Empire and insights, Grenfell and the Global South: my fellowship year

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Maureen Sigauke

2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

“So what was it really like?” My friend Rudo prompted a wave of memories when she asked me about being an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She was thinking of applying, and wanted to know how the experience had been for me. It’s hard to believe that a year has come and gone since I first flew to the UK to join the second cohort of Fellows from around the world. But the experiences of that active fellowship year have left an indelible imprint on me personally, and I think they’ve permanently changed my worldview, too.

In all my experience and travels as a labour and climate change activist, I had deliberately avoided London because of the way its imperial past threaded through that of my beloved Zimbabwe. Even though multitudes of Zimbabweans have flocked to Britain as economic refugees — as is sadly all too common for so many Africans — for years I stubbornly refused to do the same. It was, after all, the UK’s colonial legacy that helped sow the economic disaster that my countrymen and women are running away from. But despite my bitterness, I found myself intrigued by a fellowship whose aim is to discuss, analyse, understand and inspire action around inequalities. I had to be part of this, I remember thinking. I applied, and to my surprise I was accepted.

I found London to be just as I had envisioned it and much, much more: a riot of styles and ages of architecture, from Roman and Romanesque remains to remnants of the medieval walled city and the English Renaissance, reeking of its long past as a globally dominant economic hub. From the viewpoint of an African coming from a continent that is still learning from its own systemic failings, everything seemed to function like clockwork — the Tube, the public services, the internet. I was in awe. I could see why so many people believed that London was a place where you come to make dreams come true. Each time I came to the city during the course of my active fellowship, and as I met and talked to strangers in pubs, shops, streets and parks, I came to appreciate the sheer scale of the flow of migration into the city, both by foreigners and Britons from elsewhere in the UK. Migration has brought a river of people that brightens, enriches and enlivens London with colour and diversity.

However, as I had suspected, London is not only a site of diversity, but a stage where inequality and injustices past and present are played out. My solo adventures beyond the wealth and order of central London and into boroughs south of the river, in east London and into the city’s west and north showed me that, contrary to the popular belief back in Zimbabwe that all is good, prosperous and fair in the UK, much of what I saw was far from fair. Through a kindred spirit and friend, I spent a day volunteering at a food bank and visiting the site of the deadly June 2017 fire on the Grenfell estate in West London. The stories I heard at the Grenfell memorial site of the misgovernance, corruption, vested interests and flouted regulations that cost so many lives, and the daily human cost of austerity that I saw played out at the food bank, tugged at my heart. Despite the big green heart plastered everywhere around Grenfell, the anger, loss and pain from this act of “social murder” was still so intense you could feel it radiating off the graffitied walls and hanging in the air like ashes. The capital city of my former colonisers is a beautiful and a fatally unequal place.

My acute awareness of the conflicted history of the fellowship’s host city served as an important counter-thread to my “in-class” experience at the London School of Economics and Political Science with my fellow Fellows, 18 other change-makers from across the globe. As an institution, LSE has a reputation that is rivaled by few. African greats such as Kwame Nkrumah (the first Ghanaian president), Lionel Zinsou (Benin’s prime minister from 2015 to 2016) and Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, had all walked the LSE hallways. It is LSE’s reputation that doubtless made it easy for the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme to attract notable and renowned thinkers to the countless interesting talks, summits and public lectures that were a key feature of my fellowship year.

From the first day, I knew that our programme’s strength was in the diversity of the participants. Our geographical diversity meant diversity in our viewpoints, and the range of our focus areas gave breadth and depth to the way we looked at the cross-sectional nature of inequalities. The diversity of our group also meant that there was cocktail of different personalities and cultures – beautiful and colourful, and at the same time packed with expectations and responsibilities. Surprisingly, a big chunk of my fellowship experience and key learning was about how to be mindful of my inner self and to be responsible for the energy I brought into the space. At heart, this learning was about an awareness of the self, and an understanding of my own, and others’, privilege.

At the end of our fourth module and the conclusion of our active fellowship year in June, as we said our goodbyes — or rather our “See you laters” what I saw through watery eyes was a family whose connections had deepened and strengthened over the course of the fellowship.  At that moment, I truly understood what the fellowship process had demanded of all of us. I struggled with the history of my relationship to a former colonial master and its implications for the people I gladly serve. I struggled with the disadvantages that come with being a black woman from the global South. In the course of the year, I experienced personal struggles that battered and fatigued me, as if the fight against global inequalities had not been draining enough. And as I write about myself, I am well aware that every one of the change-makers in my fellowship cohort are also going through their own set of struggles evoked by the fellowship space, our group’s interactions and the challenges — personal, political, professional, economic and more — that so many of us face back at home. In all of the excitement at being accepted into this life-altering fellowship, I hadn’t anticipated that the personal struggle it brought would knock the wind out of me.

As a Fellow, I struggled and experienced every emotion possible, yet through those struggles I became re-energised and inspired to take on more. I walked away from my active fellowship year with a renewed conviction that the world needs people who care for people enough to fight the sickening inequalities created by the neoliberal and extractive economic models that the world’s powerful are still fixated by. I walked away from this year with a strong support system that has become a family I can rely on for companionship and comradeship in my life and in my struggles.

“It was a very difficult year,” I told Rudo. “But it was worth every moment.” 

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Maureen Sigauke is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. She tweets at @Maureenashleigh