I was born at the Mbabane Government hospital in The Kingdom Swaziland on 11 March 1992 to two amazing Tanzanian parents and I essentially spent my entire childhood there, with occasional trips to countries like South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and of course Tanzania. Swaziland is a predominantly Christian country and it is also Africa’s last absolute monarchy, which essentially means that the King has unrestricted political power over the country and its people.
My formal education began at a pre-school called Little Brown Hen, followed by a primary school called Sifundzani and then a high school called Sisekelo: a boarding school situated deep within the sugar cane fields of Big Bend, an extremely hot, small town located in the Eastern region of Swaziland. It was about a 2-hour drive from home and essentially, the rest of modern civilization.
After 5 years at Sisekelo I made the big move to South Africa, to attend The University of Cape Town (UCT) where I studied Computer Science. To use the term ‘diverse’ to describe this institution would be a massive understatement. UCT had all types of people from all over the world, of all races, colours, genders, shapes, and sizes. This was initially a tad bit overwhelming for a young closet introvert who literally spent the last 5 years of his life in what was effectively an isolated sugar cane town located on the outskirts of a small landlocked country, but due to the high amount of diversity within the immediate surroundings of my new environment, I was able to adapt and adjust accordingly, as I eventually found myself and my tribe.
I completed my Honours degree in 2013 and in 2014 I started working at the Cape Town branch of an international I.T consulting company and it didn’t take long for the magical UCT bubble of diversity to dramatically pop right in front of my eyes. In 2014, at my first full-time job, I was one of two black employees and one of about four non-white employees in the Cape Town office, which was comprised of about 20 to 30 people in total. Fortunately my black counterpart Upendo, a consultant, and fellow UCT graduate, was also Tanzanian, so there were multiple aspects of our backgrounds and upbringing that we had in common. But she soon made a permanent move to the JHB office, leaving me and my blackness to fend for myself.
Now that you have a very basic understanding of my upbringing and background, over the course of this blog post I would like to discuss some of the challenges that I have faced living and working in a predominantly Western culture after my relatively firm African upbringing. Although, as you read my English words, that I have typed on my American computer, that was assembled in a factory in China, one could easily argue that due to both colonialism and globalization it has become a lot more difficult to determine where the African influence ends and where the Western influence begins.
Either way, as a Tanzanian child growing up in Swaziland there are a number of things you are taught which you are expected to faithfully abide by throughout your childhood years. These invaluable teachings, if followed correctly allow you to appease the ancestors and the elders as you successfully navigate your way around your village, neighbourhood, church, school, town, and country. Yet, over the past few years I have learned the hard way that if you hold too tightly onto these same lessons, perspectives, beliefs and mentalities during your adult years, in the long term you may – albeit unknowingly – severely hinder your own chances of success and progress in both the personal and professional aspects of your life. Eventually, you are faced with the harsh reality that the world you find yourself in is not the same as your mother’s house in Ezulwini or your grandparents’ village in Moshi.
Below I have listed a few changes in mindset that I have had to adjust to over the years:
1. Calling adults by their first name
When I was growing up, every adult in my life was either referred to as aunty [SURNAME] or uncle [SURNAME], regardless of whether we were related or not. Teachers were called Mrs [SURNAME] or Mr [SURNAME], or just Sir and Ma’am. Calling any adult by their first name alone was regarded as extremely taboo, and just the thought of uttering my parent’s first names made me feel like a hell bound sinner. Then all of a sudden sometime in between University and working you have all these older people around you and you are expected to refer to them by their first name without suffering the prospects of eternal condemnation or excommunication. This was initially a bit of a culture shock for me, but I eventually got used to it.
2. Disagreeing with/opposing people that are significantly older than you
The way I was brought up, adults are never wrong. The unwritten rule was basically that if a person is older than you and they tell you to do something or if they have a particular opinion on a subject matter then their instructions/perspectives are regarded as heaven sent and divinely ordained. But as time goes by and you start to interact with more of these ‘omniscient’ beings you start to realize that the mere fact that people are older than you doesn’t mean that they are always right and if you have an opposing opinion on a particular subject matter, you can and should voice them, despite how difficult and counter intuitive it may feel from a cultural perspective.
