Home is knowing…

It has been a while.

But I’m back and older too. I turned 28 in January so just two more to 30!whoop!whoop!

Anyway…

2016 was personally a great year for me. I have waited a couple of years to be where I am now. Among other things, I started my studies for a Master’s degree under the Chevening scholarship. It is still a dream come true. However, I have gone through a range of phases on this journey in such a short time. From the excitement of getting the scholarship to study at a university I have dreamt of for a long time, packing my life in suitcases and leaving family and friends behind to move to the UK for a year has been a roller coaster ride. It is the first time I will be away from home for such a long time.

The first day I got to my new city, I got lost. The feeling of being lost coupled with missing home and being jet lagged dimmed my excitement of what lay ahead. I was ready to go back home. I have also gone through a phase of feeling inadequate for my course. I read documents to the end and didn’t understand a single thing! I have felt like my thoughts are no longer my own so many times. Everything at times seemed to move too fast for me.

I needed to stop.

I realized I had allowed fear to control me and I was getting crippled by it. I failed to address my vulnerability. I tried too hard to adapt. My mind was set on touching the ground running so much that I stressed myself.

So, I stopped.

We all need to stop sometimes. To remember who we are, why we are where we are and how we got there.

I opened myself up to the community around me. I made new friends and re-affirmed old ones. I re-learnt what stumbling and picking myself up again meant. It is a way of life. This process has made my burdens lighter. From the overwhelming reading lists to essay deadlines, I realized I was not going through it alone. Most importantly, I have learnt to take each day as it comes.

‘Every day is a new beginning. Take a deep breath. Start again.’ 

I am grateful for making it thus far. I am grateful for my support system back home and here. I am grateful for the new people I have met and connected with. I am grateful for all those times that I feel beaten down…getting back up feels different every time! I am grateful for the opportunity to learn, re-learn and unlearn.

When I first got here, I had one mission; to complete my studies and go back home. But it seems, I had a flawed meaning of ‘home.’ Because, as I write, I am home.

‘Home is knowing.’

‘Knowing your mind.’

‘Knowing your courage.’

‘If we know ourselves, we are home anywhere.’

Time for my Chevening…

I have waited seven years to write this post. seven years ago is when I started pursuing my dream to study for a Master’s degree, a year after I finished my under graduate studies.I have been open about my career progress and the many failures I have faced. I have done this through my blog and countless conversations with different people. 

By 2015,  I had learnt how to fail pretty quickly. Gone were the tears after a rejection, I learnt to move on very quickly. However, I had friends who didn’t give up on me even at my lowest. They sent me links to scholarships and encouraged me to apply. Some even offered to proof read my statements of purpose. But giving up seemed so tempting and the easiest way to end my misery.

So, I went through the same drill in 2015. I applied for 3 scholarships this time around. I applied for the Canon Collins Scholarship. I applied for the Ruthfirst scholarship. I applied for the Chevening scholarship. To give a little context, it was my second time to apply for the Chevening scholarship. It was my third time to apply for both the Canon Collins and Ruthfirst Scholarships.  To be honest, I was not very optimistic. I pursued other short term goals that I had, particularly getting into the Mandela Washington fellowship.

I distracted myself from thinking about my scholarship applications until a friend of mine contacted me a few months later about a project they were doing on highlighting the work of different groups of Malawians. He was a Chevening scholar studying MA Development Studies at the University of Sussex. A course and university that I had always wanted. Through face book chat, as an afterthought, I told him I had applied for the Chevening scholarship for the second time but was sure I would not get selected. His response brought back the sense of hope that I had lost over the years. He wrote;

“Don’t worry about the Chevening scholarship. I think the people that didn’t make it have received their emails so because you haven’t received yours, you have to be sure that you graduated to the next stage. So I will say congratulations in advance and will be waiting to welcome you in the UK.”

