I’ve been thinking about and writing this speech in my head since I was 13 years old.
I sat where you are today, in one of the rows further back with the other students whose parents couldn’t make it, and listened to a speaker talk about his life as an entrepreneur. I didn’t really understand what an ‘entrepreneur’ was, but I remember thinking back then that somehow, someway, I must end up up there giving the speech one day. It became something of a dream of mine and I spent years after that imagining what I would say, reflecting on what insights I could give, what lessons I have learned along the way. And now, 15 years later, here I am.
I want to talk to you today about three things. Things that seem simple, but in the 11 years since I’ve left Cranleigh have guided me in a rapidly changing and at times cruel and uncompromising world. I hope that these will be useful for those of you who’ve come to the end of your time at Cranleigh. These things are friendship, research, and gratitude.
I can say without a doubt that becoming a student at Cranleigh changed my life. I was a pretty average student in Ethiopia and Kenya where I lived before moving here. I mostly got B’s, a couple of C’s and a few A’s. But all that changed when one day in 2002, while living in Addis Ababa, my father told me to choose between two boarding schools in the UK. I chose Cranleigh because it was slightly easier to pronounce than Ardingly (or Ar-DING-ly as I called it at the time); and that December my mother bundled myself and my three younger brothers up and we headed off to a freezing cold England. My father was working for the World Food Programme in the UN then, as he’s done my whole life, and with the uncertainty of his deployment to various African countries, it made more sense to have us kids based somewhere safe – even if it meant my family living worlds apart. At Cranleigh I found support, safety and access to resources that helped me excel as a student.
I also made some of the best friends of my life. Some of whom I am so happy to say, are here today. In the time since I was here I’ve moved continent 3 times. In those years I’ve met countless new people; some have floated through my life only to be brought back up as Facebook memories, others have continued to be part of it. As you move on to new stages in your lives, look out for those friends; the ones that stay. The ones you can call at 8pm on a Tuesday and narrate Sister Act to down the phone. The ones who’ll be half-way across the world and stay up so you can snarkily whatsapp each other while watching Eurovison. The ones who’ll drop everything and come watch you give a speech in front of hundreds of people.
Keep hold of those friends. Cherish those friendships, nurture them. You never know when you’ll need them, or when they’ll need you. Surround yourself with friends who build you up, friends who challenge you to do better, who’ll help you pick up the pieces when your life falls apart and who’ll eat curry with you on your bedroom floor and tell you everything will be alright even when they’re not sure.
Earlier this week I read a wonderful, heart-breaking article by Sara Lukinson about grief and friendship, it included the following words:
‘The opposite of love, I think, is loneliness. One ties you to the centre of the universe, the other cuts you off.’ 1
It’s easy to take people you’ve known for a long time for granted. For those of you leaving Cranleigh today, I encourage you to support one another and grow together. I’m lucky to still be close to friends that I made here. Friends who tie me to the centre of the universe, who have picked me up when I was in pieces more times than they know; friends who are quite simply the loves of my life.
The other great love of my life is History. Even when I was much younger, I loved learning the stories of people long-gone, stories of people who did incredibly courageous things and terribly evil things; stories that sounded fantastical and painted a picture of a world I needed to know more about. I was interested in all sorts of things in the years after that, but when it came down to it, I decided to study History and International Relations at Exeter. Over the next three years I took classes in everything from gender in Victorian England to Australian refugee policy and in fact, for those of you going on to university, I would encourage you to take modules in all sorts of things, really explore what your universities have to offer. For me, when it came time to do my dissertation, I worked on Ugandan colonial history. This was the first time in my life that I was looking at the history of my own people, seeing where I came from, what led Uganda to where it is today. It was such an enriching experience that I continued on with Ugandan history – and particularly the history of the Anglican church – through my Masters at Yale and my PhD at Cambridge. Studying Uganda has allowed me to better navigate the nuanced cultural norms of my country, and to more comfortably live and work there.
There’s a great deal of power in knowledge. But you don’t have to study for years to know more about the world. You all have access to much of the world’s information right now at your fingertips, on your phones and iPads and whatever new devices are being cooked up as we speak. In fact, I suspect some of you are surreptitiously trying to check what’s happening on Twitter or Instagram right now. To that I say: if at any point during my speech Beyoncé releases official photos of her brand new twins, we’re going to have to stop because I’ll need to look those up!
On a more serious note, access to knowledge means the difference between being ignorant and being informed. And while ignorance may be bliss, it’s no longer an excuse. To those of you who plan to travel, do your research. Don’t just read the travel sites, read the local news, the blogs, the local history, find out who the social media influencers are and follow them on Twitter and Instagram; most importantly, understand what your presence in a place means. If you plan to volunteer, especially in the developing world, know that no, you probably won’t be able to make a significant, lasting impact in just one six week trip. You will be frustrated, you’ll want things to work faster and better, you’ll see people in pain and not be able to help.
