Tinashe and his Road to Sparta

Tinashe Marufu is a busy man. Trying to schedule an interview took days of negotiation and rescheduling, but when you’re starting your own sportswear brand, life gets very busy. He was in the middle of organising a braai for Road to Sparta, his fitness brand. Tinashe apologised profusely for having to reschedule the interview again, assuring me that once the event was over, he’d be free to sit for an interview. He ends the message with a personal invitation to the braai, promising that it will be a “lituation.”

We only manage to sit down for our interview two weeks later.

Continue reading →

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Nigel: Young. Zimbabwean. Gay.

Nigel James has been living in South Africa since 2014, living on his own and working in Johannesburg. An independent and hardworking soul, Nigel relishes in the fast-paced life there, but he still follows events going on in Zimbabwe, with a particular investment in the resurgence of citizen movements. Despite this desire to contribute, Nigel hasn’t been back to Zimbabwe in three years. And there’s two very good reasons why. Continue reading →

Tara and her art

Her room is immaculate, save for the papers and notebooks on the desk.  The chime of a dream catcher on the wall is interrupted as Tara closes the window and sits down, cross-legged, on her bed.  Some of her drawings are up on the cupboard, with a gemstone chart stuck on her door.  Looking at it, I can identify some of the stones on her windowsill. A tinge of citrus lingers in the air, and Tara moves to tidy her bed, which she thinks is less than presentable.

“Art is the only thing I focused on.”

 

Tara the Artist

Tara paintingTara Dena Jack is an artist.  She always has been.  From her days in nursery school, to high school at Hellenic, and now studying towards her Bachelor of Fine Art.  That she was meant to be an artist, Tara never doubted that.  “It (art) has always been a strong point, since I’m not really academic.” Tara points to the paintings stacked on top of her bookcase as proof.  Even when she’s meant to be studying, her fingers itch for pen and paper and Tara draws instead.  “Art is an outlet for me.”

As happy as she is with her degree and career path, art wasn’t always her  first choice.  For a time, music held sway.  “I started music when I was 4 or 5, and I started playing the clarinet when I was 14, so in Form Two,” Tara says as she adjusts her legs to get more comfortable.  “I also taught myself basic piano, so I can play a few tunes.”  When it came down to choose between art and music, the decision boiled down to what gave Tara more creative license.  Art it was.

 

“I can express myself more with art. Art is more liberating.”

2016-06-03 (2)What of her art itself?  Tara scrolls through her Instagram and flips through her book of doodles as she talks about her style and what she’s created.  I notice a lot of pencil work and inking, but not much in the form of paintings.  A slight frown on her mouth as she readjusts her seating again and ties up her hair.  “With painting, I don’t have a style that I’ve developed.  With my pencil work, it’s more detailed.  I like stuff like pencil work and pen work, stuff that you can control.”  Her pencil work is stunning. Images of skulls and candles flit across her phone screen.   Tara’s proud of her pieces, but she admits that her work is dark. “In O Level, I did kitsch, still-life, like ‘pretty pretty girly stuff’.  But I find skulls more interesting. You think about a painting of a skull more than just a painting of a flower.”

 

“I always try incorporate a hidden meaning in my art.”

 

Tara fiddles with her hairbands as she talks about her plans for the future.  She wants to get her art out there for people to see – something she hasn’t been doing.  She thinks back to her art teachers in high school and how they’ve shaped her life so far, and continue to play a role in deciding her future.  “Most of my role models are my art teachers.  They see what I’m capable of, they’re more confident in my abilities than I am.”  It was Greg Shaw, her high school art teacher and artist in Harare, who pushed Tara to develop her skills as an artist.  It was her O Level art teacher who convinced Tara to study Fine Art at Rhodes University.  Their influence has motivated Tara to pay it forward and become an art teacher and artist.