Armed with this new hope, I dared God. So, a month before leaving for the USA for the Mandela Washington fellowship, I resigned from my job. Many people expressed concern over my decision.  They were worried I would have nothing to fall back on when I came back. I assured everyone not to worry, that I would look for another job and it would all turn out fine. I was pretty calm on the outside. Inside, I was absolutely terrified!!! I had not received communication that I got any scholarship and yet here I was. I had lots of panic attacks. I spent many days praying and fasting. Every time I got notification of an email on my phone, my heart skipped many beats and m’mimba mwanga mumabwata ngati nditsegule pompopompo!

My friend was right!

I made it to the interview stage and soon after received confirmation from both Chevening scholarship Secretariat and the University of Sussex that I had been successful. It was surreal! Additionally, I also made it to the final stage of the RuthFirst Scholarship at Durham university! From zero scholarships in seven years to two prestigious scholarship offers in one year! I had to choose one promptly to ensure that another deserving candidate could take my place on the other. I chose the Chevening scholarship.  Sometimes, you get so used to rejection that you do not know how to react when doors actually open. I have screamed, prayed, laughed, danced and cried!

I know of others that have made it through this process more smoothly and easily. That is awesome. But it is not my story. Mine has been a story of rejection, persistence, praying and sometimes questioning God’s will on my life.  I have learnt to be deliberate about helping out others and celebrating their success, being a cheer leader for my friends  and embracing their victories as my own. This was not an easy process because naturally, we are inclined to want good things for us first before others. I had to go through alot of learning and unlearning. Additionally, I have affirmed the fact that there is a time for everything. Looking back now, I am confident that the experience I have accumulated in my 7 years of work will come in handy during my studies. This would not have been the case if I got an opportunity to study earlier.

Further to that, I have realised the massive responsibility that I have towards the girls and young women I work with at Growing Ambitions. Apart from the Chevening award helping me reach my career goals, it also affirms to these girls that they can be anything they want to be. My dream is to see many of them get the chance to go after such opportunities and thrive!

So my chevening award is dedicated to the Growing Ambitions girls and young women including my awesome co-founders; Umba and Chikondi. Cheers to conquering and pursuing our dreams relentlessly against all odds!!

For those who have embarked on this journey and haven’t reached a breakthrough yet, this post is for you. I am rooting for you!If I can do it, you can! There are so many people who are willing to help, reach out to them, including me!
Remember;

“You are going to want to give up. Don’t.”

 

 

MY FEMINISM IS TIRED…

By Irene Umba Zalira & Lusungu Kalanga

Disclaimer: This post is not about justifying what feminism is or isn’t!

Umba

I remember the first time I learnt about feminism. It was in Mutare. Zimbabwe.
I remember the joy of finally having a name to my anger, pain, confusion, questions to all the things that seemed normal but were not so normal.

Most importantly I remember the fire.

Mahn. That fire.

I was up and ready. Everyday.
To justify my feminism.  To validate that as a young woman I deserved it all just as my male counterparts. I fought all the battles that society brought to me.

I would engage in discussions, heated discussions (not arguments) anywhere. And everywhere. With anyone. On line. Offline. At work. By the bar. In a queue. Somehow I wanted everyone to see feminism with my own eyes. To understand that all I was trying to say is that am human.

But. Lately, I have been tired. I don’t want to explain my feminism.
My feminism is tired.
I don’t want to justify my humanness.
No.
If you think am angry because am a feminist.
So be it.
If you think not every woman needs feminism.
So be it.
If you think feminism is unAfrican.
So be it.
Because. I am tired.

Lusungu

Recently, I participated in the Mandela Washington fellowship. On our Institute graduation day, we were tasked with presenting a project that we will implement in our countries. My group’s project was centered around combating sexual harassment in higher learning institutions. We had a Q & A session and one lady from the audience offered us a piece of advice. She said we should also concentrate on the preventive side of sexual harassment. She further elaborated that young women need to learn skills in how to dress well so as not to provoke potential harassers.

A little over two weeks ago, I was in Washington DC for the presidential summit. On the second day, I participated in fellows’ meet ups; which were basically group discussions on topics depending on our interests. In a meet up dubbed “combating sexual and gender based violence’, a young man (in another session he gave a talk about his organization which aims at re-socializing boys in how they treat women) shared about the importance of communication in a marriage with regards to preventing violence. He said if he went out until late and his wife called him to inquire of his whereabouts, her tone would determine whether he responded aggressively at home or not. He explained that if she asked him in an “unbecoming manner”, it would justify him acting violently towards her.

