In 2017, I attended an International Women’s Day event examining progress towards women’s rights globally in New York City, where I lived and worked as a United Nations senior adviser. The event was hosted by a large corporation and on this evening, women in fancy dresses and men in fine suits milled around holding cocktails and tiny plates of canapés, making small talk and idle conversation. It was a glittering affair, unlike many of the low-key humanitarian events I had attended in my decades working in global development with the UN.
As I, too, walked about, greeting colleagues and friends, still wearing my simple black dress from work, I fell into a conversation with one of the event’s sponsors. At some point, she turned to me and asked: “How did you come to speak English, and so well, when you are from Africa?”
I would like to say I was surprised, but in truth I was accustomed to these hurtful and ignorant comments. I did what I always did: I smiled politely and answered honestly: “We are taught English at school.” “Really?” the woman exclaimed, nodded and moved on.
I felt a warmth in my chest — a feeling of frustration and even sadness. Yes, I was used to these kinds of questions, but it didn’t make them any easier to stomach or accept. Such questions operated from an erroneous assumption: that Africa was a single country rather than a continent, and that as a whole it was defined by a single narrative of poverty. I had a catalogue of examples that were reminiscent of this encounter, and I began to remember them:
In my 20s, when I had moved to London from my home country of Zimbabwe to pursue a job with the UN, a British woman asked me: “Do you find it strange, having to wear clothes?” My confusion must have been obvious, because she repeated her question in slow-motion, moving her hands up and down her body to indicate the wearing of a dress or another kind of clothing. “You know,” she said, “since you do not wear clothes in Africa.”
Another time, a colleague asked: “Is it true that Africans sleep on trees?” And then there was the time when I informed an audience during a panel discussion titled Technology for Good that Africa had the largest mobile phone market. Immediately a hand shot up and someone in the audience asked: “But who do Africans call?”
I continued mingling at the party, but I kept thinking about the persistent — and wholly incorrect portrayal of Africa as a hopeless, disease-infested, poverty-ridden and war-torn continent that needs help from other countries if and when they choose benevolence.
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Even if this is the way my home continent is often portrayed in much of Western media, I knew a far different Africa, one that contradicted these pervasive myths that are unjust to the continent and the lives of the people who live and thrive there.
Such myths promote sentiments of paternalism in the West that are outdated and unnecessary.
My decision to work at the UN was driven by my need to uplift the lives of others the way I had been uplifted. When I moved to the United Kingdom, the images of Africa I saw on television did not align with my lived experience. I was galvanised to combat these entrenched misperceptions of the place where I was born and raised, the place I am proud to claim as my continent of origin.
The desire to challenge incorrect views of Africa and its people has kept me motivated on the difficult, long days as I worked to become a global thought leader on gender equality, breaking through gender bias and stereotypes across global forums and on the world stage.
That night my activism found a new target: to bring to the world a new understanding of the modern African continent — its youthful potential; its beauty, and most of all, the powerful African philosophy of ubuntu, which sheds light on what it means to be human, and how we can better treat each other for the betterment of us all.
My grandmother used to tell me, time and time again: “You ask too many questions for a child your age.” Now, as an adult, I was eager to ask this question: how could ubuntu inspire and motivate all people to see themselves as part of a collective human community? How would that change the way the world interacts with and understands the African continent, and all of the talented and incredible people who live there?
I grew up in rural Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, just as the reign of British colonialism that had illegally ruled since the 1800s came to an end. Although I witnessed, first-hand, staggering poverty in my village, that’s not what defined our community. Instead, our freedom and independence ushered in a resurgence of the African philosophy of ubuntu, meaning, I am because we are, and because we are, you are.
This philosophy served as an important healing touchstone for Zimbabweans, shaping our understanding of “self” in relation to our changing community, and recognising that we are all interconnected in some way or another. Ubuntu brought us closer together as a country, and it has served and continues to serve as a guiding principle — a beacon, if you will — in my life and work.
An interconnected community
Through ubuntu, we understood ourselves as one great interconnected community, thus understanding that our ability to flourish as individuals was absolutely dependent on the community thriving, and vice versa.
After so much discrimination based on the colour of our skin, Zimbabweans reclaimed our identities as mwana wevhu, or “child of the soil,” a term I first heard from my grandmother, and an idea that shaped me as a child and continues to inspire me as a woman.
Why? Because ubuntu is not about the struggle of us versus them; it is precisely the opposite. It means that we can uplift ourselves and appreciate our differences, while understanding that we all belong to the same human race. And that when we uplift others, we in turn uplift ourselves.
As I left the event and headed out into the big American city that had become my home, I thought of my first home in rural Zimbabwe, and all that I had experienced and witnessed to arrive at this place in my life: from narrowly escaping death at the age of eight; to my unlikely path to the UN and to my former role as UN senior adviser.
All of this work has been driven by the philosophy of ubuntu, combined with a girl born in a small village who had big dreams who refused to be limited by her circumstances; a girl with networks of family and friends that taught her how to view the world through the eyes of a collective consciousness; and a woman who had the good fortune to witness her projects in service to her home continent come to beautiful, if imperfect, fruition.
As the lights of the city glittered around me, I took a deep breath, thought of my grandmother and my mother and all the powerful Africans I knew and know, and reminded myself:
I am a girl from Africa.
This is my story.
About the book
A powerful memoir about a girl from Africa whose near-death experience sparked a dream that changed the world. When severe drought hit her village in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth, then eight, had no idea that this moment of utter devastation would come to define her life’s purpose. Unable to move from hunger, she encountered a UN aid worker who gave her a bowl of warm porridge and saved her life.