The African dream should be where arts, science and technology can work together to achieve a more humane continent not just for the rich but for all its citizens, says author Zukiswa Wanner.
I went to primary and high school in Zimbabwe from the 1980s until the early 90s. Back then, only four professions were considered worthy of pursuing: medicine, engineering, finance and law.
A child was forced into a professional stream as early as the age of 14. In my school, for instance, your results for mid-term examinations in Form 2 at the age of 14 would determine whether you were placed in the science, arts or commercial class.
If you passed the O Level exams well at 16, you went on to do A Levels and by the age of 18, you could be going to the University of Zimbabwe or the National University of Science and Technology to study medicine, engineering, accounting. Or you could opt for law or try being recruited by Coopers & Lybrand or Ernst & Young to serve five years of articles before becoming an accountant.
Often mothers, while sweeping their yards on a Saturday morning, would proudly respond to a neighbour asking about the family with: “They are well although we rarely see our son Tamuka. You know he is staying on campus at the University of Zimbabwe where he is studying for his B.Acc.”
When a young woman in her first year studying medicine visited her grandmother in the village, the whole village would have been told she was studying to be a doctor or a pharmacist. They would come with their sprained hand or a headache and miraculously be healed when the young woman suggested aspirin from the local store.
A father would start only answering to being called Baba va Advo (Father of Law) because his son doing his third- year law degree was a prospective advocate.
On graduating with an engineering degree, a young man would be taken to First Street in Harare, chained and covered in grease; he would grin as he proudly told passers-by that even as they laughed at his grease-covered body, he was now ‘in the money’.
Medicine, engineering, accounting or law. These were proper professions. All other occupations that entailed working five days a week were merely jobs. Think teachers, nurses, factory workers, plumbers, salespeople, bank tellers or bus drivers.
Artistic lines of work, be it acting, writing, music, dancing, fashion design or cooking, were considered hobbies. I remember talking to peers from across the continent and hearing that it was almost always the same everywhere.
The importance of these traditional professions has had mixed consequences for those who toe the line with their parents, and for the future of Africa. For instance, for those now working in these professions, the next step was usually that one must ‘settle down and get married’. Indeed, I grew up in a society that had this shoved down our throats so much that when I was 16 and my best friend’s sister Elizabeth, an accountant, got married at the age of 26, my best friend and I looked at each other and mouthed, “Finally! She was so old.”
Taking the traditional route
Eleven years later, having had the privilege and benefit of a little more education thanks to meeting people from different countries and studying in a university system that was distinctly different from what I grew up in, the young man I was dating asked for my hand in marriage.
I was mortified and this came out only as a ridiculing laugh. “Are you crazy? I am too young,” I exclaimed. That was the end of that relationship but to put it in perspective, at 27, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had studied journalism, it’s true. I had a portfolio with articles but I was still uncertain. I would only feel the pull of being a writer when my first book got published three years later.
We now know from neuroscientists that the human brain is only fully formed at 25. And yet because post-independence tradition on the continent has expected us to be ‘adulting’ and paying fees for our relatives, and to be married at that age, we all know a fair share of family and friends who have gone the traditional route with some unfortunate results.
A friend who was a brilliant writer in high school and used to craft all the school plays was pushed by his father to study medicine, because they were a family of doctors. What did he mean he wanted to do English, French and Shona at A Level?! He dutifully studied medicine but the consequences were devastating. Later on, traumatised after witnessing death, he committed suicide while still doing his residency.
Another friend became an alcoholic and was struck off the payroll and now makes money for his liquor through performing backstreet abortions.
Those who are married by 25 are sometimes divorced in their 30s or 40s or find themselves in unhappy unions because tradition would rather have an individual unhappy than divorced.
On the other hand, there are other people who manage to keep to tradition and still follow their dreams. A Kenyan friend studied law then after a few years of practice, decided to go back to her passion in music. It’s no secret that even if you are a successful artist, money does not always come regularly. Law has therefore allowed her to work as a consultant for artistic contracts, ensuring that she has additional income while empowering her fellow artists.
A Nigerian friend who studied medicine and decided to go into the psychiatry branch of it has found it enriching in his artwork as a poet.
How do we achieve the African dream? It is not through discarding traditions entirely but through accommodating both those who would pursue traditional professions and those who want to pursue their dream professions, even when those professions don’t have a long history on the continent.
Because there is more to us, there should be more to our dream Africa than just hoping to acquire money and become rich. South Africa is burning as I write because our political, business, scientific and artistic leadership failed to recognise this. North Africa was in flames in 2010 and 2011 because it refused to listen to the majority of the population on this continent, who are young.
Before scientists created robots, artists had already conceived them in fiction. Before Dolly the sheep was cloned in the 20th century, Mary Shelley had imagined and written Frankenstein in the 19th century.
The African dream then should be where arts, science and technology can work together to achieve a more humane continent not just for the rich but for all its citizens. It is where our governments invest money in research so that our scientists can be innovative while still looking at our traditional medicines to see how they can help heal us.
It’s where we don’t celebrate Africans for putting us on the map because they won an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Booker, a Leonore Annenberg or a Goethe Medal, but celebrate them in addition to what they will have achieved here because our governments are funding the arts.
An African dream is where we don’t need to hire architects from Italy or engineers from Switzerland to build our cities because our architects and engineers can work together hand- in-hand to make functional and aesthetically pleasing structures.
We realise the African dream through platforms and discussions like those at Ake Arts & Book Festival in Nigeria, or Abantu Festival in South Africa, where artists, accountants and scientists come together and attempt to forge a way forward, while not having a memory loss on some of the achievements already existing.
May we live to experience, rather than continue deferring the dream by recognising that we can professionalise every occupation that we and our children are passionate about if the will is there.
Read more from our special report African Youth Speaks.