I was browsing the newspaper last weekend and came across an editorial for the women’s segment. The editor who is a woman wrote on a topic she titled “wedding and miniskirts”. In the brief, she said;

“Most women are loving miniskirts and dresses these days. It must be a fashion trend or else I don’t know. Of course, everyone has the right to dress in whatever way they like but sometimes, it is too much. People choose clothes for all sorts of reasons. Some because they feel comfortable whereas others because they want to display their bodies…It is good to observe what we wear to avoid being talk of the town. We have to dress in a way that people should respect us and not look down on us.”

I could go on and on sharing such stories but I am tired.

 My feminism is tired.

All I have energy for are screams like; “YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER!!”, “SHUT UP!!” and I also have just enough energy to walk away. What makes it hurtful is that patriarchy is also guarded by women in many instances than I would care for. I have also found myself resisting the position of teacher to people who choose to be ignorant of the fact that women’s rights are human rights.

Umba and Lusungu

We have realized and choose to believe that it is ok and normal to go through this phase. The tired phase. It is ok to step back from the battle field to regroup and take care of ourselves.

LORDE

After all, to apply the view of Toni Morrison on racism, where she argues that the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction, the same can be said on those who attack feminism and women’s rights.  Most of the actions keep us from doing our work. We spend so much time explaining over and over and over again, our reason for being. To quote her “None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

 

 

Leaving your mental door open equals learning…

We started the 5th week of the Mandela Washington fellowship yesterday. Time flies indeed. This fellowship has been a roller coaster that was much needed on my journey. Overall, it is an enriching experience for me!

We have had a number of speakers share their personal stories and facilitate discussions on different topics. I would like to share some of those stories. I look forward to applying the many lessons I’m learning every day. I am like a sponge out here, I am absorbing a lot  of information that I know  will be useful on the path that I have chosen.  Hope the brief stories and lessons inspire you too.

Mr. Sherman P. Lea

Mr Lea is the Mayor of Roanoke City. Mr Lea told us a story about an event that helped shape who he is today. When he was in college, Mr Lea played American football. He was good at it. He got drafted by a popular team, the Dallas Cowboys together with 150 other players from across the country. The team’s coach informed him that on the day of the trial game, he would get a call. If he didn’t get the call, that would be a sign that he had not qualified.  (American football is Greek to me so Any errors therein are totally as a result of my ignorance & laziness to learn about it.)

Mr Lea didn’t get the call. A friend of his who he thought would not qualify made it and went on to play in the NFL.

This changed the course of his life. He spent 36 years with the Virginia Department of Corrections assisting people with criminal convictions as they re-entered the community upon release from incarceration.He was the first African American in Virginia to hold the position of  Chief Probation and Parole Officer. Mr Lea is the founder and president of S.P Lea and Associates, a company that facilitates training sessions on topics including; leadership, management theories and practice.He was awarded the 2010 William L. Hastie Award by the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and named the 2014 citizen of the year by the Gamma Alpha Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.

Lessons from Mr Lea:

  • In life, its not always about what YOU think. People have other perspectives and you must learn to respect that.
  • There will be many times when you will get deflated,knocked down and your dreams will be frustrated. All those times remember that it is not about the knockdown, it is about the get up! Remind yourself that getting knocked down is not who you are, stand back up and keep going!
  • There are some values that will help you succeed as a leader. The most important of them all are humility, integrity and honesty.
  • Don’t be concerned about who gets credit. Work passionately. In your work, strive to change the mindset because “you can not legislate the heart.”
  • Use what you learn and what you have been given to make things better for others.
  • Read.

Mr Lee and I 😆

Justin Graves

At only 25, Justin is easily one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.

When he was 3 years old, Justin was napping one day when his babysitter woke him up. He tried to stand but could not. He was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis. He got his first wheel chair when he was 4 years old. Justin has refused to let the wheelchair define him. In fact, when you meet him you notice him first as an individual before you see that he gets around with a wheelchair. That is exactly how he wants it . His parents told him at an early age; “you can do anything you want to do, except you might have to do it differently.” He has been unstoppable since!