 

Tara the Zimbabwean

Would she work in Zimbabwe?  Tara pauses, and takes a breath before responding. “I’m drawn to political stuff.” She tilts her head in inference.  “Political stuff that I wouldn’t be able to do that. And I can’t do kitsch stuff either.”  I ask her the question again.  She looks up, frowns and responds, “I don’t know.”

To see more of Tara’s work, check out her Instagram.

All the art pieces in this story are property of Tara Dena Jack. 

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Michelle: the scientist, the DJ

Michelle Mukonyora a.k.a Ella, has put on quite a few caps in her life so far. Both scientist and music lover, she has had experience in different spheres of life. Her story is particularly fascinating for me, because it was the first time I’d heard of an aspiring bioinformatician.

Michelle the DJ

Her journey into her first role began in 2008, after finishing her honours degree.  She decided to take a break for a few years, and during this period she got into the DJ booth for the first time.  “I’ve always had a passion for music, but I was never musical. The one day I got one of my DJ friends to teach me how to do it for fun and I got hooked.”   Michelle was fortunate enough to get a residency soon after she started.  Although this career path was wholly unintended, DJ Elle M was spinning the turntables for a few years.

Michelle the Student

Michelle got involved with biotechnology from high school.  “At the time it was being described as the ‘new frontier’ of the life sciences,” she says, and she was more than ready to launch herself into this scientific unknown.  The initial plan had been to continue her higher education in Australia, where she could do a joint degree in business and biotechnology.  Unfortunately for Michelle, life had other plans: that was the year that the Zimbabwean dollar crashed.  Australia was off the table.  South Africa was the next best option, and that’s where she got her undergraduate degree from the University of the Western Cape in Applied Biotechnology.  She graduated and after she left DJ Elle M behind, Michelle went back to her first love.

“Science is my life. I always knew I’d be back it was just a question of when.” 

Currently a student researcher at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, Michelle’s main focus is drug and vaccine design in Africa, working on animal vaccines and predicting virus structures.  It’s in this team that Michelle can flex her brain muscles and push the boundaries of biotechnology. “I have been given the opportunity to drive my own research process with a wealth of resources at hand. Being exposed to the best equipment and computing power makes one better able to compete globally.”

“My biggest challenge has been not having an emotional support system as a postgraduate student.”

 Michelle has had to deal with a tough and often isolated environment: science is truly her life now. “Science is all consuming with very little reward when you are a student. Your work doesn’t stop when you leave the lab and I wasn’t prepared for that.”  It’s a break from the structures she was used to from her undergraduate studies.  To add to this list of problems, the field of science can be difficult for a young black African woman.  Michelle has been lucky enough not to have experienced any discrimination, but it’s a fact that she’s keenly aware of.  “When I look up to higher positions that I aspire to I don’t find many women, more specifically black women.  I know the ‘Black woman in science’ hurdle is coming up soon for me.”

Michelle the Biotechnologist

“Compared to the rest of Africa we have the potential to be leaders in the field.”

Despite the challenges in the past and the ones to face in the future, Michelle remains optimistic about her relationship with science.  Although studying in South Africa, she has every intention of coming back to Zimbabwe and tapping into the world of potential.  ” In terms of biotechnologists there are plenty of Zimbabweans across the world doing cutting edge research. The key would be to convince them to come back home to the right infrastructure in place.”  Invested in her work as a biotechnologist, Michelle created a website this year, Nyenyedzi Bio, whose aim is to provide a platform for all things science related in Africa.

What struck me the most about Michelle is her dedication to her craft. Although she has done other things with her life, she keeps coming back to her calling.  Zimbabwe is lucky to have people like Michelle: people always questioning the limits of our reality and pioneering the push into our country’s uncharted territory.

“The most exciting part about biology for me has always been how structure relates to function. I love the idea of predicting the structures of small molecules that we can’t see with the naked eye like proteins and DNA and predicting how they work.”

Keep pushing Michelle.

Michelle

You can follow Michelle on Twitter at @EllaBellaBleu

To find out more about Michelle’s interests and work, visit  http://nyenyedzibio.com/index.html. 

