11 October 2022

Spotlight on Makani Zulu

Photo credit: Alexander Grauwiler


Our spotlight this month is on Black History Month, a month of recognition, remembrance and celebration of the Black Community and Black Excellence. Makani Zulu, a mature first-year undergraduate in the School of Social Work, speaks eloquently about his life and experiences both in London and in Norwich. Both a husband and a father, he reflects on several aspects of what being Black means to him, how Black men are perceived, and about his hopes for education and making a positive change.  

What does Black History Month mean to you? 

There has to be something to it if we are dedicating October to us telling our stories as Black people. But at first, I had a lot of scepticism around it. We want to be celebrated all year round. I was questioning the whole side of why we should only do it in October. What happens in the next eleven months? Is it sort of like “you’ve had your month, right, let’s forget about it now and get back to what we feel is normal.”  

But then I actually flipped it around a bit and thought, we could actually make a celebration out of it. Black History month in October, we talk about these Black issues. We try to engage and create awareness. We’re trying to empower the community on what our journeys are, what our struggles are. What our culture is about. It’s not only bad stuff really. It’s celebrating the positives, because it’s either we start somewhere, or we don’t start at all.  

This is a month that we’ve dedicated to just celebrate who we are. We can just start from there. We can honour the greats too.  

Tell us about who you honour, who you want to celebrate. 

You know we’ve got Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanaian who started the whole movement in 1987, this whole season of celebrating African Blackness. And he's the one that mirrored the whole Black History Month from America, looking at movements from the greats like Marcus Garvey. He thought, if we can celebrate Black History Month here in the UK, we can create a focus on our ethnic minorities and African Blacks that have contributed to the political, economic, and social development in the UK.  

When he started together with his team the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the British London Council, they had this program where they were lecturing and doing concerts in communities, and it started empowering and educating the communities on the Black struggle. 

This has paved the way for people like us, like myself to even study at UEA.  

So, these are some of the things for me that are of high significance. And I feel like we need to shed some light on them, celebrate and acknowledge them. You know, as much as we've got a long way to go with some of the injustices that we have, just the political spectrum of being seen as a Black person, I feel like this is where we need to start. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

In a nutshell, I came over here for studies from Zambia. I’ve got family over here, aunties, uncles, cousins, nieces.  

It's been quite an interesting journey overall. When I came as a student, my perspective was different, seeing things on the lens of just trying to finish my studies. I wasn’t projecting on being here for a longer period. Now my family has extended to having my own, beautiful kids and a wife.  

I used to live in London before. London is so multicultural. It felt like my second home. 

I moved from London to Norwich permanently in 2014. The full picture of what Norwich is all about? I still haven’t got it to be honest. I’m still learning new things every day. There are great things, not so great things, just like any other place we can imagine. 

Have you experienced racism in Norwich? 

I only had one experience that was really racist. And I bet from your end you’re thinking “only one?” 

The reason why I'm saying only one is because as Black people, this is sort of the norm that we're trying to break. We don't want this anymore. You know. We are really exasperated with all of it. That is seen as our reality. And there shouldn't be “that one.” 

The racist remark that was aimed towards me was around 2015 roughly. I was on public transport, and somebody literally just raged into me with racial slurs out of nowhere. I'll never forget that experience.  

However, there are certain times when you get treated in a certain way. And you’re trying to question as to why? 

The biggest of them all, for myself, is the police. Every time I have encounters with police, I’ve had three or four off the top of my head, there has been a level of injustice. Many times I have stood up to them, not aggressively because that’s what they think we are when we are not. I have challenged and asked questions as to why this is being done like that? Why are you perceiving this as that? Why are you looking at this in this perspective? I haven't gotten any concrete answers. 

What it mainly pans out to be is that there are certain views in organizations or institutions that actually label minorities such as Blacks and use that to explain you as an individual. So, it's more or less you're guilty until you're proven innocent, not the other way round. And we've been tainted with that idea and we kind of like look around and say you guys don't get it. All we want is just a fair level playing field. That's it.  

That needs to be addressed because if we are educated on how culturally Black people are, there are certain things that from a perspective of a non-Black person, you are going to understand. 

What has been your experience so far in Higher Education? 

This is just my second week. I think it's only fair to say that my judgement on my experience as a Black person, at UEA has not fully matured into what I can describe as an accurate representation. 

