Dr Débora Kayembe, the catalyst of change

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The Rector of the University of Edinburgh remains a strong link on the chessboard of commitment. She is working hard to catalyse further change.

The wind and rain that hit the frozen city of Edinburgh on the last day of January did nothing to dampen the sunny mood of the patroness of the establishment. “This institution is now looking to the world,” says Debora Kayembe. She holds the reins of the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, in the United Kingdom. Unimaginable for a recent Congolese refugee. What’s more, she comes from a French-speaking country, from a “French-speaking African world that is fading away”, in her own words. Her emergence is an ode to diversity, to Africa. This brilliant jurist is a polyglot. She speaks seven languages fluently. You can feel her drive and talent when she expresses herself, right in her gut. An activist gut. 

“This institution is now looking to the world,” says Debora Kayembe.

“The light came on when I arrived at the head of this institution”, says the Rector. As proof, the university has risen from 20th to 12th place among the world’s prestigious higher education institutions. It’s clear that her election embodies the “magic of change”. Of course, with the values she espouses: inclusion, diversity and tolerance. Her choice confirms that “Africa is the renewal of the whole world”. Better still, “Africans are also capable of leading such an institution”. A woman and a black woman, the magician of change is a double embodiment of the influence exuded by Scotland’s highest place of learning.

Three years ago, she was looking back on her election with Chimène’s enchanting eyes. “I wanted to stay here forever”, she enthused. And she saw herself as “a blessed person”. But she is not blinded by triumphalism. She keeps a sharp eye on the symbol she embodies. “I have given more than I have received”. Today, she no longer has this enchanted vision of the dawn of her term of office. “I’ve seen injustices, but the institution turns a blind eye”. Finally, her observation is clear: “Institutions are nothing more than the continuity of the work they created”. “They are faithful to their conservative values”, she diagnoses acutely. Lucid.

It’s a lucidity she embraces. “I have remained true to who I am, without wavering”. Walking through the valley of high stakes, which she calls the “battle of the titans”, Debora Kayembe remains focused on her mission: “to bring change to this world”. Although she is ensconced in the gilded mouldings of the university, she continues her battles for justice. Witness her current fight against the British government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

What do you value most today? “I’ve gained in notoriety”, she replies without missing a beat. And it’s true too. She is increasingly in demand in academic circles. The largest forum of universities in the world, North Africa and the Middle East wants her as their next keynote speaker. The MENA Reputation Forum is taking place this February in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Brilliant. 

Catalysing change

The Congolese want to see me involved in politics. But that’s not my objective today”. And she clarifies her agenda: “First of all, I want to get to know the country better, to feel my sociocultural reality”.

She draws strength from this notoriety to soften her anger. “The world continues to think that Africa is a land to be exploited”. Despite the shattering waves that are rocking the African ship, under the waterline she notes an Africa that is still asleep. “The African man does not want to open his eyes”. She rightly notes that “there is still talk of cholera in the Congo”. Healthy anger. 

“Wake up, my brothers, it’s your children who are suffering”, she finally says, as if she were on a political platform. Her desire to serve her country overflows. She does not deny this commitment. That’s why she doesn’t intend to renew her mandate as the head of the University of Edinburgh. On the contrary, she intends to unlock African society and usher in a genuine renewal. To achieve this, she sees three paths to political renewal in Africa, in this case in the Congo.

Firstly, civic education will be the basis of his tripod. “The function of the public service is not to make individuals rich, but to improve the lives of citizens”. Yet this is not the case. Corruption continues to weaken her home country. She plans to put in place a genuine civic culture programme. In this way, the Congolese people will be able to see for themselves the reality of their plight. It’s not an inevitability, but a truth. 

Secondly, “be yourself and stop copying the West”. She believes that Africans must “deal with their realities”. As proof of this, she wants to introduce discipline into political life. You only have to look at the system of polygamy that some politicians use to drain the state coffers to see this. Finally, she wants to put an end to tribalism. Teach the Congolese to listen to and respect others. “You can’t say anything without being accused of tribalism”. These are the paths she intends to dig for the emergence of a new Congolese and African political culture.

“The Congolese want to see me involved in politics. But that’s not my objective today”. The activist adds without concession: “I’m not politically ready, even though I am a politician”. And she clarifies her agenda: “First of all, I want to get to know the country better, to get to know my socio-cultural reality”. “I want to get to know my country in depth, to find out what’s going on in terms of social education”. And more, if we like each over… 

In this vein, she is embarking on three-phase tours this year. In 2026, she plans to return to the Congo for good, “if I’m ready”, she says. After that, she plans to broaden her base, to have a political majority. A fine project. It couldn’t be any other way for a woman who has always been a catalyst for social and political change. Her struggles give her a solid base for this ambition. Her life remains the story of a child prematurely moulded into resilience. Six key moments have shaped her existence.

“When I left my biological parents at the age of six”, was the first highlight of her life, she admits. She was two years old when her mother divorced her father and returned to her country of origin. She then spent four years alone with her father. It left an impact on her life. The key event was her separation from her father to join her aunt at the age of six. 

Then her entry into university shaped her life. “She took her destiny into her own hands, as her parents were reluctant to send her to university to study law. But she overcame this obstacle. “I learned to share my life with people who didn’t have my education”, she adds. It was a powerful moment of adaptation and an introduction to the acceptance of difference.

The election as Rector of the University of Edinburgh has the flavour of a fairytale. “I could never have imagined this”.

The third phase is that of commitment and activism in favour of human rights. “Being in an area where women were not allowed. I walked in all-male spaces”, she recalls. That takes daring. And it was precisely this activism that put her life in danger. In 2004, she was forced to leave her country, the Congo. 

Her arrival in the UK proved to be the fourth major turning point in her life. The activist became a refugee in 2005. The challenge was enormous. “I wanted to prove to the world that I was capable of surviving and making a life for myself. I also wanted to prove it to myself. 

The fifth highlight of her life was her commitment to helping refugees. She returned to her first love: militancy. She became involved in human rights in the UK. From 2006 onwards, she led a campaign in favour of refugees. And not everyone was happy about it. She was subjected to physical and moral attacks. Intimidation was at its height. From having her car scratched to having rubbish thrown on the courtyard of her home, not to mention the threats, she lived and stood her ground. At the same time, her actions were valued by others. “I didn’t know that what I was doing was having an impact. People were following”. As far away as the United States, she had support.

This was the springboard for her sixth highlight. Her election as Rector of the University of Edinburgh has the flavour of a fairytale. “I could never have imagined this”. A BBC journalist’s comment on the election sums it all up. “She arrived in Scotland only 10 years ago”. It both disturbs and fascinates. COVID has delayed her official inauguration. On 21 June 2023, she will be installed as the 54th Rector of Scotland’s prestigious university. What a symbol, what magic, what change.

Alain Metodjo

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