Busiso and moving to South Africa

Busiso was 14 when he moved to South Africa.  Zimbabwe’s economy had taken a spectacular nosedive, and it was decided that for him, South Africa was a better environment.  His father was already working in Pretoria as a doctor, but the rest of his family stayed back home.  Busiso was completely alone in Johannesburg.  “It wasn’t the easiest of moves”, he says, as he shifts slightly in his chair.  “It was during that time when xenophobia was a thing.”

                                               “IT WAS NOT THAT EASY AT ALL.”

Adjusting to a new school, St. Benedict’s, made things even harder. He’d left just when he was solidifying friendships – Busiso didn’t know a single person in his new high school. “To add to it, when I came here, I skipped a grade.  So I was a year younger than everyone.”  There was only one other Zimbabwean there, who was a year older than him.   He was surrounded entirely by South African students, all older than him.  It was painfully obvious that he was an outsider, and there were many times that Busiso didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere.

Busiso HS

Busiso as a high school student

 

New school, new curriculum, new environment, new country – Busiso had to adjust quickly to his new life.  “It was a bit intimidating, I felt a bit out of place.”  Eventually, he found his footing, and it was thanks to his adopted city.  “Thing is, there’s a lot of people you can meet when you’re in a place like Joburg.  It’s not the friendliest place, but you’re definitely guaranteed to make friends.”  Although there were moments in the beginning where he wanted more than anything to go home, his father encouraged him to tough it out. Now, looking back at those growing pains, Busiso’s come out of stronger, wiser, and more well-rounded.

 “I WAS STILL IN THAT COCOON THAT  ZIM PUT ME IN”

 Having experienced life in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, Busiso has to come to appreciate the similarities and differences between the two countries.  “It’s a lot more liberal here(South Africa)”, he says, in comparison to conservative Zimbabwe.  For him, people in South Africa are more open and expressive, something that took him by surprise when he first arrived.  “I was still in that little cocoon that Zim put me in, where I don’t question my elders.” It was only after the big move did Busiso start to question what was previously unquestionable, and open his mind to new ideas and ways of thinking.

                                                

Busiso goes back to Zimbabwe on a regular basis. Here he is at last year's Colour Run. Image sourced from Liyon Media

Busiso goes back to Zimbabwe on a regular basis. Here he is at last year’s Colour Run. Image sourced from Liyon Media

Fast forward to 2015, and Busiso is fully settled into life in South Africa.  He is currently in his second year at Rhodes University studying law.  “One thing that I’ve always been hardheaded.  I like being right”, a smile on his face, as he explains his degree choice.  “Having knowledge of the law is power.”  Ever since Grade 10, Busiso knew was sure of himself, what he wanted to study, and where to go.  Although the University of Pretoria was his original choice, he has no regrets about landing up in Grahamstown.  “It (Rhodes) produces a certain type of person that I’d want to be like.”   It was an added bonus that Rhodes is known for its Zimbabwean-friendly atmosphere, with Zimbabwean students making up a large percentage of the international students.

                              “IT WAS NICE TO BE ABLE TO DROP A ‘ZVIRI SEI SEI'”

Happy to be amongst fellow Zimbabweans, being able to speak and hear his own language, was a big change from Busiso’s high school experience.  He’s learnt to reconcile the boy he was when he left Zimbabwe, and the man he became in South Africa.  However, he has, and always will be a Zimbabwean.  “Growing up there (Zimbabwe), as a child, really made me Zimbabwean.”  Busiso’s heart will always be with his country, and even though he wants to start his career in South Africa, he has every intention of going back home and making a difference.  “One thing I want to do is take what I’ve learnt back home.  If every educated person is leaving Zim, how are we going to grow?”

 IMG_1931

Let’s Talk About Mr.Rhodes

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the protests at University of Cape Town, and followed #RhodesSoWhite and #RhodesMustFall.  Yes, the age-old problem of colonial legacy and heritage has reared its controversial head again.   Southern Africa has come alive on this touchy topic, and judging from the reactions and debates on social media, the region is far from reconciling with its colonial past.

