Zambian MA student Chishimba Kasanga is on her way to Oxford University

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An ecstatic Chishimba Kasanga will be doing her doctorate at Oxford University. Photo by Edward Mhlongo
An ecstatic Chishimba Kasanga will be doing her doctorate at Oxford University. Photo by Edward Mhlongo
“My father kept asking me, ‘Are you going to Oxford? ... like Oxford, where the dictionary comes from?’”

Journalism and Media Studies Masters student, Chishimba Kasanga (affectionately known as “Chichi”), has recently been selected as a Zambian elect of a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship for 2021. Studying Zambian women’s use of feminist Facebook pages to challenge patriarchy, there is no doubt that Chishimba is soon to add her name to the list of inspiring world leaders.

The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and perhaps most esteemed international scholarship programme, enabling students from around the world to study at the University of Oxford. One of the founding aims of the scholarship is to select exceptional young leaders who will make a positive impact in the world. This description is spot-on for someone like Lusaka-born Chichi who also currently serves as an official Dreams ambassador for women and girls in Zambia.

After graduating from the University of Zambia, Chichi enrolled to do a Masters in Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in 2019. Her research investigated how Zambian women are making use of social media (in particular, feminist Facebook pages) to challenge patriarchy and espouse gender non-conformity in Zambian society. At Oxford, she hopes to extend her Phd studies into the role social networking platforms play in gender and identity formation, and explore how online activism falls into the broader politics of unpaid digital labour.

We recently caught up with the ecstatic Chichi to find out what being awarded the Rhodes Scholarship means to her, the impact she hopes to make on society for women and girls’ rights in Zambia, and why she believes the world needs braver and more empathetic leadership.

“If someone tells you, you can’t. Turn around and say ‘watch me!’”

Firstly, we have to ask, what was it like writing your Masters thesis during a global pandemic?

CK: Honestly, what a time to be alive! My supervisor and I have had to become innovative and learn new ways to collect data. During South Africa’s lockdown (alert level 5, 4, 3 and 2), I was not able to travel home for data collection, so we had to use digital platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp to conduct focus groups and interviews. When it comes to the actual writing, I have learned to be kinder to myself. Certain days are often more challenging than others. We are living during a global pandemic; the situation is volatile, everyone is anxious. Worse so for me, who is miles away from home and always worrying about the safety of my family, especially my mother, who is a health worker. So, on good days I get the majority of my work done, and on the more challenging days, I grant myself grace and be present in the moment. One way in which I do this is by incorporating self-care into my daily routine; from getting enough sleep, to exercising, and just taking moments to breathe.

You have just received the news that you have been awarded a 2021 Rhodes Scholarship. Where are you, what do you do, set the scene for us...

CK: The call came during supper. On the other line was Ms Muloongo Muchelemba, the National Secretary of the Rhodes Trust Zambia. When she told me the news that I was a Rhodes Scholar Elect for Zambia, tears started streaming down my face. I tried hard to fight the sobs so that Ms Muchelemba couldn’t hear them! My friends Menelisi and Mutale were holding their breath during the call. They couldn’t read my facial expression and didn’t know whether my tears were tears of joy or of disappointment. As soon as the call ended, I burst into more sobs. I was only able to tell them later that I actually got it, and we all cried some more. It was such an emotional evening. We were all in shock.

“This is a big win for us as a family, especially my parents... Me going to Oxford is the cherry on their cake; all their sacrifices paying off.”

You were also recently announced a winner of the Rhodes University centre of postgraduate studies 3-minute thesis challenge. Here, you chiselled your expansive research down and explained it – in just three minutes – in your video titled "This revolution will be televised: Social media, women, and empowerment.” Bearing this in mind, we’d like to pose a new challenge to you... can you explain how you feel about being awarded the Rhodes Scholarship in just three words?

CK: Grateful, excited, optimistic.

How did your family in Zambia and the broader public react to the news of your scholarship?

CK: I called my parents, and they were in disbelief. My father kept asking, “Are you going to Oxford? Wow Chichi, wow. Like Oxford, where the dictionary comes from?” I kept saying, “Yes, Daddy,” while crying. My family has been my biggest support system. This scholarship is a big win for us as a family, especially my parents, who have sacrificed so much for my siblings and I to get a decent education. Me going to Oxford is the cherry on their cake; all their sacrifices paying off. When I finally made the social media announcement and shared the news with the rest of the world, I was humbled by the support I received. I did not know that my social media announcement would blow up the way it did! I have received many congratulatory messages from people of all walks of life. But more importantly, I am grateful that my story has inspired others to dream big. 

What does it mean to you to be a Rhodes Scholar, and what is the type of impact you would like to have on society?

CK: Being a Rhodes Scholar means being part of a network of young people who want to bring change in their societies and the world. I see myself in the forefront, advocating for women and girls’ rights. Being a Rhodes scholar will boost my bargaining, not only at the local community level, but nationally and ultimately, globally. I intend to become an informed lead advocate in gender and womens’ rights in Zambia, and reading for a DPhil will further my interest in academia and in works that involve gender and digital media studies research.

“To my fellow young women leaders, people will try and project their fears and limits on us.”

What are you looking forward to the most about studying in Oxford? And is there anything you’re nervous about?

CK: If I am honest, I am looking forward to waking up in Oxford. I still can’t believe I am going to Oxford, some days I pinch myself. Other than that, I am looking forward to this new chapter and the adventure that awaits me. At this moment, there is nothing that I am dreading or nervous about; I am just looking forward to this new adventure. 

What has your experience been like studying in South Africa at the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies? What will you miss the most?

CK: Studying in South Africa has been the adventure of a lifetime. Last year was my year of “yes”. I left home to embark on this journey, and I have no regrets. What attracted me to Rhodes University is the prestige attached to the School of Journalism and Media Studies: “The best journalism school in Africa.” I will miss the people the most; I have made lifelong friendships and formed strong connections with classmates and staff.

You have a personal blog Unscripted where you have been documenting your journey and experiences. There is a striking quote on your blog that reads: “If someone tells you, you can’t. Turn around and say ‘watch me!’” What role has this statement played in your life, and is this your advice to the young women leaders in Africa?

CK: That quote is what has kept me going! To my fellow young women leaders, people will try and project their fears and limits on us. There will be doubters, there will be naysayers, others will discount us just because of our gender, race, or nationality, but we need to silence these voices including the ones in our heads that tell us we can’t because we can!

“Behind all our titles, positions, and academic accolades, we are all just people.”

What is one thing you would ask all people to start practising today to become better leaders and better human beings?

CK: Empathy. Behind all our titles, positions, and academic accolades, we are all just people – people, people, people. The world needs braver leaders who do not hide behind their titles but who are willing to see others for who they are, and that is people. When we show up as ourselves and show empathy for others, we can forge connections.

If you could give the world one book or paper recommendation what would it be?

CK: The gifts of imperfection by Dr Brené Brown.

Is there anything else you would like to add? (Shoutouts to your ma welcome!) 

CK: I want to thank my parents for always believing in me, my siblings for being my biggest cheerleaders, and my dear friends who have had my back. Most importantly, I want to thank my master’s supervisor, Dr Priscilla Boshoff, for being my rock through all this. Priscilla, I am indebted to your kindness.

Photo by Edward Mhlongo