Justin completed an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a graduate degree in higher education in 2014, both from Virginia Tech. He currently works for the department of homeland security conducting policy analysis. Justin founded and owns a company; hesonwheels.com. He is a strong advocate for non-traditional leadership in multicultural and under-represented populations.

Lessons from Justin:

  • “Life is all about what you have done for others.” This is the motto for his company(hesonwheels.com)
  • Leave your mental door open. You don’t always have to do something big to make a difference. Remember, small acts might have bigger impact. Be open to new ideas and different ways of doing things.
  • Open yourself up to community. Meet new people who are different from you. Community is enriching when people are diverse.
  • Cognitive involvement and emotional enthusiasm are important in anything you do. Have the mental capacity to care about your community.Additionally, prepare,pay attention to detail and invest your heart and time in anything you embark on.
  • Be consistent.
  • You know nothing better than your own story!

Justin & I 😆

Devon Lee

Devon Lee is a book on feet! From the moment he starts talking, he puts your brain to work! His conversations always demand critical thinking and an open mind. Devon is very passionate about pan-Africanism and tackling racial issues in America. I have had the opportunity to engage Devon outside the classroom a couple of times and all those times,I have been challenged to think critically and be unapologetic about my truth.

Devon Lee is a doctoral student at Virginia Tech in sociology, specializing in Africana studies in the college of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. He plans to develop a hybrid of “each one, reach one” mentor-ship model that calls on faculty to be resources in the academic, professional and social development of black graduate students. Devon is a member of the Diversity Scholars Initiative, a competitive program aimed at assisting students in advancing diversity and inclusion through a variety of events and programs.

Lessons from Devon

  • A leader must be a reflection of innovation, creativity and challenging the status quo.
  • Leadership is not about authority. Actually, don’t be afraid to question authoritative structures.
  • Be open in communication, bringing important hard conversations to the surface.
  • When advocating for people, give them the platform to speak for themselves. Should this fail, know their story so well to tell it from their perspective and not yours.
  • Live your truth even when there is strong opposition.
  • Be proud of your heritage.

Devon Lee & I 😡

Mike Abbott

Mike walked into our classroom casually and said “I am Mike.I help people figure out how to turn their ideas into business models.” Of course I was lost. For those who know me, my brain freezes when I hear anything that is connected to numbers. When I heard “business” , my brain waved a white flag in surrender.

But boy was I wrong…

Mike started by dismissing the myth that if you are in non-profit, you are not supposed to make money. How will you be able to help others if you are hungry yourself? He asked! Additionally, isn’t it much better to make money and use it for your programs than write proposals all the time? He had my attention from there on wards.

Lessons from Mike (Steps to innovation):

  • Search for problem-solution fit. Identify the problem in your community and validate that people care about that problem. Talk to the people. Always talk to people!
  • Find the product- market fit. Build and deliver your services that meet the need in your community. Those of us in the development field must keep in mind that it is is important to design interventions in the way that our beneficiaries want them.  Always look for what you may be doing wrong as this allows you to be open minded and grow. Trying to prove you are right all the time is a barrier to learning. Knowing why your community must care about what you are doing is crucial to long-term success.
  • Have a business model fit. Ensure that your beneficiaries get the most out of your service. Think differently- always look for the value of what you are offering. The “why” is the most important aspect in all you do!
  • “Hope is not a good strategy.”

Mike Abbott & I (excuse my forehead in  this picture and  I don’t know why i look bald)

I hope you enjoyed reading and took away something that might work for you!

Side note: We have not had a significant number of women talk to us hence their absence in the post. We have two more weeks. I look forward  to sharing more as our sessions continue.

 

On my leadership journey & and dreams for the girls back home…

This is a speech I wrote for a class presentation on my leadership journey thus far and on my dreams for the girls back home…

Martin Luther King Jnr once said; The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined non- conformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific and religious freedom have always been non-conformists. In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the non-conformist!” I believe I am one of the non-conformists of today. I am a young feminist, driven by passion to see a better community, country, continent and world for each and every one of us and those that will come after us, especially girls. From a young age, I never had any doubts about my calling to serve and help create platforms for others to be heard, which for me is the very definition of leadership.

