Privilege – the unearned advantage that some groups experience over others.
When I was at Chancellor College, one day, I was approached by a boy and girl outside of Room A who told me they saw me talking in the library (the Chikanda side, where kulongolola was very much welcome) and thought I would be a great match for something the girl just started. It was a girlchild mentorship initiative that sought to link female college students to girls in a rural secondary school who would be their role models thru some weekly hour to 2-hour interventions.
I was not keen on the idea. I was only in second year, but I was usually busy, and I was not interested in community work. I just wanted to get my Economics degree and go. I didn’t know how to turn her down in her face, so I got her number to decline her offer via text so it was less awkward.
That evening, I casually mentioned the encounter with my then-mesho, Lozindaba. I told her I was not interested, but she encouraged me to just go to one of the interventions and see what it was really about. The ride was free, anyway.
“It won’t hurt to just check them out,” she said.
Long story short, most of you know me as someone who has worked in the NGO sector and that I started out as a mentor at Little Big Prints – well, this was the genesis. From the first day I visited our first school in Jali, I was HOOKED! Just that one random afternoon, and a random girl has shaped my journey and taken me to where I am at the moment. Huge shout out to Elita Chamdimba. I always remind her that she has contributed greatly to who I am today and my career path. Receive your flowers.
I grew up in an urban area, and I was fortunate enough to be privately educated. I did not know what walking miles to school was, or that some children go to school (or even to bed) hungry. Somehow, that side was ‘protected’ from me as I grew up. It was only when I started going to rural schools through Little Big Prints, and hearing stories from the girls about the challenges they were facing, that I got to understand that I grew up in a whole different world, and that there was this other world that majority of Malawians live. I’m even embarrassed to admit that I only learnt about this in college.
When I was in my teens, pressure to get married because of society expectations was unthinkable. So was extreme poverty and the threat of dropping out because of lack of school fees. I became curious about poverty and education, and I started to do my own research. My then lecturer, Dr Richard Mussa, fuelled my curiosity by directing me to relevant research on the topic (may His soul continue resting in peace). I got to learn that simply saying “work hard to achieve your dreams” was not enough. It is more complex than we realise.
I once attended a motivational/career talk where college graduates spoke to some youth, and tried to motivate them to pursue higher education. To my disappointment, one of the speakers went on a rant. She spoke about how lazy the youth are. How sad she is that most girls are not ambitious anymore and do not end up in college. She went on to say she worked very hard in school and at work – this is why she was a boss at her company now.
To say the least, I was very disappointed. I understand she was trying to motivate the youth (motivational/career talks are a very good thing – I personally think they are important) but these were people who were struggling. Some of them sincerely wanted to go to college and graduate, but they did not have school fees. Some of them had been trying for years just to get a certain certificate, but their early schooling failed them, and till date, they struggle to understand basic English. Yet, our dearly beloved speaker probably came from a well-to-do home, went to a top school, her parents could afford a part-time teacher to help her catch up, and she never lacked. I found the whole talk very unfair and frankly, I did not appreciate the approach.
You see, when you grow up not knowing what people out here really go through on a daily basis, how strong culture and beliefs are in our communities, you can make the mistake of assuming people are not trying hard enough, or they enjoy their present state. I do not believe anyone enjoys living in poverty. I’m sure if they could, they would want to have even the basic things most of us take for granted. It is not fair to give a talk assuming we all have access to opportunities and certain resources.
In my line of work (development work), I have been fortunate enough to meet several activists and development workers doing great work for Malawi. Unfortunately, sometimes, these are people from privileged families. I have found it is very important as a ‘representative’ to first check where you’re coming from. Do your research and please, do not generalise and assume everyone had the same experience growing up. This also goes to the older generation. Times have changed. Jobs are scarce, college loans are hard to come by and life is tougher now (yes, we know Kamuzu treated college students very well back then and gave y’all jobs straight out of college – remember, we don’t have that anymore. It’s a race out here).
Ask people what their experiences are. I mean, sit down and really get to know them. What hurdles are they facing? Why do they reason the way they do? What tools can you support them with? This is something we actively did at Little Big Prints. We would have a day, away from our curriculum, just casually talking to our girls to better understand them and their unique experiences. From very early on, we got to understand that simply saying ‘work hard to achieve your dreams’ was not going to be enough. After that, we would adapt our sessions to their experiences. We may have just been college students then, but this one thing, we got right.
Lastly, I wish to say, I am not in any way against privilege. Heck, if you are privileged, use that to your advantage (please abeg, I said privilege, not nepotism – big difference!). I am grateful my parents worked very hard to make our lives easier, so yes, I am also all for setting your kids up to do well in life through education. Life is hard already as it is, let them have a head-start. But be very conscious of that privilege when working with people from different social groups.
P/S: After 6 awesome years, I no longer work in programs at LBP. I am currently serving as Board Member.