Coming from a school like this means doors will be open to you. Know when to take those chances, and when to step aside and let someone else have them. That knowledge – knowing when to step up and when to shut up – comes from understanding more about the world, where the balance of power lies and where you stand.
I am a researcher by profession but I also know it’s made me a better person, a more empathetic person, to seek information about the world around me. You all can see the whole world much faster than I could when I was your age. With one click you can read about trans rights activists in Uganda, Native American water defenders in North Dakota or black youth organisers in London. I encourage you to use information to make better, more informed decisions.
I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life and I try every day to exercise gratitude. I know that I’ve had access to opportunities and resources that the overwhelming majority of Ugandan people will never have. I feel this every time I drive through Kampala and see pre-teen girls balancing toddlers on their hips while begging for change at traffic lights. I see this in my own extended family where – even with the huge support of my parents – there are still too many living with too little. I’m grateful when I think of all the sacrifices my parents made to get me here. All the difficult places they lived, the evacuations, the holidays they’ve never taken, the work they’ve done to ensure they are more open minded than their parents were and indeed than many of their contemporaries are.
I know that there’s nothing special about me that meant I got to live this life while others didn’t, or wont. I know it’s really mostly just luck. I was lucky to be born into a family with resources, and to parents who didn’t hold me back because I am female. And because of that I work hard to make the most of the chances I’ve been given. I push myself because right now there are a million girls who are fighting for even half the chances I’ve been given. Girls who look like me and girls who don’t.
You all are incredibly lucky too. There are young people in this country who aren’t in schools like this. Who struggle to find meals, who don’t have time or space to exercise or just play. Children at Grenfell Tower who’ve recently seen their whole world go up in flames. Young people who don’t have supportive teachers and fully stocked labs and art schools. It’s an incredible privilege to have all of the tools you have here. And it’s also very easy for this place to turn into a comfortable bubble. Sadly, and as the Headmaster said, your generation does not have the luxury of living in a bubble. We’re looking at a world that is more connected yet somehow feels more divided than ever. In a place like this you have access to a wealth of resources that can help you face this world and I would challenge you to use that to help heal some small part of it. For me this healing has meant learning as much as I can about my own country. Helping to write a history that is largely unknown to our young population and risks being weaponised against an uninformed public. I’m working now on ways of improving our university research so that Ugandan students can better contribute to local and global knowledge production. It’s a big ask, but it’s something I strongly believe in, so wish me luck!
For you, healing could mean many things. And it’s up to you to choose your own paths. I’m not asking you to save the world, because honestly if it were that easy, it’d be done by now. I’m asking you to know your place in the world, to be grateful for how much you have and to the parents and guardians who did more than you know to get you here. I’m asking you to make the most of these opportunities and to not settle for comfort.
My brothers all laughed when I told them I’d been asked to speak here today. Kato, who’s sitting right there asked ‘Why you?!’ in the bewildered, gently mocking way that only brothers can. At the very least I can say that I made my mark on Cranleigh around 15 years ago when two weeks into Fourth Form, at the end of a geography class, I walked straight into one of the low beams in the classroom, collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. Soon after that, the beams in that classroom were painted yellow and – I feel – my time at Cranleigh was memorialised.
But, sadly, that’s not why Headmaster Reader asked me to speak today. He asked me because he wanted you all to hear from someone who is not a typical Old Cranleighan. I’m black. I’m African. I’m female. But despite not looking like the majority of students who’ve walked these halls in the last 151 years, this place gave me the confidence to walk into rooms where I was the only person who looked like me, and to speak up. It provided me with an education that opened doors, sent me across the ocean and led me right back up here to this podium. It changed the course of my life so I ended up in extraordinary places and did extraordinary things. Cranleigh took me to Diagon Alley in Exeter. To secret society parties at Yale. To dinner with a Ghanaian King at Cambridge. It took me to hidden archives and centuries old libraries and conferences where I met my academic heroes. Most recently, Cranleigh took me to Mauritius where I was a fellow at the African Leadership University and spent three months with some of the brightest minds on the continent. There we stayed up late into the night, under the stars on a tropical island, debating how we would approach the grand challenges facing our continent. I’m the youngest female PhD in Uganda’s history and that journey began right here at this school.
As I walked past the construction sites, and hear about Cranleigh Abu Dhabi and the partner school in Zambia, about all the new girls who will have space come September, I can see that there’s a lot of change at Cranleigh. Change is hard, but change can be good. For you leavers, big change is coming. You’re moving from one phase of your life to another. It will take some adjustment. Maybe you’ll spend your first two weeks in university waiting for the prep bell to ring, like I did. Maybe you’ll build a business or create something that changes the way we all live. Maybe it will take you years to find out what you really want in life.
Whatever you do, I urge you to keep your friends close, to do your research, and to always be grateful.
Congratulations and good luck to all of you in the Upper Sixth! And thank you to everyone here today for making the dream of this 13 year old Cranleighan come true. Thank you.