‘Home can become this ill-spoken-of place that you constantly defend, so that in a sick and twisted way, you begin to breed, in yourself, a sort of savior mentality. Home can become this distant thing to be saved. Home can become a wild, unraveling epic in which you cast yourself as a heroine for desiring to return. But who in the world are you?’
(Extract from Dear African Abroad: Home is not Waiting for you)
Our Homecoming Series highlights the return of ALA graduates to the continent to fulfill our combined mission of making a positive impact. Takondwa Priscilla Semphere (Graduate Class of 2013, Malawi) has just done that – but unusually, though, ALA’s Writing and Rhetoric Lecturer has yet to set foot on home soil.
Takwonda graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts this past May – and by the time her South African visa application came through, it was time to take up her new post as lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the school that played a critical part in shaping her identity.
“I’m an Africanist. I really wanted to work in a space that was doing work on the continent, and most of the posts I could apply to from the US made me cringe. So I applied to a fellowship with Princeton in Africa instead, partnering with ALA.
This, agrees Takondwa, makes absolute sense. “It’s where I needed to be, as a writer, and as a person. Being in the US was very heavy for me, as a black woman, especially in the current political climate.”
As the child – and grandchild – of a pastor, Takondwa grew up in a deeply religious household. “I didn’t feel stifled,” she acknowledges. “I didn’t ask for much from life so I did not really reflect on the kind of context I grew up in until I left.”
Once at ALA, though, her perceptions expanded “beyond school, church and home”. “I got to define my own opinions of things – especially because of how diverse ALA is and so many people thinking believing things different. I was given permission to find my own voice.” And attending a liberal women’s college in the US only served to make her voice more radical, she explains.
“Coming to ALA made me very Africanist; Africa was a part of my identity, so in the US I was already obsessed with Africa, and very much against anything that seeks to squash our voices – and I walked into a set of politics that postured me. I was ready to fight for anything that had to with anything I came from…”
Takondwa found herself studying the Study of Women and Gender and African Studies in an institution that, though liberal, “was still a predominantly white women’s institution, so there were issues around race, with still a lot of work, and decolonizing, to be done.” This, she says, led to the formation of her politics: “It empowered me further, to know that I am valued in a space, shake tables and speak truth to power.”
She joined the African and Caribbean students association, eventually serving as President. “When I stepped into the role, the attitude idea was very much one of: ‘Let’s cook jolloff rice and hold parties – but I really wanted to have meaningful conversations, get people thinking critically about the continent,” she reflects. She made a small but significant start, by opening the conversation. “It’s the small things that shape people’s perceptions and understanding of people. And it starts with conversation… “
Takondwa is no stranger to starting conversations, though. After graduating from ALA in 2013, she took a gap year, to focus on growing PenAfrica, which she founded as student enterprise, and its flagship offering, her self-published children’s book, Ekari Leaves Malawi.
Launched in October 2013, the book was meant to be one of a series but, she explains: “The first book was cute – but children’s books and stories can do important work – and as I went through my own personal journey and my politics shifted, I realized I wanted the book to be a bit more radical, more explicitly political.”
Ekari follows the exploratory experiences of an 8-year-old whose mom is a journalist, and travels the continent. The book, and its publishing company, PenAFrika, garnered Takondwa recognition as a 2013 Global Teen Leader with Three Dot Dash, and a Spring 2014 scholarship to Watson University. She was also named one of the inaugural members of the OZY Genius Awards in May 2015.
She’s written several insightful articles and essays for The Huffington Post that reflect her growing development as a postcolonial theorist.
Takondwa has also spoken at several global conferences, including The Economist Africa Summit in London in a panel session titled Aspirations for Africa: The New Generation, Innovation and Entrepreneurs, and at the AGCO Africa Summit in Berlin.
Her biography tags her as ‘Student, in and out of the Classroom’. “Although I’m currently teaching, I’m also learning. I’m always learning. I’m always close-reading my life, my world, the people I’m surrounded with, as texts. Texts that I annotate and read with care; sources that inform the meaning I make of my life. I never stop learning. I always want to maintain a posture of readiness where learning is concerned.”
On coming home
Takondwa has written an emotive article on the expectations of Africans returning from abroad (see extracts above and below). “As I grow older, I feel more and more like a visitor. As I mentioned in the article, home is changing and so am I. I go home with this in mind, and I think it makes the return less jarring. When I was younger, returning home came with bouts of grief because I was still clinging steadfastly onto people and places and memories.
Now, I know that those things are not temporal constants. They are firmly fixed in a particular time in my life that I cannot relive or experience again. This thought, sad as it may seem, has been liberating. I spend no energy trying to hold onto things that I cannot have now. So home is a new experience every time – an old friend. In some ways, we pick up where we left off. In others, I learn about new developments in this old friend’s life.”
‘Whenever it is that you come home, do so with your head bowed, with your ears sharp and attuned to listening. Take your shoes off at the door, be confident to speak and share the perspectives you’ve learned, but be quick to listen and learn how exactly it is that home needs you.’ – Further extract from Dear African Abroad
READ: Broken English: When Our Mother Tongues Take the Back Seat–Takondwa’s article for the Huffington Post