3. Demanding respect
Again, the way I was brought up, you have to respect people that are older than you by default. Regardless of who they are, what they do, how much money they have or where they come from, which is definitely commendable. The issue is that often this enforced display of respect and reverence leads you to treat these people as if they are infallible, all-knowing and incapable of making mistakes or bad judgements. But as you grow up and enter the real world you eventually realize that just because someone is older than you does not mean that they know more than you in every subject matter nor does it mean that they are any more important than you are. You also eventually realize that this display of respect should be mutual and that you too have every right to be treated equally, despite your age difference.
4. Taking time off
I can’t really remember any full weekends that my Dad spent at home with the family when I was growing up. He was running his own business and had to be at the office on Saturday, so that is understandable, but the office would close in the afternoon and it would not operate on Sunday, yet Dad was always up and about. His perpetual absence from the home made me cherish the rare occasions that we spent in the lounge watching wrestling, soccer or Fear Factor; driving to the nearby petrol station to buy bread/milk/eggs/toothpaste, or even just washing the cars on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, I don’t have many memories of Dad just chilling outside, lazing around in the house or sleeping in on the weekends or holidays, and as one would expect, I too gradually adopted this always-busy mentality. Confusing activity with productivity and minimizing all forms of relaxation and downtime. Yet, on the other hand, I have had colleagues and friends who tell me stories about how they spent/spend time with their fathers going fishing, camping or surfing and unfortunately I can’t relate to any of these experiences at all. Due to my negative mental association that equated taking time off with idleness, passivity, and non-productivity I was so hesitant to even take leave during my first few months of work. Even on occasions when I was terribly sick I still felt like I should be productive, which is a very destructive approach to life in the long term.
5. Learning for the sake of learning
Education is very important, let us not get that twisted, and while I will never downplay the value of learning I have recently started questioning the intentions behind our burning desire to learn and achieve academic success. I believe that there are a number of people who share similar cultural backgrounds to me that spend a lot of time chasing degrees and qualifications, mostly because we were told that this is a guaranteed pathway to success in life and that without a shiny qualification or a prefix before your name you are less of a human being. While knowledge is definitely power I think we need to step back and interrogate the knowledge we are acquiring and the methods that we choose to acquire it.
In my high school years I regarded education purely as a form of competition with my classmates because I derived so much joy from coming first in class, and then in varsity when I realized that I was no longer the smartest person in the room the end goal was just to graduate so that I could get a good, well-paying job. However, at some point along my journey, I was introduced to the extremely radical notion of studying towards a degree or qualification for the sole purpose that you are interested in it, or spending time looking into a particular subject matter just for fun. This was initially an extremely foreign concept to me because I never really regarded education or learning as intrinsically rewarding, for the majority of my life I treated it solely as a means to an end.
6. Seeing women in positions of power
Swaziland is an extremely patriarchal country which is ruled by a King, and Christianity, its predominant religion, is centered on the Holy Trinity which is comprised of 2 dominant male figures and what effectively seems to be a gender-agnostic Holy Spirit, with the closest female notion of divinity being the Virgin Mary, who was essentially just used as a surrogate mother for the male Saviour Himself, i.e. Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Couple this with the common experience of growing up in a family where the dominant father figure is regarded as the prized and irreplaceable hard-working breadwinner while the mother’s main role is to cook, clean, pray and take care of the children – with the latter set of responsibilities being valued far less in our capitalist society – and it is not hard to see why one can grow up without experiencing many situations where women are in positions of ‘power’ that easily garner respect and reverence. Even at the churches that I would attend every Sunday, the head pastors were always males, and their wives were regarded as exactly that, just the pastor’s wife, as if their sole role was just to be married to the men of God. Fortunately for me, over the past 18 years, I have witnessed my mother start and run her own business while supporting the entire family single-handedly, which has provided me with a much better perspective of the power, strength, and incredible resilience that women possess both in the home and in the office.
At one point or another, we are all bound to encounter situations, people, and experiences that don’t align well with the mental models that we have built of the world and I believe that this exposure should be highly encouraged and actively sought out. We live in a very dynamic and diverse world and we need to be more open to different views, perspective, attitudes and ways of living, lest we get so completely caught up with our own ill-formed, bias constructs of how things should be.