Education…Zambia Style

As I type this, a current head of state is speaking relatively informally to students in one of the undergraduate houses here at Harvard. Even for an institution such as Harvard where world political, medical, and financial leaders the world over seem to come and talk on a regular basis (in addition to random celebrity sightings like Val Kilmer in The Kong last week), this is not a normal thing.

As some here on campus have said, current heads of state speaking at the University is usually reserved for either Commencement or the IOP. It usually invovles ticket lotterying as well and undergraduates very rarely get the opportunity to see such an individual, let alone get placed in a position to interact with such an individual. For these reasons, what is happening right now in the Kirkland Junior Common Room (JCR) is amazing on numerous levels concerning class, race, culture, and politics. (more in expanded post)

As I sat eating dinner in Kirkland’s dining hall about two hours ago the atmosphere was one ripe with both anticipation and confusion. On the anticipatory side, many in the dining hall were there to catch a quick bite to eat before attempting to huddle into Kirkland’s JCR and hear from the President of Zambia. A number of people in the dining hall were middle-aged, wore nice clothing and kept their eyes firmly fixed on the door out of the dining hall facing the JCR in between bites of grilled chicken breast (that was great…compliments to the chef). However, on the confusion side, many Kirkland residents seemed taken aback by the large number of Black students and adults that seemed to be scurrying around their dining hall. I was just waiting for someone to come to me and ask if there was a Black student group meeting in here or something. Grrr…

The range of people that I saw waiting to get into the JCR to hear the President also surprised me. Everyone from African graduate school students of law or government to wealthy, White undergraduates from Andover were eager to listen to this powerful, Black man. Before the event happened, some in the Black community were nervous about turnout and feared that few people would come to see the President of a nation that not many could point to on a map come and speak. However, from the fact that the room was already overflowing with people half an hour before the event was scheduled to begin one can assume that many on campus got the word.

The range of people that I saw waiting to get into the JCR to hear the President also made me think of how rare it is for a largely White, privileged student body to hear from the leader of a country whose per capita GDP is about the price of textbooks for an undergraduate year at Harvard. What type of cross-cultural education is happening right now? Whose eyes are being opened wider? The President of Zambia’s who is facing a room with a disproportionate amount of Blacks in it relative to the number of Blacks at the college? Or the White students who are seeing a Black, African male with a third-world education possibly dispense wisdom far beyond that which their White, male, Ec professor with a Ph.D from Oxford? More to come…

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3 responses to “Education…Zambia Style

  1. Can you explain the “grrr…” Does that happen to you a lot? Is that a common thing? I’m really curious…

  2. The “grrr…” comes from my experience being at Harvard in Adams House on Monday evenings when ABHW, BMF, and HASA all have meetings. There isn’t always a warm reception to Black student group meetings. There’s more often an, “Where the heck do they think they are taking over our space? Harlem?” That frustrating and makes me growl. Hence the “grrr…”

  3. Preference is always given to undergraduates at IOP events, including Forums with high profile guests such as heads of states.

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