The Scholarship Challenge

There’s a TikTok challenge that has me laughing out of my seat every time I come across it – for those uninitiated into the wonderful randomness that is TikTok, it involves, like many of these do, teenagers and twenty-somethings playing pranks on their parents. This one is called the #scholarshipprank (you can watch a compilation on YouTube here), and a version of it usually goes like this – you sit with your mum or dad in front of a camera, shooting a video that you’ve told them is needed for a scholarship application, and that it should feature someone that is an inspiration to you.
You start easy, speaking to camera how much you want the scholarship and how you mum or dad has inspired you, and then you go completely off tangent (still in that sweet and earnest tone), now saying how your parent was in jail or on drugs or a human trafficker, and how you’re so amazed that they’ve turned their lives around. Of course at this point the hapless parent is aghast, sometimes they  (mums usually) interrupt the recording and tell their son or daughter to stop lying; there was one dad who painfully let his daughter finish her outrageous story before turning to her and whispering, “How much is this scholarship offering? I will pay… I promise I will pay.” My heart!
Beyond the laughs, I see these pranks expressing something deeper. It is that younger people can see through the facade of meritocracy, and they know that in order to be “seen” by powerful institutions, they have to play the game of poor-immigrant/ African/ Black/ Indigenous-person-who-really-needs-a-helping-hand-from-a-wealthy-benefactor. Even if they may not always put it into practice so explicitly, they know what to emphasize (poverty, addiction, big struggles) and what to de-emphasize. It is “How To Write About Africa” all over again, bringing into sharp relief the narratives that the powerful want to hear.
I’ve been thinking about how so much of our storytelling is circumscribed by these invisible demands, of what stories from our part of the world are “supposed” to be like. I’m thinking of the work that organizations like Africa No Filter are doing, to centre stories that bring hope and pride and joy. Or The Wall of Great Africans, curated by Charles Onyango-Obbo on Facebook, that has been running for over five years now and has featured over 5,000 stories of remarkable and unsung heroes of Africa. And even Afrobubblegum, coined by Wanuri Kahiu, that curates and commissions fun artistic work, “celebrating the joy, love and happiness of Africa”.
I’m looking forward to a time when the #scholarshipchallenge won’t even need to be a thing. In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re ReadingSingapore’s tech utopia dream is turning into a surveillance state nightmare, by Rest of World. In the “smart nation,” robot dogs enforce social distancing and flying taxis are just over the horizon. The reality is very different.
  • What We’re WatchingMy Mechanics, a YouTube channel that features restoration videos of antiques, mostly items made of metal and wood. Trust me, this firmly falls under the genre “oddly satisfying” and is a rabbit hole you want to get into.
  • What We’re Listening ToHow to Kill a Revolution on Soundcloud, an audio version of an article with the same title published in The Atlantic. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the transformational tragedy of a successful movement, as we sometimes imagine. It was the premature end of a movement that had only just begun. This was published a few years ago, but there’s something about the melancholy here that makes me return to it frequently. It will get you thinking.

As always,
Christine Mungai
Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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