My leadership journey has been littered with so many failures. This was especially hard as I knew I had the passion and energy to make a difference. Persistence has been my greatest treasure. More times than I can remember, I have succeeded because of persistence as opposed to my talent. It is this persistence that got me into the Moremi emerging young African leaders fellowship in 2013. I define the fellowship as my re-birth. Being in the same space with 24 young women leaders who were movers and shakers in their communities and countries gave me the push I was looking for to be a transformational leader. It affirmed to me that I matter…that my contributions in service are significant. To rephrase the famous actress, Lupita nyong’o, I realized that my dreams are valid.

From being part of the stakeholders that held vigils in parliament of my country to lobby parliamentarians to raise the marriage age from 16 to 18, being a mentor to girls who feel like their stories have ended due to unplanned pregnancies to creating platforms for girls and young women to speak and be heard, I have pursued my passion for the advancement of women and girls’ rights relentlessly.

Everybody has dreams including the girls and the young women I work with. However, not everyone gets an opportunity to pursue those dreams. An unplanned pregnancy, a forced marriage and poverty are some of the problems that kill dreams short for a significant number of girls in my country and Africa as a continent.

I went after my dreams and I am living them now. Look at me, I am a Mandela Washington fellow and I get to interact with 24 phenomenal young African leaders. I get to network with diverse groups of people on causes I care about. Additionally, I have the chance to hone my leadership skills in a field I am passionate about. It is a dream come true! Especially considering that this was my second time applying for this fellowship! Persistence came through for me again!

I want all the girls in my country despite their socioeconomic status or negative past experience to have the same chance to live out their dreams. Thus, my mission is this; to create opportunities to allow girls and women who have been denied the dreams promised to them by virtue of their humanity to break free from the chains that bind them and unleash their God-given potential!

The youngest girl I mentor is 14. She got pregnant when she was 13 years old and was forced to marry the man that got her pregnant. Because her body was not fully mature, she gave birth to a still born baby. When I first met her, she told me she had no dreams of going back to school as she knew she was damaged. Through our organization, she has gone back to school. It is my commitment to make her dream again…It is also my commitment to help ensure that not another girl goes through such a traumatic experience.

People ask me why I do what I do and my answer is that I do not merely want to exist…I want to live! My response is based on this quote that I will leave you with today; “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

 

 

John Paul: 8 days of memories & a pair of sandals

I can not stress enough how the Mandela fellowship has given me the opportunity to meet, share and learn with 24 amazing young African leaders driving positive change in their communities and countries.
One such young leader I met was John Paul, an energetic young man from Nigeria. The first time I interacted with JP as we fondly called him was on a whatsapp group he created for all the fellows going to Virginia Tech when we were selected for the Mandela Washington fellowship.
Then I met him for the first time at Virginia Tech in the orientation room.  I didn’t see him when I walked into the room but he called me from the back with “Lusungu! My Malawian sister!”
It felt like I had known him forever! He had that effect on everyone. JP was JP; open, friendly and always making sure that everyone felt like they belonged. He was also very curious and always ready to learn. I will always admire these traits in him and strive to emulate them.
We attended classes and participated in activities together for 8 days. JP always teased me that I acted like a man by being sporty and active in the out-door activities. Sometimes, he would call me his “Nigerian brother” and he would ask me “Lusungu, are you a man or a woman?” We would laugh about it while I explained to him that I did not act like a man but I am just a whole woman!

