African Studies Assistant Director, Bose Maposa writes on Fidel and where her story intersects with Cuba.
It’s been suffocating reading the responses to Fidel Castro’s death. The past few days have pushed us into a corner where one has to take a position; loving or hating; mourning or celebrating, each passionate and justified in their own way. To those, some of my dearest friends, who had to leave Cuba to flee Fidel, I can’t claim to know how you feel. This piece is not to distract or discredit you. Instead I use this outlet to reflect on how his legacy has shaped me.
My Pan-Africanism was born at la EIEFD, Escuela Internacional de Educacion Fisica y Deportes or known as International School of Sports and Physical Education, where I earned my bachelor’s degree. Shamefully, before attending la EIEFD, I did not know much about Africa the Continent despite my own African heritage as a citizen of Botswana. While I had read novels from African writers, and knew people from Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania, I admit that many of my ideas were shaped by the western media and therefore very stereotypical. At la EIEFD, Fidel’s project designed to educate Africans from all over the continent to become future leaders in sport, I met Africans from over 30 countries. My experiences there completely turned upside down my thinking of Africa and the stereotypes as l learned more in five years than I had in Botswana growing up. As la EIEFD evolved, the student body included many from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and a few from Cuba. All of us were on scholarships from the government of Cuba, with our own countries providing additional support when possible.
In Cuba I saw what servant leadership is all about. I will never forget the day we had to all clean up the school for a very important visitor. I remember El Rector, the college’s Vice Chancellor, mopping the hallway. This was just one of many leadership examples where rank did not stop the leadership from being ‘ordinary’. While one may be given respect due to age or rank, genuine respect is earned by showing everyone that you care. Genuine respect is what remains after years have passed. I beam knowing that part of this lesson has been transferred to my schoolmates, what I hope is the new African leadership.
Checking my privilege
My first few months in Cuba were challenging. It was my first long trip away from home, I was living in a dorm, the food was not what I was used to, and I cried to my mother about leaving school. One night when I was walking with one of my African friends, he calmly and gently, no judgement at all, reminded me that he had only heard from his family a few times in over a year. He had no expectations of hearing from them let alone going home until his five-year program was completed. He dreaded their calls because they were often announcements of yet another family funeral that he could not attend. He would not go home until he was done while I on the other hand got to return home annually. I was also able to visit countries like Barbados, Canada, Ecuador, Trinidad, and Venezuela. In addition, both us though were fortunate to be at la EIEFD, and the conditions in the school were far better than in other schools in Cuba, so in that way we both lived in a bubble. This was confirmed, not that it needed to be, when the first cohort of Cuban students joined the school and they shared with us how advantaged we were.
Cuba was no means perfect, but my period there was eye opening and educational. From 2001 to 2006, navigating life on campus, friendships, allegiances as well as challenges and obstacles, I was lucky to unlearn a lot of things. This in turn helped me to connect and question the inequalities of our current global structure and understand that regardless of where you are from, we have more in common in our humanity. While my ignorance had me believing I was ‘better’ because I was from Botswana (read Southern Africa) I learned that outside of Africa I was an African just like any other African (read Non Southern African). I learnt what it means to be and live in a black body. I learned the artificial hierarchy that we place upon others and ourselves- how useless it is; no matter your race, your standard of beauty was measured on the western standard – light and skinny; and that we all judged and discriminated each other based on sexual preference.
Most importantly, I saw us, all of us, regardless of where we were from, our socio-economic status and our beliefs, break down the artificial walls and become one family. Over the years I saw our humanity emerge and we treated one another with love and respect, as we formed long lasting friendship and families. I saw my own African nationalism evaporate into Pan-Africanism. So, reflecting on Fidel, I choose to leave room for a more complex understanding of the man and the myth. In doing so, I also recognize my own complex development.
Bose Maposa is the Assistant Director of the African Studies Program at Ohio University.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Africa@OHIO or the African Studies Program of Ohio University.