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SMC assists ‘scholars at risk’

Bailey, Natalie | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

When professor and social criticism columnist Sarah Mkhonza was forced to flee her country for speaking out against injustice, she didn’t know who might offer her a safe haven.

But Mkhonza, a scholar from Swaziland, Africa, arrived at Saint Mary’s Nov. 4 seeking academic asylum. Her presence is part of the Scholars-At-Risk Program, an organization that gives refuge to scholars who have spoken against inequality and are in danger as a result.

Her refuge at Saint Mary’s is made possible by a matched grant of $20,000 from the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership and the Scholar Rescue Fund of the Institute of International Education at Harvard University.

“The Scholars-At-Risk program is an outgrowth of the College’s interest in human rights and humanitarian services,” said Janice Pilarski, justice education and program coordinator.

Saint Mary’s professors and CWIL fellows attended a conference at University of Chicago in 2000 at the onset of the program and have been working since to host a scholar. The Scholars At Risk Web site reports that more than 70 institutions, ranging from Ivy League research universities to small liberal arts colleges, are members of the network.

Scholars receiving asylum through the program hail from around the world, with the largest amount, about 30 percent, coming from sub-Saharan Africa.

Over half the applicants have social science or humanities backgrounds, while only six percent are journalists or writers.

Mkhonza, a linguistics professor at the University of Swaziland who was highly critical of government practices, left her politically unstable country at odds with the Swaziland regime.

The country has two forms of government, the Swazi system, with a king, chiefs and princes and the Western system with a prime minister.

Swaziland faces domestic and international scrutiny following King Mswati’s decision to prohibit court challenges to the rulings issued by him and other traditional leaders. Because a Swazi court would not dismiss charges against Mswati of kidnapping his 10th wife, the king chose to severely restrict the power of the judicial system.

The new Swazi constitution denies citizens of the right to voice dissent, among other civil rights. In addition, the government has charged countless individuals with acts of sedition.

Through her column, Mkhonza immersed herself in the human rights violations of these incidents. She particularly concerned herself with a recent action of the king expelling people from their homes because he decided he wanted their land.

A few years ago, as the prime minister wished the citizens of Swaziland a Merry Christmas, Mkhonza composed an article.

“I asked ‘How are we supposed to have a Merry Christmas when so many of our own people are out in the open during the rainy season?'” she recalled.

Despite her active role in fighting for human rights and criticizing the government, Mkhonza was unaware of the impact she was making and how strongly she felt.

“I realized what I was saying was true,” Mkhonza said. “But what I didn’t realize was how much I cared for these people.”

Such bold writing and questioning of the government earned Mkhonza the hatred of political leaders, but brought her international recognition through the Hellman/Hammett Grant. She received this grant, named after two American writers, in recognition of her courage to face opposition through her writing. Mkhonza also received a grant for her weekly column.

By the time of her award, Mkhonza was a direct target of political oppression and experienced several incidences of theft and vandalism. Mkhonza’s computer was stolen from her University office twice, with the second computer discovered tossed in the mud just outside campus grounds.

Recently Swazi journalists have been beaten by police and silenced by government officials for covering events similar to those Mkhonza wrote about. Another journalist was brutally murdered returning from work in late October.

As a CWIL Fellow and part-time professor, Mkhonza’s residence on campus will not only ensure her safety, but offer enrichment to students as she shares her first-hand experience with injustice and her refusal to accept it.

“[Mkhonza] will enrich both campuses greatly,” Pilarski said. “She has worked with poor women in her country and with women who were abused; but she has most experience with writing immersed in real life.”

Drawing from her experience with exposing her life and the lives of others as a vehicle for change, Mkhonza will teach a class this spring focused on developing students’ ability to find their voice in writing and to narrate stories of their lives and others.