Cecil John Rhodes

The now infamous Cecil John Rhodes Statue at UCT. Picture sourced from the Guardian website

Cecil John Rhodes was not a nice man.  That,  I’m sure, we can all agree on.  He lied, stole, cheated, and harassed his way to become filthy rich.  For the longest time, he was presented in the history books as a progressive forward-thinker, who almost single-handedly made Southern Africa what it is today.  Yes, he did shape Southern Africa.  And this region still bears the scars of his schemes and interference.

This is the heart of the issue now:  there’s a giant statue, in the heart of a campus in Southern Africa, of a man who deserves zero adoration, respect, or celebration.  Rhodes did donate the land for the UCT campus – but then again, it wasn’t really his land to  start with, was it?   People walk by that statue every day, a constant reminder of the ‘great’ man who deigned to donate ‘his’ land and money to the establishment of a university.  In a country that is  still negotiating a difficult and traumatic history, it’s understandable that some students at UCT would be hurt by constantly being exposed to a monument of a man who killed millions of natives and relocated thousands of others.  And when people feel like their voices are being shut out, when the Powers That Be refuse to even listen to your views and complaints, people get desperate.  People get angry.  People get drastic.  The poo being flung on that statue was a demonstration of that frustration, anger, and disgust.  It worked.  People started to listen to their grievances.

Then came an equally controversial subject: changing the name of Rhodes University.   This debate is not new; the proposal was first tabled all the way back in 1994, by the then Student Representative Council (SRC) President Vuyo Kahla.  Fast forward to 2015, and the debate rages on, but something has changed.  The warm, friendly atmosphere at Rhodes has often masked the underlying frustrations and tension that bubbled to the surface a few weeks ago.  If  an institution does not condone, nor associate ourselves with the views and morals of Rhodes, why do they insist on keeping the name?  Name changes are not new: after Independence, did Zimbabwe not change its name from Rhodesia?  If a university is so intent on preserving its brand, then surely its reputation should be based on the quality of its education, and not its name?  Ultimately, why, until now, have people been so dismissive about this issue, an issue that clearly affects ALL of us?

Photo sourced from Wikipedia

Photo sourced from Wikipedia

Colonial baggage and the legacy of Rhodes is a burden that every Southern African must bear.  History has not been kind to Africa, and as a Zimbabwean living in a foreign country, I can personally say that nothing is more aggravating than someone trivialising your distress and your history.  Living with colonial legacy is hard enough, do we really need to live with the monuments that glorify a man who represents a particularly  dark period in African history?  A man who said,

“Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better”

AND

“I prefer land to niggers.”

Removing such monuments, contrary to popular belief, is not “erasing history”.  Rather, it’s acknowledging that some of the men and women who were celebrated as heroes in their time do not deserve that honour today.  The statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Zimbabwe was taken down, yet we are still very much aware of his life and legacy.  Statues of Lenin, Stalin and Saddam Hussein have been torn down, but that was not followed by the world collectively hitting Delete on their histories.

A statue of Rhodes in formerly Southern Rhodesia

A statue of Rhodes in formerly Southern Rhodesia

The statue was taken down and relocated to a museum

The statue was taken down and relocated to a museum

At the end of the day, this is a discussion that’s not going to go away.  It shouldn’t go away.  The effects of colonisation are still strong today, and even though the Born Frees didn’t live through it, doesn’t mean we are not affected by it.  Telling someone to “get over it” is downright insensitive and ignorant.  All it comes down to is consideration.  For any progress to be made, and for Southern Africa to reconcile with its tumultuous past, each of us needs to be open to each other’s perspectives, distress and opinions.  To quote my Vice Chancellor, Dr. Sizwe Mabizela,

“When you walk in someone else’s shoes that is when you realise what it is like to be that other person.”