If there is one thing black people do so well, it is collectivizing. We do this extremely well when denouncing evil, empathizing with others, fighting for a cause or celebrating with victors of our own kind. When Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and a host of others whose names have now become twitter trends were coldly murdered by those protected by an entrenched white supremacy system, black people voiced out. Thousands of miles away from Ferguson in dorm rooms on the campus of the University of Ghana, people retweeted hashtags in support of Michael Brown. Students shared in the sentiments of the #BlackLivesMatter movements even though it sounded out of place to suggest black lives were being targeted in a population made up of almost a 100% black people. 6000 plus miles away from Thessaloniki, black tertiary debaters are celebrating the success of a fellow African.
Every year, some of the most dialectical minds in tertiary universities around the world convocate for the World Universities Debate Championships. The competition was first held in 1981 and hosted by Glasgow University Union in Scotland and has since then been held by various unions around the world. Africa has hosted it a couple of times. This year, it was in Thessaloniki.
It is the dream of every debater to represent his or her Debating Union at this tournament. For the nerds and “wanna be” nerds we are, winning regional and national debate championships is the only opportunity we have to feel like valiant gladiators emerging from a fight in a coliseum with blood smeared over our faces and dripping from our weapons. Representing our unions at the WUDC gives us an extra-terrestrial feeling. Imagine if the Romans ever had a gathering of warriors from all around the world in a battle to death competition and you were the spear holding and lion skin garment wearing warrior chosen to fight against Samurais, Crusaders and Ghazis. That is how exciting and honorific it is.
Sadly not all are able to live this dream. For starters, the paucity of funds available to debate in universities makes it hard. And then there is the unfortunate situation with visa denials, usually experienced when the tournament is hosted by Western countries which see African visa applicants as potential illegal immigrants. So once you scale these logistical hurdles and find your way to the tournament, you already feel like marathon running making it half way through the race in record time.
The hardest part is making an impact at the tournament. There are several bottlenecks African speakers face. Some say the training we receive is substandard compared to what speakers from other regions do. There are few super competitive “open” tournaments on the continent which are at the pedigree of those hosted in North America, Europe and Australia.
And then there is the issue of perceived “institutional privilege”. It is very hard defending such an assertion when it dwells in very grey areas. The argument on institutional privilege is that simply because a speaker is from one of the top debating unions (i.e. Harvard, Yale, Sydney, Monash, and Oxford etc.), he or she is in an advantaged position to sail through the tournament.
There is also the belief that some of the “biggest” names in debating circles are also advantaged simply because their track record precedes them. Their participation in open tournaments around the world familiarizes them with them adjudicators and one way or the other, tilts the bias of judges in their favor. And then there is the issue of speakers with non-western accents.
As someone who is a neophyte in debating circles and yet to take part in a WUDC, I do not know the veracity or otherwise of some of the claims. They do sound very contentious and better left to those who have actually taken part in WUDCs. Nonetheless, African speakers have generally not had a fruitful history with WUDC, especially African speakers from African debating unions. Teams from Africa struggle to break from the preliminary rounds and when they do, they rarely go past the octofinals. The footprint of Africans at the WUDC has largely been left by Africans studying at institutions in the west.
That brings us to Fanele Mashwama!!! I am no biographer of this young fella. All the information I pieced on him are from hearsays and chitchats within debating circles. The beauty of his story is the “started from the bottom, now we here” nature of it. From representing his country at the world championships for high schools to reportedly being on Team E of the University of Cape Town, Fanele has risen to become one of the best speakers in tertiary debate around the world. Again, I do not know the man so I cannot go on and talk about the nuances of his story. All I can do is to gush about his glory, celebrate his story and blog about his victory. The “blackness” in me prods me to do so. While I streamed the finals yesterday, I saw so many stereotypes people still hold about black people being challenged within his 7 minutes speech. BLACK IS GREATNESS!!!
The story would have been more fulfilling if it were of an African student from an African university. That would have challenged stereotypes people have about Africa in a magnitude even Kofi Annan could never have achieved. But we can dream about that on another day. For now, we celebrate a WUDC champion who looks just like us and has nappy hair like we do.
It would be great if Fanele started an initiative to train speakers from Africa and equip us with the stuff “that wins world championships”. There is nothing which compels him to do so and I know there are already such ventures like African Voice. I cannot begin to say how much their material has been helpful in my development as a speaker. But there is nothing more African of a voice than one which is really AFRICAN.