Saturday, 4 February 2017

Master class: how studying towards a masters degree helped me discover my identity

by Mulesa Lumina

(Winner of First Prize, Dean's Essay Award, Faculty of Law University of Pretoria South Africa)



I’ve always believed that there is great value in education, particularly higher education which is a privilege granted only to a lucky few. I don’t value my legal education for the monetary gains or prestige that it can bring but rather, for the skills it has equipped me with to make a career out of ‘making a difference’  as well as the lessons it has taught me about life, love, sexuality, spirituality, relationships, family, careers and human behaviour. 

After roughly two years of seemingly never-ending masters and scholarship applications and taking the time to get some ‘real world’ experience, I was finally set to embark on my 1-year LLM journey. While my real world experience provided  me with a great deal of perspective and insight into where I see myself in the near future, the last ten months have had the most profound impact on me in a way that I could not have possibly imagined.

Never in my life have I experienced anything as academically stimulating, highly demanding and mentally-challenging as this academic programme. I knew doing a masters degree would be tough but I must have taken for granted just how much. After the intensity of the first semester subsided and we made it through relatively unscathed, I had time to reflect on the half-year that was and revisit some of the hobbies I’d neglected in order to get through it. It’s been exceptionally taxing but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything because it’s helped me reshape my professional and personal goals and understand exactly what I’d like my legacy to be.

Last year, I started two blogs: one on fashion and the other on the theme of identity, but more specifically on how growing up away from my ancestral culture has affected my developing a sense of identity in my teens and early adulthood. I was born in the UK to Zambian parents, I hold a Zambian passport and have spent my formative years between Australia, Swaziland, Zambia and South Africa (where I’ve completed the bulk of my education and have been permanently resident for the past ten years or so).It’s not a particularly novel thing to go through a bit of an identity crisis when you’ve spent a significant portion of your developmental years outside your country of origin but it’s a subject that’s very personal to me and, as I came to discover, something that affects many people across the world. A surprising consequence of my LLM studies is that I’ve once again become hyper-aware of my cultural identity (or lack thereof). In a programme that emphasises acquiring skills and knowledge to improve the human rights situation in one’s ‘home’ country, feeling like I don’t have a home makes for great opportunity to learn from my classmates but at the same time makes me feel disconnected from my passport country and the African continent generally.

My classmates and I introduced ourselves countless times while attending short courses, lectures and some special events. The introductions been rather exhausting for the entire class but I came to regard the exercise as a bit of anathema because I was constantly confronted with a question that I do not particularly enjoy answering: ‘where do you come from?’ Initially, I would give my go-to responses: ‘I’m Zambian but I live in South Africa’ or ‘I’m ‘originally’ Zambian’ but five introductory speeches in, I grew tired of adding the qualification to my answer and would simply respond ‘I’m Zambian.’ I would then pray to my creator that I wouldn’t be called upon to educate the class about the political, legal or human rights situation in Zambia of which I had very limited knowledge when I first started the programme. It may seem strange or even comical that a question as simple as ‘any Zambians in the class?’ could make my palms clammy and my heart start racing for fear of being exposed as a ‘fake’ Zambian but it made me incredibly anxious until I decided to steer into the skid and focus on my studies. The wonderful thing about human rights issues is that they affect all people the world over regardless of background, age, race, status, religious affiliation or orientation. Moreover, there are so many different capacities in which every person on the planet can contribute to the advancement of human rights. I believe this is what drew me to the field in the first place, especially being someone who comes from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.


Linked to my identity, for the longest time the ‘feminist’ label bothered me immensely. The programme has, however, led to a change within me and I now where the badge with great pride. While I’m more inclined to the business and human rights side of things - a passion which the programme helped me nurture through clinic work, a short course and my dissertation - I developed a deep interest in women’s rights advocacy. Two or three years ago, if someone had asked me if I consider myself a feminist I would most likely have said no. Painfully ironic considering I strongly believe in equal rights and opportunities for all people, staunchly advocate women’s empowerment and fiercely defend women’s rights. I’m ashamed to admit that I naively bought into ridiculous feminist stereotypes of the radical, man-hating, bra-burning, perpetual spinsters and felt unworthy to put myself in the same class as distinguished and seemingly elitist Germaine Greer-type feminist scholars and philosophers. But I believe I rejected the label primarily because I used to be uncomfortable with the inherently divisive nature of labelling people. This discomfort also stems from my inability to develop a firm grasp on a linguistic and cultural identity connected to my country of origin.

My opinions on feminism were altered during the thematic week on Gender, particularly when I attended a lecture delivered by Professor Sylvia Tamale. I immediately took a liking to her. It’s incredible how another human being can make such an impression on you at your first-ever meeting but this is the effect Prof. Tamale had on me and part of the reason I chose Makerere University as my second semester destination. As a Zambian woman who has lived amongst a range of different cultural groupings for most of her life but whose parents continually imbued her with some of their cultural values and did not wholly abandon many of their cultures’ practices, I straddle different sides like many African women my age. I try as much as possible to harmonise all facets of my cultural identity but they are often at odds with each other. In some measure, Prof. Tamale’s teaching and writings taught me that I don’t necessarily have to break one down in favour of the other as they are all-encompassing of my identity. I had the privilege of attending her inaugural lecture, Nudity, Protests and the Law, in which she reflected upon the internal moral dilemmas she wrestled with when her friend and colleague Dr. Stella Nyanzi carried out a nude protest earlier this year. Her openness and honesty about fighting to retain her feminist identity in the wake of such a shocking event so close to home and what it said about the objectification and sexualisation of the female form further ignited my new-found passion for feminist activism. 

I now realise that it is incumbent upon me as an African human rights defender from a privileged background to become actively involved in combating the many injustices that myself and my sisters on the continent face daily. Not only will I be doing this in my professional life but in my creative endeavours as well. Blogging is my art and a medium through which I have found my voice. I’ve truly been inspired by our lectures on art and human rights taught  by the quirky Marissa Gutièrrez and those on human rights advocacy by the brilliant Professor Liz Griffin to transform my blogging into a platform for pushing my activist agenda. My fashion blog has already been a platform for me to discuss a variety of subjects including history, race, art, sexuality, culture and feminism to some extent. I have come up with a variety of new pieces and ideas for both of my blogs, stimulated by my LLM studies, for my audience to enjoy, be inspired by and reflect critically on pressing human rights issues. I will continue in this spirit going forward.

It’s a bittersweet moment for me as my long and difficult LLM journey comes to an end but it’s been the most enriching experience, allowing me to forge wonderful friendships, hone important professional skills, travel and learn two new languages. Most importantly, the programme has helped me discover the identity I’ve been searching for since adolescence. I’m no longer afraid to label myself. I’m Zambian, African, feminist, activist, blogger and significantly, I’m a graduate of the LLM in HRDA programme 2016.