Innocent Mutanga, a former asylum seeker from Zimbabwe, is currently an undergraduate student of the Department of Anthropology, CUHK. He will be graduating in 2019. We talked to him about this remarkable journey.
When did you come to Hong Kong?
2013, from Zimbabwe. To make the story short: I was involved in politics, and got kidnapped because of that, I escaped, but it was not safe for me to stay in Zimbabwe at that point, so I had to leave.
Could you give us a bit more idea about how it is like in Zimbabwe?
Things are changing a bit too fast, forward, backward, so it’s hard to tell. But recently I would say, the economy is terrible, and the political landscape is very oppressive. The rulers want to keep their hands on power, so anyone who seems to threaten their legitimacy will be in danger.
Did you know anything about Hong Kong before you came? How did you feel when you first arrived?
Hong Kong was not a premeditated option. I just went to the airport and Hong Kong was visa free. So I got on a plane and arrived here. I used to read a lot, so I did know quite a bit about Hong Kong. I was also planning to visit Asia Pacific later on during the course of my life, just not in this way. Hong Kong being where East meet West would have been an ideal place to learn more about APAC.
When I first arrived, I couldn’t stand the heat and humidity here. Many people in Hong Kong including professors (sadly) have this notion that Africa is just one giant hot village with the same climate. I am from the south of Africa. Zimbabwe alone is bigger than Japan in terms of area. Outside the excruciating heat and humidity, the food is great and very diverse in Hong Kong.
What’s remarkable about your story is that you may be the only person, or among the very few, who has gone from being an asylum seeker to being a student and getting a student visa. How did that happen?
The first thing is that from day one I knew I was going to work out my stuff, and will not be trapped here forever. I spent hours to study the immigration system—I read all the documents the Immigration Department and Security Bureau have released, and I followed on every relevant discussion the Legislative Council did. The other important thing was how I dealt with the Immigration officer. EQ is very important. I understood that they are people who need to report to and convince their bosses why this person should be granted a visa. So the best way I could use was to try making my case his case, as I talked to him at a human level about what’s happening.
There is usually this misguided notion that people working within a bureaucracy lack humanity. Many civil servants joined the service because they want to do good things in society, and if you give them something to work with, they will surely do their best to be true to themselves and true to why they joined civil service. It’s important to identify these spots of humanity within people.
Since we are talking about study, why did you choose anthropology?
There are a number of reasons. First of all, the anthropology folks were more open-minded and welcoming. Also, anthropology is good for personal development, as it enables you to engage and interact with people from all walks of life. This is important for me, as I want to study something that directly benefits me as a person. The third thing has to do with my background. I grew up as a nomad kid–I lived with many different families who spoke different languages, and went to different schools when I was a little boy. So, quite naturally, I already had that fascination with cultural diversity. The last reason is that I have been very good with numbers, but weak in the humanities. My friends and teachers in Secondary School nicknamed me Einstein. My own interpretation of that was that I had a terrible sense of fashion and wore different socks at some points. So studying anthropology helps me to balance. I spent two years auditing courses, and spent one year studying as an associate student. I got pretty good grades, and also took extra Cambridge CIE exams, before I got my offer for full-time undergraduate study at CUHK. A long walk indeed, but when you want something so bad, certain obstacles don’t seem as large as they actually are.
What is it like being here?
It’s challenging, but in a good way. Above all, anthropology helps me to articulate certain things I have been thinking about but couldn’t find the exact words to describe and discuss. For example, we have witch hunting in Zimbabwe, and those who are believed to be witches are isolated, condemned and expelled. I had always been against that, and I would try to treat the “witches” as friends and go to their houses. When I took the Magic, Myth and Supernatural course and learned about witchcraft, I found it very interesting, and came to understand more about the cultural and social roots of this idea of witchcraft. So anthropology really clarifies things for me.
Do you think anthropology will also be useful for your career?
It’s true that many people haven’t even heard of anthropology. When it appears in financial services industry, which is rare, it is often used as the most extreme major one could study to be in finance. But, being an African, I’ve long learnt that I cannot expect people to know anything about me—people are like, “Oh my God did you have a lion growing up?” –it’s my responsibility to explain things to people, that’s how I see it.
I am planning to work in finance, and anthropology for sure makes me stronger. In financial services, people tend to be more quantitative— count on numbers and models to predict to assist in decision making. That is great but for some of us, who have a background in anthropology, the qualitative part also comes in. For example, at one point I was looking at the shared economy industry in Israel, and I looked at the cultural element called “kibbutz” that’s very rooted in Israel which make it possible for people to come together and make things work. Anthropology gives me a holistic perspective that helps me analyze social phenomena better. After all, financial markets are just a giant collective of human sentiments, and those sentiments are a direct result of social phenomena such as ideology, cultural behaviors, values, food cultures, etc.
From an asylum seeker, to a university student, then to a future financier, this is quite a journey. Do you feel obligated to your fellow asylum seekers? Do you think there’s also hope for them?
I don’t do things out of obligation; I do things because they are right. I’ll keep helping refugees and I’ll always be part of the community. Sometimes, organizations and individuals who are supposedly helping refugees make them look exotic and hopeless. I think, instead, what we should do is to make them feel relatable, and it’s very important to recognize that refugees are not a homogeneous group. We are very different people with different backgrounds, capabilities and dreams, just like any other ordinary human community. If you can just sit down and listen, everyone of us has a story and has something to offer. This is what I always want to highlight.