So,
JP died.
Exactly 8 days since I met him.
We went on a hike to the cascade waterfalls. Earlier that day we had a motivational speaker who showed us a video of his hike to the falls. Initially,JP was not gonna go but after watching the video, he changed his mind.
Of course JP and I played a game of who would lead on the hike. He kept saying he was not going to allow me to overtake him and yet he also needed me to take Pictures of him around the beautiful scenery. At some point, he said “Lusungu, by the power invested in me by my president, I give you Nigerian citizenship for portraying and having the mindset of a Nigerian.”
When we reached the falls, we were the first to go take pictures together with another colleague . I went all in and got wet but he said he was only wearing boxers so it would not be a good sight! I told him I agreed with his decision!lol
To cut the story short, I was sitting on a rock watching him and other fellows take pictures when I saw him fall into the water. I initially thought it was a joke but noticed that he was panicking and could not swim.
When he was pulled out of the water,he was unconscious. We all cried and prayed for the best. JP did not regain his consciousness and was pronounced dead within an hour or so. Life is so fleeting.His death has brought us, the remaining fellows closer together and I have appreciated that there is strength in unity. Additionally, we have learnt to be each other’s keepers. Every one is taking care of one another and this support system is what keeps us going.

I went shopping with JP and the other fellows a few days ago. I told him I was looking for shoes and he accompanied me as he also wanted a pair of shoes.  We went to a shop where I found the shoes I was looking for but also convinced him to get a pair of Adidas kicks for himself which he happened to wear on the hike. JP then told me to find a shoe he could buy for me. I found a pair  brown,orange and green sandals. He approved and paid for them. I would never have imagined that through all our conversations and the shopping, JP was bidding me farewell. I never imagined that we would come back from the falls without him. JP might be gone but I will never forget the friendship we had. I would have loved to have known him for a lifetime but I only got 8 days and a pair of sandals. I will take that for now…until we meet again.

Rest well my Nigerian brother.

Below are the last pictures taken with him before we started the hike.

jp 1

jp 2

jp 3

jp 6

jp 7

Conquered any fears lately?

I  have a lot of fears, some legitimate, some not so much. I have a fear of the dark, I fear chameleons, I fear bullies, I fear sleeping when I’m sick (who wants to die in their sleep?)I fear snakes. Another very legitimate fear of mine is heights.  I am generally an adventurous person but when it comes to heights, I get paralysed.

So if you told me a month ago that I would be doing something called zip lining among other height related activities, I wouldn’t have believed you!  But that is exactly what I did two days ago. The beauty of the Mandela Washington fellowship is that not only are you gaining and strengthening various skills in leadership through classes but you also get to learn and challenge yourself through practice. There is so much room to try out new things and move out of your comfort zone. It is really the most beautiful way to learn.

So when we visited a place called Tree top adventures, I was excited about being “adventurous” for the day and dressing up in protective gear for the whole exercise was a cool experience in itself. My excitement dwindled rapidly when we were taken to the demonstration area. I started sweating and getting the familiar fear butterflies in my tummy. There was no way I was going to do what the instructor was showing us, just no way, I told myself.  It was at this moment that I had to confront my fear and put it under control. As I have heard before, it is ok to be afraid as long as you don’t let it control you! To cut the long story short, not only did I participate in the demonstration, I also went on the real obstacle course and oh how liberating it was!

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What I learnt from this experience is that fear gives you an illusion of what you cannot do. There are so many times that I have failed to act, speak up or behave in a certain way because I was afraid. Fear puts you in a box and unfortunately, it is a box no one can save you from. You need to reach a point where you refuse to be controlled and rise above your fear. Not only did I lose opportunities for both personal and professional growth because of fear but I also let down other people who counted on me.

Fear ensures that you get stuck in your comfort zone. There have been several times that I have been in places that I did not like but was not willing to move because it was familiar both in work and relationships. I am assuming that is where the phrase “better the devil you know than the angel you don’t know” generates from. I have come to realise that I feared change like most of us do. There is a quote I like from the movie “eat, pray, love” that says “ruin is good. Ruin is the road to transformation.” I am learning to be more open minded about disrupting the way I think and behave and exploring more than I have ever done before. In this way, I am learning and growing and although I am afraid of everything that might go wrong, I would rather try and fail than not try at all.

There is a whole world out there waiting for you and me to explore, new people to meet and connect with, causes to bravely fight for, opportunities for growth to grab, visions to run with… fear must not keep us away from all this! Fear must not keep us from living…

“There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breeze of the sky,

And you ask “what if I fall?”

Oh but my darling,

What if you fly?”- Erin Hanson