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Tom Olang

I was able to read six human “books” in one night! The titles taught me more in a couple of hours than I could ever learn in a year! Here’s my ‘reading list’: Witchcraft and Paranormal; Arab, Muslim Woman; Jewish and Latino; Obsessive Complusive; Double Rejection; and Rejected by my Family.

I recently read and was intrigued by a Facebook post of a colleague who had just graduated from a one of the prestigious universities in the UK. Even after successfully completing what anyone would consider a no mean feat at such an institution, her feelings struck me as odd. The post read in part: “A piece of what is being felt. Statistics implied that I was out of place. Demographics and ideologies singled me out as the other. Only student on the course with an African passport studying international relations and politics. Existing somewhere between ‘ambassador’ and ‘token.’”

I am currently a fellow of the famed Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, an annual three-week programme that brings together top media scholars and experts from all continents to articulate global issues aimed at bridging divides and making the world a better place. My cohort, SAC 11, consisted of 83 undergraduate and postgraduate students and about 25 faculty and experts from over 25 countries and 17 universities. We congregated at the iconic Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria, to brainstorm on and create case studies and narratives on global populism and extremism. This year’s theme is, Voices Against Extremism: Media Responses to Global Populism.  Like my colleague, and Jeremiah Kipainoi (Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow, 2016), I was the only African student in the Academy this year. Was I ‘lonely in a crowd?’ Certainly not! In fact, I am too emotionally intelligent to suffer from ‘Exclusion Syndrome’ or any such complex. The fact that the Academy granted me a full scholarship to attend this session is quite something and dispels all manner of stereotypes and unfounded fears.

However, the question still begs: How does it feel to be the only one in the house from a particular region or culture? A couple of fellows and faculty have carefully and genuinely asked me the same question and my answer has been candid: I feel nothing negative. Whoever has any feelings is the one with a problem; not me! I treat my presence here as a huge opportunity to network beyond my wildest dreams. It is also a privilege to represent the entire continent of Africa, a region that has been hit by waves of populism and extremism.

Daystar University, where I am studying for an MA in Media Studies, is the only African partner university in the Salzburg Global Seminar.  I asked Jeremiah how he felt last year being the only African in the Academy.  His immediate response was, “That lot was a great one. I often forgot that I’m even black. Not that I have ever considered myself black or African. Summer is great and no one has time to worry.” Even though he occasionally felt odd, the larger picture is that he found it an “awesome and life-changing experience.” That, to me, is what counts; the rest are details.

In the last 10 months, I have travelled to South Africa; England; and now Austria, through France and Germany.  Often, I found myself the only African. I have come to SAC 11 with an open mind: to accommodate everyone and share narratives. In the first week alone, I have been able to interact at a personal and professional level with the most diverse group that I have ever seen under one roof. During pep talks with other fellows, we have all been on the same page: it is a very, very enriching and emotional experience! We have had amazing lectures, workshops, and a symposium from experts in academia and industry practitioners.

My fellow students are quite proactive - and I believe - media literate enough not to be weighed down by parochial interests that would otherwise undermine genuine human relationships. Indeed, nothing can replace the thrill that comes in the aftermath of meeting people with diverse backgrounds and skill-sets in this global era (a departure from the global error of yesteryears!).  Ultimately, what is ‘super-important’ - to borrow a phrase that I have often heard Paul Mihailidis, the Salzburg Media Academy’s Director, use quite often - is what has brought us together to this programme: to generate ideas that will make the world a better place to live in. Period!

I could write a whole book chapter about my experience at the Academy for the last one week. I will, however, zero in on one unique ‘reading’ engagement at the Academy that was moderated by Roman Gerodimos, a principal academic in global current affairs at Bournemouth University, UK. That is, the Human Library, an international equalities movement that challenges prejudice and discrimination through social interaction. You will be excused for thinking that this is your usual library, with neatly arranged volumes…

In his presentation on the role of the Human Library, Roman noted that a reader can select a text from a range of titles; the only distinction being that the “books are people, and the ‘reading’ is a conversation.” The said books are based on  personal experience of having faced (or still facing) discrimination, prejudice, stigma, persecution or social stereotypes relating to identity, background, body, social role, among others. The unique Library “raises awareness of the multiple circumstances that can lead to bullying, abuse and hate crime and takes a positive action to address it,” Roman explained.

Coming from Kenya, an ethnically diverse country where my surname alone is enough to deny me an opportunity (regardless of how qualified I am!), I found the Human Library quite awesome and therapeutic. I easily identified with the way the evening activity used the process of a conventional library to mediate healthy conversations that can help shatter stereotypes and how we treat those facing exclusion and marginalization. While chatting about it a few days later with Connor Bean, a communications and media student at Bournemouth, he said he found it such an emotional experience. His counterpart, Joshua Coase, expressed the same sentiment on Twitter: “The Human Library has been an extremely eye-opening and emotional experience. It is a concept that should be spread globally. Hearing people’s stories and the struggles/challenges they have faced in their lives is an amazing way to open up and connect to people.”

In my view, this was the one event that surpassed our expectations. I overheard Paul and several other participants marvel at how much they learnt from the event that was held at the magnificent Max Reinhardt Library, located on the first floor of The Schloss. I was able to read six human “books” in one night! The titles taught me more in a couple of hours than I could ever learn in a year! Here’s my ‘reading list’: Witchcraft and Paranormal; Arab, Muslim Woman; Jewish and Latino; Obsessive Complusive; Double Rejection; and Rejected by my Family.

What other fellows and I found compelling was, of course, the narrative(s) behind every human book; issues that we often take for granted; dismiss with a casual wave of the hand or have never given a thought before. It was just as well that Roman had earlier given a disclaimer to prospective ‘readers’: Don’t judge a book by its cover! Later in the evening, I ‘snooped’ on Roman’s FB page and his 1.14 am post on July 21, 2017, poetically went as follows:

“22 beautiful human beings acting as Books. 80+ curious Readers. 4 hours of parallel intimate conversations. Lots of crying, hugging and laughing. Our biggest Human Library session yet. I’m exhausted but happy.” 

Indeed, we ended up being more culturally fluent and well-read than hard-copy texts or kindles could ever make us. What was meant to end at 10pm ended at midnight and we were yearning for more time! This is truly one of the niche points of the Salzburg Global Seminar: it welcomes all fellows and faculty - including yours truly, the only fellow with an African passport - in an environment of trust, openness and creativity. Need I say more?

* TOM OLANG’ is postgraduate student at Daystar and Fellow of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change 2017. [email protected].



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Comments (1)

  • Rittmer Greaves's picture
    Rittmer Greaves

    With respect, perhaps it would improve the credibility and reception of the writer's integrity if self-disclosure of racial, ethnic, religious identity were forthcoming. I couldn't tell if the writer was white or black, and his identification as simply "African" made me suspect he is white posing as black. Why wouldn't he claim a specific nation or city as his home? Please forgive me, but I believe writers (of this particular sort of confessional writing, especially!) owe readers that much, so that what we read doesn't come across as a pose, but shows the integrity of a brave, local face, a visibility and street-cred that known activists of his hometown and neighborhood can testify to. As a white, privileged U.S. American myself, I find appalling the number of "alt-right" media "experts" these days posing as anti-racist, even liberal Jews posing as "non-white" while enjoying all the privileges of white supremacy throughout the planet's Euro-occupied majority of nations, north and south.

    Sep 10, 2017