroneous and shameful nature of that period.

As part of their traditional heritage, the Namibian-German community celebrates an annual carnival in the major towns. The organising body, Kuska, includes a costume competition as part of the festivities and seemingly saw nothing wrong with these participants and their offensive get-ups. Naturally the only German print news outlet was on the scene to cover the event but, the adjectives Allgemeine Zeitung used for the blatantly racist costumes were ‘original’ and ‘imaginative’. Unfortunately for many Namibians, no imagination is needed as they actually survived the harrowing colonial experience. The racist nature of many of Namibia’s pale natives is no secret and it doesn’t even seem necessary to mention that it is a minority population, but just when we thought they couldn’t stoop to such abhorrent levels- they did. 

As expected the furor on social media has lead the publication to make a meaningless apology on Facebook with the promise of making it formal in the paper’s next edition. The fact that this somehow got past an editor and made it to print is mind boggling, or is it a cleverly constructed guise expressing the values of those behind the paper and consequently its subscribers? One can only assume the Allgemeine Zeitung thought the non-German speaking population wouldn’t read the paper.

Some, understandably, angry Namibians made their sentiments known by commenting things such as: We might as well wear Nazi printed shirts with Swastikas and apologize afterwards right. Surely we will be forgiven. A petition has been launched calling for action to be taken against the paper, the people in the costumes and Kuska. What is clear is that this kind of brazen racism, in its many shapes and forms in Namibia, will be dealt with. Namibia's permanent secretary and the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology issued a media statement in which it made it crystal clear that continuation of such behavior would result in the banning of such 'cultural' events. I couldn't agree more!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Chasing Carrots

From the time we are young we are told that in life we have to get somewhere and that in order to do so we need to have goals. So we live our lives chasing the proverbial carrot. The carrot keeps us up at night, often times it’s why we get out of bed and it keeps us on a certain life lane. Often times when we finally get there, we either don’t realize that we’ve reached our destination or we’ve already got our sights set on the next destination.
I’ve been thinking a lot about actually thinking about where I am. Am I where I want to be? Tomorrow marks a goal reached in my life- the culmination of two years of waiting, gathering documentation, seeing a lawyer and praying. I am an African and I married a European man. Even after our marriage the prospect of my deportation was a real possibility. For two years I haven’t been able to move across borders freely because leaving this country would mean possibly not being let back in so already the seed of the next carrot was seeded: when I can leave, I will go here and do this. I spent most of my time being dissatisfied with all the things my situation meant I couldn’t do, so much so that I never stopped to consider the things I could do. When I got the letter from the immigration office last week telling me that my application was received and reviewed favorably, my elation was more about the next carrot than actually being happy about having reached the first goal. I can’t stop feeling like this probably is missing the point and reason for goals in the first place. My charge to everyone this week is to learn to be content as the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians in chapter 4 verse 11 as he sat rotting in jail with no prospect of ever getting out: “for I have learnt to be content whatever the circumstances.”

Monday, July 22, 2013

Democratization of Information = Liberation of Opinions of the Closed Minded

Social media has long been hailed a medium that democratizes information consumption and production enabling the consumer to become a producer as well as a consumer. It has created the mash-up and regularly re-invents language with terms like ‘prosumer’. In more recent times though, we have seen what happens when absolutely everyone and anyone is given the chance to share their views and apparently what the population of internet user truthfully think is far more negative than positive. Social media platforms have given a voice to people who, arguably, should not have one.

Gasp! I know you are thinking and saying 'but everyone deserves the chance to be heard!' Not everyone. At the risk of sounding dictatorial biased let me be clear that I am not advocating for muzzling freedom of speech. What I mean when I say people who should not speak as freely as they do are those members of society who use social media to be disrespectful, negative and incite hatred for a particular individual, gender or person belonging to a particular race. Access to social media tools has made it possible to spread this negativity exponentially. Perfect examples of this were seen after female tennis champion Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon tournament or when Gabby Douglas won gold at the Olympics. The kinds of hateful things that were tweeted about these women and many other people in the spotlight were nothing short of making me lose faith in the human race disconcerting.  

In sheer disgust I posted an article to my Facebook about some of the things tweeted about Bartoli where she was called fat and ugly and therefore, not deserving of being a champion. My problem with these kinds of comments goes beyond the obvious fact that they are a demonstration malicious and unwarranted verbal abuse, but that all the things pointed out as reasons of her unworthiness had absolutely nothing to do with her ability. There was a disconnect in my mind as to what her physical appearance had to do with her worthiness to be a winner. It still chills my bones that there are those who feel that if a woman does not meet a certain aesthetic ideal, she is the worthy recipient of threats of physical violence. Not surprisingly all the people who posted horrible things about her appearance were themselves ugly motherchuckers not especially attractive individuals. A friend of mine responded to my post by saying “These comments send a shiver down my spine. It’s less about calling her ugly as it is calling her a ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘cunt’ summing up her deemed worthiness with threats of violence.” Not to mention the things tweeted about the blossoming young actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, instigated by the The Onion. The Onion, an online news outlet that claims to be America’s finest news source, tweeted that Wallis was kind of a cunt referring to the 2013 Oscars for which she received acclaim for her role in the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild.  These are just some instances where the public, who are trusted to use the power of democratized media to add value to society, have abused that trust and used it to spread venom and the spirit of unkindness. Additionally, these examples form part of a greater problem of cyber bullying committed by cowards who hide behind their computer screens.

