Q&A: refugee rector targets racism

Debora Kayembé
Debora Kayembe took office as rector of the University of Edinburgh in March. Copyright: Courtesy of Debora Kayembe

Speed read

  • Congolese lawyer Debora Kayembe is the first African rector of the University of Edinburgh
  • She was elected for the role after campaigning against racism in Scotland
  • A programme for African students is to be established at the university on her request

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Human rights lawyer Debora Kayembe had been settled in Scotland for a decade after fleeing insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when her life took an unexpected turn.

Living in Edinburgh, Kayembe says she was regularly the victim of acts of racism which went as far as sabotaging her car. But when these extended to her nine-year-old daughter, asked to perform a slave dance in front of classmates, it was the last straw.

Taking things into her own hands, Kayembe filed a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for anti-racist standards to be introduced into the education system – a petition well received by parliamentarians. She got involved in activism against racism, organising an event last year to denounce attacks on local ethnic minority communities.

“My wish as rector is to be exemplary, so that at the next opportunity they will not hesitate to elect another African to this post.”

Debora Kayembe, rector, University of Edinburgh

The campaign’s message clearly resonated and, to her surprise, Kayembe was subsequently proposed and elected rector of the University of Edinburgh where she took office in March, becoming the first African and the third woman in post. SciDev.Net spoke to her about her vision for the role.

Why did you decide to apply to be rector of the University of Edinburgh?

I live 20 minutes by car from the university and always walk past it, but it had never occurred to me to become rector. Then I got involved in racism issues here in Scotland and last year we hosted an event against attacks on non-Scottish communities. I believe that this is what interested staff and students at the university, because it was the student union and university workers union who contacted me to tell me that they appreciated the work I was doing.
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Because of the university’s involvement in the life of Scotland in general, they felt it was important that I could have this strategic position to drive the plans I had for fighting racism. So, this is not something that I had been looking for – it was brought to me and I’m so glad to have it.

What are the key developments that have marked your first months in this position?

There are public complaints against certain people connected to the university and against well-established teachers at the university who are said to be promoting the superiority of the white race. People are now opening up and coming to me to denounce it. I know that’s not the university. As an institution, we do not encourage or accept racism. The problem is, you really feel like it’s real. Some individuals are using the superpower of the university to achieve their ends.
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The other thing is that we are coming out of lockdown and you have some youth who react very badly to the fact that we have been confined for a year and we see a lot of barbaric acts in the city. These are things I need to deal with urgently.

In light of this, what will be the priorities of your three years in office?

I would like to ensure that what staff and students do within the university is valued and respected. I would also like to help reduce inequalities, which are enormous, and COVID-19 has shown us that. I would like to see how the university can work with thought-leaders to achieve this goal. I would also like to be able to give opportunities to less privileged families with intelligent children who want to enter the University of Edinburgh, by creating a special adaptation programme.

I also intend to set up a volunteer programme so that university students learn to give the best of themselves for others. It can help them to leave Edinburgh to go to other regions of the world to discover the lives of others and break a little this ignorance which is the basis of racism. But, above all, I would like to continue my fight against racism within the university.

Does COVID-19 risk compromising these projects?

I made these plans taking the pandemic into account. I have looked at where the pandemic is taking us as a society and these plans will help us deal with the pandemic as human beings. Because this pandemic is dissociating us from our everyday way of life. You can’t imagine how much Asian students are suffering today. They are accused, without reason, of having brought the disease to Scotland. And we will have to work on such problems.

Scientifically, how can Africa benefit from your position today?

There is the desire within the University of Edinburgh to work with Africa. The problem lies at the level of capacity and means in Africa. Because COVID-19 is here and will not disappear anytime soon, we will have to promote digital working. The DRC, for example, has a serious problem with basic education. Forty per cent of Congolese women are illiterate.
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Some African countries have made progress, but there is also the reality of infrastructure and training. These are things that need to be looked at slowly but surely. Perhaps during my three years in office I will manage to lay the foundations for a collaboration with the hope that whoever comes after me will continue the next phase. My wish as rector is to be exemplary, so that at the next opportunity they will not hesitate to elect another African to this post.

In terms of research and teaching, there is an immense richness in this university which Africa can draw inspiration from. I spoke with the student manager here and encouraged him to set up a special programme for African students who want to join the University of Edinburgh. This will be implemented from September 2021. There is a vast unexplored research ground in Africa. We are aware of this. Now, we have to find the right time and means as well as the platform to implement this collaboration.

What message would you give to Africans for whom you are an example to follow?

That Africans measure the value of their continent, which is the richest in the world, on all levels. Africans must protect Africa and stop fighting needlessly and work for peace. Governments must work for education because without education you cannot build anything.

This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa French edition and edited for brevity and clarity.