However, during my process of enrolment through UCAS, I did actually get turned down by another university. What they came back with was I did not fit their criteria according to their policies under their admissions procedures. I don't want to get into the details because again I had to challenge it and I had to, you know, ask the questions. 

This is the thing though. I want to say to Black people, if you're on a journey to prosperity, you just need to believe in yourself, chase your dreams and use your skin colour as the motivational factor because once you go on the other end of actually trying to look at the negatives of your downfall, we will never excel. 

Also, I would say though, for me to be admitted into that UEA I was so blessed to come across a team such as Carlene Cornish and all the panellists that sat through my interview, because they allowed me to prove myself. They really wanted me to deeply explore as to why I felt I deserved to be in that room. 

And to be honest with you, they accepted me as a person and not a person of colour, but just as a person. For that reason, in itself, I am forever grateful. 

The UEA team in itself, especially the social work team, has actually put UEA on a global scale of being inspirational advocates for creating a fair level playing field with their enrolment. And I really and truly commend their humility and professionalism for doing that. 

What do you want to get out of your education? 

I want to be in a position where I can actually make a difference. It's just making that change. It's just making that difference. Just being that voice. Just being in a position where I can be at a table and ask questions because that's really and truly what it's all about. 

You know, you can make as much noise as you want, and be speaking the right sensible pieces of information that can benefit one or two people. But you're not placing yourself in the right position where you know you can knock on doors of the right people. 

If I can actually take that step for myself, and just try and be that one person, just for me to start with, and see what difference can I make? How can I improve somebody's life? How can I change certain mindsets? How can I make an impact on rules and regulations, even laws, who knows? It starts from somewhere. 

Sometimes we marginalized ourselves. I will try and narrow it down and just focus on for example, African men, because I'm an African man. If you want to be that change, you need to get yourself enrolled in some of these professional career programs. We need to believe in ourselves. Why are we not able to trust and believe in ourselves? We've got the capabilities, we've got the skills, we've got the tools, we can get more of those skills. You know, we can enhance ourselves, we can grow and that's what it's all about. It's a process. 

Do you think being racialised is about being boxed? What boxes are there? 

Absolutely. Different cultures do experience these stereotypes, these ways of being boxed, and we box ourselves too as much as society does to us. And you know, it can be just being from a different background that you’re asked to follow these certain morals and values. And so, you know you can't cross over to the other side. 

And these are some of the things that restrict our growth. They tie us down to just being dictated to. We need to see beyond that. 

Would you believe it if I told you that in my class of around 35 if not just under 40 students, if I told you I am the only man? In a whole class of social work, would you believe that? Not to categorically say Blackman, but just a man. 

So, you can see that gender disparity already. Take it to race, there’s maybe three or four of us that identify as Black in the whole social work group These are issues that we actually need to raise as to why they should be received and perceived as the norm. 

We can also look at knife crime. I use it as an example because I've been directly affected by it. Now knife crime is crime, crime is crime. We are not going to dispute that. That's fact. Period. Wrong is wrong. I'm not denying that it is a problem. It needs to be addressed. If you do it, it's not justifiable. 

But I feel that if we get down to the root cause of why it's become so exacerbated, there has to be turnaround somewhere. And if you put labels on it, to say Black boys that do it, or teenagers that do it, mainly boys. If you place labels on them, then you’ve indirectly glorified what they’re doing. You’re giving them that platform to do it even more. If you don’t delve into why this is happening but instead put labels on them, approaching the issue with stigma, the problem is never going to go away. 

So, there’s a fine line between using a label to celebrate culture, to celebrate family, heritage, history, and people, but also using the label in this way? 

It's just trying to find that balance because you know as much as we belong to a certain culture and we cannot deny the fact that, as per say, it's our heritage of who we are. What we're trying to do is not put these labels around ourselves, but actually create an identity that's a positive reflection of who we are. 

Wrongdoing exists in all parts of the world. All parts of cultures. Wrongdoings should not be centred on one particular ethnic group. That's not right. You have to delve into why that person is behaving that way, because everything stems from somewhere. 

We all need a new mindset where we can put the past behind us and start all over again. A new slate that isn’t tainted, where there’s room for people to flourish. Where we can use as a reference point for our history to say, “we don’t want to go back to that.” Let's change.