My questions are:
  1. Why do people feel entitled to treat others in a way they would not like to be treated on social media platforms?
  2. Why is it that when someone does something extraordinary onlookers, whose accomplishments pale in comparison, are the first to try and tear them down?
  3. And finally, why does the public complain about wanting to break free from the unrealistic social expectations put on them through the media, but then reinforce them every chance they get on the various social media platforms?

I’ll end with a quote I read that said “If only closed minds came with closed mouths” –Unknown.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Conversations and Single Stories

The past week began with the provocative and, arguably, disrespectful cover image for the March edition of the Numero magazine. The magazine cover was titled ‘African Queen.’ The problem was that the representation of said African queen was a young white American model, Ondria Hardin. Not only was the girl white when in a plethora of African models in the fashion industry but, she had been bronzed so much that her skin looked like that of an African female. Many Americans and critics familiar with American history were outraged because the move was reminiscent of blackface; an offensive theatrical performance by white men painted black that was practiced in the U.S. prior to and during the civil rights movement.

I found myself on a Facebook page for the care of natural Afro hair perusing through the comments regarding the Numero cover. I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of comments questioned why the girl was not African American and pointed out that she didn’t look African American. I found it strange.  For a cover that read ‘African Queen’, why were people expecting to see an African American girl (AA) on the cover instead of an African one? I posed the question in the group and unfortunately was drawn into an unpleasant exchange. I tried to explain that nowadays AAs had come to represent all people of colour and while there was nothing wrong with that, it was, however, a single story that is not the story of the African female or any other black people elsewhere in the world. The tone of the conversation turned hostile and defensive. The women in the forum called me a bitter separatist claiming that I was unwilling to see black as black and that I was trying to trick them (although I am not sure what exactly it is I would gain from tricking them or how I would carry out this trickery through my proposition). One lady claimed that asking for not just representations of black women but African blacks specifically was tantamount to me saying that it was a negative thing for all black people to be represented by AAs and that they were not authentic African women. Let me be clear it is negative for any one group to come to represent all because this erases the unique and individual others. The more I tried to explain that the absence of actual African representation outside of the negative news coverage represented a gap that strips Africans of dignity and power, the more the insults flew. The owner of the Facebook page called me childish for having apologized for offending them because it showed that I was incapable of dealing with opposing opinions. I found this to be ironic considering the insults, I was not the one having trouble listening to another opinion. Everything I said was twisted and used as ammunition to label and try to ridicule me, so I left the group.

I once read a meme that said “Don’t get into an argument with a fool because they will beat you with experience.” I admit that I have little to no experience getting in heated debates with very defensive groups of people (thank God) and so I will leave the point making to someone more eloquent. In the talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ African author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, points out how representations determine how people identify with others and how foreign representations may come to define an entire people and in doing so, inadvertently add to the invisibility of those people. In this case the erased is the African woman. Being a writer, Adichie’s experience is with literature “Because all I had read where books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify” she says. She goes on to explain that later she discovered African books written by African authors which caused a shift in her perception enabling her to see a space for African characters in literature. She began to write about things with which she could relate because she saw them represented in the works of other African authors. She began to write about African things. While everyone agrees that the media attempts to reduce the possibilities of blackness, the danger of the single story I was trying to call attention to was the reduced possibility of beautiful African blackness through synonymy with African Americanism.

Why was it so wrong to want African female representation to be the representation of ‘African Queen’ as opposed to anything else? Everyday people fight for representation of diversity in movements such as gender, recognizing that while we are all human, straight males cannot represent women, gay men or the entire species. In the movements for racial equality people advocate for the fact that one race cannot represent all because of the immutability of racial diversity. In a nation like the U.S. that is home to multiple ethnicities, despite being American people still feel the need to identify as Latin American, Native American, Cuban American, on and on. So why was it so offensive or petty for me to suggest that having a black model was not enough but that she needed to be African as well for an authentic ‘African Queen’ cover?

I can see how easy it is to consider my position as one that seeks to divide rather than provide a space for inclusive representation. What Adichie talks about as the creation of a definitive story through those who have the power is something that was briefly mentioned during the exchange regarding Numero. The media shapes reality through representations and selective information dissemination. For example, as a Zimbabwean I have grown accustomed to people thinking that my presence in Namibia or in France is as a result of escaping suffering in Zimbabwe because it is inconceivable that my being outside of Zimbabwe was a choice made long before hardship, corruption, hunger, death and poverty became the Zimbabwean narrative. Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda further illustrates that Western coverage of Africa is the truth of despair, helplessness and hopelessness but this truth is incomplete. At the time of his TED talk he explained that the reported reality of Africa was the smallest reality “Africa has 53 nations, we have civil war only in 6 countries” Mwenda says. What is my point? Knowledge gaps are created because of the fact that most media and its content are the narration of the African story told by the foreigner. These powerful stories negatively affect the lives of those who are either not represented at all or do not represent themselves. To see calling for more diverse representation as a negation of existing representations is a very narrow way to look at what I was trying say. Diverse representation as opposed to a single Western AA representation adds value to the progress that has already been made with regards to broadening the previous homogenous white female representations.

I left that Facebook conversation and page wondering why those women were so averse to my desire not to overlook the story of the African model but, my desire to see myself as an African woman in a story about an African Queen. I also left having learnt about the sentiments of others who could be quick to perceive the acknowledgement of diversity as either taking away from them or being an actor of division. Everything I feel about the whole online ‘squabble’ is in this meme below: