Tribal Sands had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Knox Chitiyo, one of the leading figures in the African Diaspora. His commitment and insights into African development are commendable and inspiring. In this exclusive interview Knox warmly discusses his life, his love for music and his desires for the African continent to reach its full potential. Dorcas Gwata, Director of Tribal Sands talks to Dr Knox Chitiyo.
However long the night is, dawn will break” African Proverb.
DG: Knox, you are one of the most respected African Diaspora, and a proud Zimbabwean, how have you come to embrace this role?
KC: It wasn’t something I actively sought -I think it’s something which has happened incrementally over the past decade. Part of it was due to the increased media interest in Zimbabwe and Africa in general post 2000, and their desire for new voices to speak on this. Whether I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time or whether they thought I had real talent is something I leave to your readers to decide. But I have embraced the role in various ways. First and foremost I try to be professional. I think we’ve all experienced instances where we, as people of colour, are sometimes judged by a different standard and different expectations. The best way forward on that is not to embrace a false victimhood, but rather to demonstrate competence, by showing that we can do the job as well as, or better than anyone else. So you have to be professional in your approach and outlook although you should maintain your individuality too. Sooner or later you will be noticed. The other thing I’ve tried to do is to promote the Zimbabwean and African voice in the policy and academic world. I’ve often been the first and/or only Zimbabwean or African to work at these top UK think tanks. So I saw it as my duty to provide a forum where the voices of Zimbabwean, African and diasporan policy makers, civil society, academics etc could be heard on a world stage. In addition, I’ve always tried to bring people together (Zimbabweans and African diasporans) especially when it’s important that we work together around a common cause to get things done. But really it’s not all about me- what really makes my day is helping other diasporans where possible. I do quite a bit of academic and policy mentoring and it really makes my day to see fellow Zimbabweans and Africans succeeding against the odds. Zimbabweans including yourself Dorcas are really doing great things globally in so many fields- business; health; sport; music , literature, film and so on. It’s fantastic to see and it’s also great to see the next generation coming through. I also try to give back to Zimbabwe by helping out where possible at the UZ- my alma mater- and elsewhere.
DG: Your father was a Physician, one of the first Black Zimbabwean Doctors to co-own one a blood center in Zimbabwe, how much of your career and life been shaped by your father?
KC: Yes, dad was one of the first generation of black medical doctors in the then Rhodesia in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He was the first black pathologist not just in the country, but also in the region. But I would say that I’ve been influenced by both my parents. My mom is an achiever in her own right too- she was one of the first generation of black matrons and senior personnel at Harare and Parirenyatwa hospitals and also in the Ministry of health. So my parents influenced myself and my sister Cathy who is also an achiever, in numerous ways- I’ll only list a few. For me, one of the things he taught me was to know and embrace our family history both in terms of the distant past and also the more recent and contemporary. He was very knowledgeable about our family history and he made sure that we met as many of our relatives as possible during his lifetime. He also drew a family tree/genealogy – of course when you’re a kid it seems really boring at the time but I really got to appreciate it when I was older. Both my parents were extremely well read, especially dad who had a really good library at home. He didn’t just read medical books – there were novels and many other types of books too. So I guess that’s where I developed an initial fascination with books and reading. And both my parents were well spoken too – they had worked hard to uplift themselves. Dad would always say that it is important to be able to speak with confidence in public and that was a valuable lesson. Their professionalism and compassion was phenomenal and speaker after speaker testified to this at his funeral. Dad was successful both as a businessman and medical doctor and medical lecturer too, and this was because he was professional- he refused to take shortcuts and he insisted on being accountable for everything he did. But he never refused a request for help and even when he was ill himself in his later years, he was still helping others. My mom still does. So these and many other things are things one strives to emulate, either directly or subliminally. I couldn’t follow them into the medical field as I knew very early on that I wasn’t cut out for a medical career but I guess I’ve tried to emulate some of the other things.
DG: The Ebola crisis wreaked havoc and tested Africa’s health care systems, including our own in Zimbabwe. What can African governments do more to strengthen their health care systems?
KC: I’m not a health care expert by any means but I think a key starting place must be for African governments to prioritise and invest more in the health sector when it comes to national and regional budgets. This doesn’t just mean throwing more money at health – it also means having a more joined up approach to health care. Nor does it mean that we have to be entirely negative. Health care systems in Africa face huge challenges for sure- eg “brain drain” of doctors and nurses; lack of equipment, medicines and facilities in many areas etc etc. But African countries do have dedicated health care workforces+ local knowledge, which counts for a lot. And Nigeria has won plaudits for their quick response to Ebola there. So there are a number of things which can move things forward- joined up strategies for health care systems; more – and better thought out- investment; public/ private partnerships; learning from Africa’s health sector success stories re best practice etc . I think that the other big challenge lies in encouraging school leavers to train as nurses and doctors. A lot of youngsters would rather go into finance or engineering or other sectors which hold the promise of a quicker financial return. For our parents and for our generation, there really wasn’t much need to incentivise people to be health professionals because it was prestigious and a dependable income for life. But now it’s not just the challenge of retaining health care professionals in- country; there’s also the challenge of getting the young into the profession in the first place when they have so many other career options competing for their interest.
DG: African Philanthropists such as Strive Masiyiwa and Aliko Dangote make incredible contributions across the continent and yet their generosity does not receive as much coverage. How can this be improved, or indeed is it important to have a high philanthropy profile?
KC: They do receive a fair amount of coverage in the African and diasporan media. But less so in western and other media. So they are very well known across Africa but because African media doesn’t yet have the global footprint of western media, they are a little less well known globally. This is sad because by any measure they and many other Africans are world class global leaders who deserve their place at the top table. But African media is definitely moving up in the world rankings and so too will African profiles. In addition, despite the challenges that Africa faces, there’s a new African assertiveness and global impact especially in business. So Africa is meeting the world and the world is coming to Africa- so more and more African stories are making the news. The other thing we probably need to do is to free ourselves from the mindset that something or someone matters or happens, only if it’s reported in the western media. It is important for sure, but non western and non African media eg Asian media do stories on Africa fairly frequently.
I do think it’s crucial for Africans to have a high philanthropy profile. This helps to counter the narrative that Africa and Africans can’t won’t, don’t do philanthropy. In the longer term, I think it also helps as an alternative to the pervasive imagery that only western donors or charities empower or save African lives.
DG: This year, The African Union put together an ambitious strategy for women empowerment across the continent and culture was identified as major risk factor in women development in Africa. How can governments and grassroots programs further mobilize this strategy to improve outcomes for women in Africa?
KC: The AU strategy is really important and if implemented, will be crucial for Africa’s development. There’s lots that one could say about this but I’ll make just a few points. First I think that it is important to conceptualise women’s development and women’s empowerment as a “win/win” for men and women. If it is seen as a zero sum game where one gender is empowered at the cost of another, then key stakeholders (both men and women) might try to block rather than assist the process. It has to be seen as a partnership between men and women so that key grassroots stakeholders such as chiefs and other local leaders and heads of households etc are on board. Wherever possible, African governments and society must ensure that every child receives an education. No child should fail to go to school because they did not have school fees. I believe that this should be made law across the continent.. Empowerment is a dual process of cultural dialogue with the grassroots and of having change agents who can move things along through dialogue and action. Changing cultural beliefs and practice is never easy eg FGM but through education, dialogue, offering better alternatives and practical incentives it can be done. This means small, incremental changes as well as occasional big leaps done at local, national, regional, continental and global level. Bear in mind though, that in many African societies, women historically have played a major role (matriarchal societies) so it’s not always about reinventing the wheel. But it is definitely important to inculcate the values of equal opportunities /equal reward for women and to encourage women to strive for success. Education and health are crucial in this. Also, Africa needs to do more to protect civilians during conflicts. Females are particularly vulnerable to rape and other crimes during war and Africa really has to push both for protection of civilians, and for justice for those who suffered war crimes.
DG: The Zimbabwean Diaspora in the UK is very active and plays significant role in contributing to the UK economy. On the other hand we are still facing some challenges in HIV Testing and domestic violence. How can we improve on these areas and what are the challenges?
KC: HIV- and HIV testing- are still perceived as being stigmatised both here in the UK and probably to a lesser extent in Zimbabwe. Part of it is cultural – HIV still has a huge cultural resonance and for cultural reasons many are reluctant to be tested. Another issue is the fear factor which is also part of the perceived stigmatisation. Especially here in the UK people worry about confidentiality and whether they could lose their job and social acceptance if it becomes known that they went for a test or if the test turns out positive. And a lot of people – men especially- see no reason why they should be tested. So lots of challenges and no simple solutions. Education is important in incentivising people to be tested. But it is a real challenge to do this here in the UK, which is a cosmopolitan society with more flexible norms.
With regards to domestic violence, we often tend to think that this is somehow unique to Zimbabweans because there’ve been so many cases reported in the media in the UK and in Zimbabwe. But domestic violence is colour blind- it can and does happen to anyone, anywhere in the world. We could go into all the academic stuff about how and why it happens but the simple truth is that there can be no justification for any kind of domestic abuse or violence and those who do it are committing a crime.
DG: The Xenophobia attacks in South Africa were deeply disturbing and also revealed South Africa’s dark history, indeed many Zimbabweans were continue to live in fear in SA. How did you observe these from your Diaspora position?
KC: The attacks were very disturbing indeed- it wasn’t just Zimbabweans who were attacked but also Somalis, Nigerians, Mozambicans and many others. The mob scenes were scary to see. Certainly in some instances, people in authority seemed to be heightening emotions by what they said. But I think it’s also too easy- and wrong- to blame South Africans for all this. In many areas South Africans risked life and limb to rescue foreigners or prevent foreigners from being assaulted. There’s no easy solution – part of the problem is one of urban poverty in many areas and when you have a poverty and class divide then foreigners often become scapegoats. So the government and private sector have to create more and better paying jobs and firms will have to find a balance between hiring foreigners and locals. If you live and work in South Africa, then you should learn the key languages. There’s a debate about whether- and to what extent – foreign owned businesses especially Small and Medium Businesses can and should invest in local community uplift initiatives. There’s a lot that can and is being done but there’s no quick solution for black on black violence, which is part of the legacy of apartheid. And if we are honest we also have to admit that South Africa’s neighbours have to improve their economies because it is economic hardship which causes so many people from the region to go to South Africa. This is not new- South Africa has been a regional hub for regional migrant labour for more than a century. But now the numbers are far greater and people are looking for work in South Africa when that economy is itself under stress. It’s a complex issue.
DG: You are the ‘Quiet Guitarist’ as we have discovered. In fact music is such a central part of your life, how did you got into music and who are your favourite musicians?
KC: My dad played guitar and my mom’s brother sang with the Deep Black Evening Follies during the 60’s. I didn’t start playing the guitar until relatively late – I was 16 at the time. But I was always listening to records and radio. We had a lot of 78s, 45;s and 33’s records of local, South African and international music. And my mom’s family are very musical – lots of great singers. I soaked up a lot of music at home and at school. Once I started playing the guitar I learned the old fashioned way- I was never taught music. Just played records over and over again and tried to make sense of what they were doing and copied the guitar bits, sometimes badly! I used to go to the pop festivals which in those days were mainly at Gwanzura Stadium. I was mesmerised by local guitarists like Manu, Louis Mhlanga and the guy who used to play a red Gibson SG guitar for the Wells Fargo band. Also people like BBKing, Hendrix and Carlos Santana. But the guy who really got my guitar mojo working was George Benson on his album Breezin in 1976. I’d never heard a guitar being played like that – all those 16th notes played so fast and effortlessly. So that got me into jazz music and other guitar gods. So from age 16 I was practising like crazy and went from being a two chord wonder to playing in the school band in about two years. Also played at Uni, and I’ve maintained an interest in listening to all kinds of music from Zimbabwean to African to pop , jazz, classical, folk etc. Even heavy metal groups like Slipknot!
There are so many musicians I admire. Remember Ilanga back in the day? They were great. Also Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuku, Chiwoniso Maraire, Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mutukudzi, Stella Chiweshe. Fela Kuti in the 70’s was something else + King Sunny Ade. Sam Cook, Aretha, Etta James ,James Brown, Prince, Michael Jackson; Terence Trent Darby in the 80’s was an awesome singer (he’s known as Sananda Maitreya these days) The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Ravi Shankar. And Tupac then and Mary J Blige now. Salif Keita is such a great singer too. Lauryn Hill and Rebecca Ferguson have such individual voices- you can tell from the first bar that it could only be them. As a bit of a singer/guitarist myself that’s really what matters- there’ve been a lot of great singers on X Factor but it’s actually not so much the power of your voice that matters; it’s the individuality. No one would say that Bob Dylan or Thomas Mapfumo or Bruce Springsteen are great singers in the traditional sense, but they actually are great singers because they are so uniquely expressive and they sing it like they mean it.
My favourite all time song is “My Favourite Things” from the sound of music- it was the first film I remember seeing as a kid in Harare (Salisbury in those days) and I loved the song even then. It’s such a great composition- intricate but not impossibly so. When you hear Julie Andrews singing it and then you hear what sax player John Coltrane did with it, that’s when you see that it’s not a syrupy pop tune at all- it’s actually great music.
DG: Who are your favorite writers and why do they stand out?
KC: Gosh- there are so many! Here are a few. Dambudzo Marechera because he was fearless. He was one of our English Lit lecturers at the UZ in the early 80’s. A real character- eccentric but in love with language. He lived his life like a novel – intense and always full speed ahead. His books ” House of Hunger” and “Mind Blast” heralded a new type of African writing . He was an African James Joyce or maybe James Joyce was an Irish Dambudzo Marechera. Yvonne Vera and Tsitsi Damgarembwa too are great writers too. Chenjerai Hove’s book Bones is great. Blessing Miles Tendi stands out as an incredible Zimbabwean writer. He’s also one of the foremost public intellectuals. More recently Pettinah Gappah, No Violet Bulawayo and Brian Chikwava – I loved his book “Harare North”. Among academics Terence Ranger, David Beach, Hoyini Bhila, Brian Raftopolous, Stephen Chan, Alex Magaisa, Ngwabi Bhebe, Gerald Mazarire and many more, are really good Zimbabwean or Zimbabweanist good researchers and writers. I’ should also include David Lan, Julian Cobbing, Jo McGregor and Joss Alexander. Internationally, Chinua Achebe “Things Fall Apart” was a book we could all identify with. Mahmoud Mamdani is a great writer, period. It may be unfashionable to say it but I think that Condoleezza Rice is also a very good writer. We can debate her merits as former US Sec of State but her penmanship is, I reckon, first rate. I also like writers of imaginative fiction such as EL Doctorow, John Dos Passos, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series has redefined the thriller anti- hero, and is fun to read . And Alex McCall Smith’s “No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” novels are everyone’s guilty pleasure, right?
DG: The world was outraged with the recent ‘Cecil the Lion’ story. Others views were that we should be concerned about the every day life ordinary Zimbabweans. Do we have our priorities wrong or should we as Africans treasure our wildlife and resources more?
KC: A bit of both I think. For sure, Zimbabweans have more pressing issues to contend with such as daily sustenance; but as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, wildlife and environmental conservation is part of a value chain which ultimately benefits us all. Through tourism and appropriate land use it provides incomes, shelter and other benefits. The Cecil saga also put the spotlight on the challenges and opportunities for Zim/African tourism
and conservation. With South Africa hosting a big international wildlife summit next year it’s actually been quite useful publicity. Although I feel sorry for Cecil for the amount of ” looney tunes” social media rants which have been done, supposedly in his name…
(Dorcas)Dr Knox Chitiyo, thank you for talking to me on Tribal Sands.
(Knox) Well I do have to say a huge thank you to family and friends and everyone who has helped me along this journey. And to you, for the opportunity to speak.
Look to the future but always be confident of who you are and where you came from. And real success is about empowering others
Dr Knox Chitiyo’s bio: Knox is Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs Chatham House in London. He is also Chair of the Britain Zimbabwe Society. In 2010, Knox won the BEN/SKY TV Diplomat Award . In 2014 he was included in Diaspora Magazine’s UK’s Most Influential African Diasporans. He can be contacted on KChitiyo@chathamhouse.org
Director Tribal Sands
Published with permission from Dr Knox Chitiyo.