Despite their recent efforts to reach out to the Yale community through a week full of events celebrating African culture on campus, many African students still feel misrepresented at the University.
Julia Jenjezwa ’16, the vice president of Yale African Students Association, said that during Africa Week — an annual celebration of African culture hosted by YASA held last week, which included events such as an African dance master class and an address from South African female opposition leader Lindiwe Mazibuko — there were often times where she felt that the Yale community did not want to engage with the discussions the week raised.
YASA president Esther Soma ’16 said she was disappointed that the Veritas Forum with Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan on Wednesday filled Battell Chapel, while many of the intellectually focused Africa Week events saw minimal participation.
The theme of this year’s Africa Week was “Pamba Zuko: Voices of a New Generation.” Soma said that the theme was chosen because YASA wanted to highlight voices that are not often being heard, particularly those from a younger generation, adding that every speaker YASA selected was under 40 years of age.
“When you think of Africa, it’s very easy to hear about Kofi Annon or [Nelson] Mandela,” she said. “But this is a new generation, and the stories from that new generation have to be told.”
In her talk on Monday, entitled “New Voices in Governance,” Mazibuko said there is no option for the African youth but to rise and make their voices heard.
Sangu Delle, a U.S.-based Ghanaian entrepreneur who co-founded a sanitation project for a village in his home country while he was in college, gave a talk about founding entrepreneurial businesses. He also, however, discussed the challenges faced by African students who come to the U.S. for university. Delle, who studied African Studies as an undergraduate at Harvard, said he was confronted with criticism and prejudice from his home community.
Five students interviewed during the panels said they appreciated that YASA made an effort to invite young and inspirational African leaders.
Jenjezwa said that Yale is a much better place for African students than many schools in the U.S. However, she suggested that when writing about Africa, many forget that there are actually Africans on campus.
The most recent example of this that students interviewed cited was the Ebola crisis. Jenjezwa said many students from the continent are not going home for Christmas because they fear not being allowed back into the U.S., even if Ebola is not in their countries.
Yale students are not alone in these concerns. Jessica Sithebe, the freshman representative for the Harvard African Students Association, said fears of Ebola across the U.S. led to misconceptions about Africa. She added that the virus’ spread has sparked inappropriate jokes and comments in conversation.
Wabantu Hlophe ’18, a student from Swaziland who is involved with YASA, said African students struggle to break down conceptions of their home countries.
“Our home countries stop being places of civilization and start being places of events,” he said. “Places where things went wrong and our countries’ names become synonymous with whatever that problem was. When people hear the word, Rwanda, they think ‘Rwandan Genocide.’ When they hear Sierra Leone, they think ‘blood diamonds.’ Somalia, they think ‘piracy.’”
While some students feel misrepresented, Warner said YASA helps incorporate African students into campus culture and provides a comfort for them. She said it is sometimes difficult to frequently read news articles about corruption and problems in her home country.
“It is disheartening to read, but since I have been at Yale I am proud to say I’m from South Africa, and it has made me excited about returning with a new and more positive perspective,” she said.
Yale College has only 55 students from the African continent currently enrolled, 9 percent of the international student population of 598.
Correction: Nov. 17
A previous version of this article misstated the home country of Wabantu Hlophe ’18.