economic development literary non-fiction Oxford travel

Oxford in September

Christ Church, September 2012 (Trudi M with friends)

It’s been ten years since Thuli first set foot on Woodstock Road. She came to Oxford to read for a master’s degree in development economics. Oxford in September is cool and serene. The cab driver could not resist to point out that is a lovely day. As usual, Thuli is not able to take full advantage of this crisp and bright day because she has some work to do. Has she ever had a peaceful moment in Oxford?

As soon as Thuli had been dropped off at the front door of the short let apartment building that she was staying in, she mapped the day ahead of her. She would walk into the city to get some basic supplies – nice tea, fruit and salad basics, and some snacks. She expected that she would eat out a lot over the coming week. The small apartment is further from the city centre than she had estimated from the map. But it would be good to walk, she assured herself. She looked forward to sashaying down Woodstock Road again, taking in her old neighbourhood without all that early twenties angst.

Such angst there was. Why had that blue-eyed boy of the economics department; in that case a tall Nigerian young man, not returned her affections? The last she had heard of him, he was chasing a doctorate in the United States. Did her statistics professor put all the black students in one study group out of racism, or was it just a coincidence? Thuli had never been able to estimate, to a reasonable degree of accuracy, how much racism there was at Oxford. Nothing overt would ever occur here. The place was too civilised. But a lot can be betrayed by the tone of a lecture, by invitations to the high table (or lack thereof), or by a look on the street.

There was a certain king of angst that was shared by almost all Oxford students – undergraduate or post-graduate, rich or middle class, black or otherwise. It all boiled down to one question. Am I good enough to be here? Thuli had been sophisticated enough; as a young, black woman; to have anticipated the question even before she stepped onto Woodstock Road. She was aware of the ‘impostor syndrome’. But it is one thing to devour African-American and feminist literature and quite another to come face to face with doubt. There were incidents that made her wonder whether some of her professors would prefer to be educating someone else, some brilliant creature with more testosterone and far less melanin.

Some things had changed in the stretch of Woodstock Road she was most familiar with, but a lot had stayed the same. The Quakers, the Scientologists and the Blackfriars were still here. And the Oxfam store, to which she had once donated the stuff that she could not justify shipping home or carrying in her already over-sized bags. Charity under duress. Then again, it’s possible that all charity is given under pressure. Fear, guilt, vanity or power.

A degree in development economics has had a curious effect on Thuli. She cannot stomach institutionalised charity, especially when it came in the form of international aid or corporate social responsibility. Her scepticism had its roots in her childhood. Her grandmother had inculcated in her a deep belief in self-help. Even though the old woman had lived the best years of her life under apartheid, her spirit was indomitable. With that upbringing, and postgraduate years spent poring through the development literature, Thuli just doesn’t buy the notion that development could be driven from the outside. Each community would have to develop from within, harnessing its own capabilities, on its own terms. Outsiders could facilitate this, but not drive the process in the way that some members of the aid elite imagined that they could. This is probably how Thuli ended up in management consulting, steering clear of the development bank/NGO/think tank constellation that absorbed most of her former classmates.

A small brown door stood ajar. Thuli pushes the door open. It’s heavy. She is reminded that this university was built for men. She peaks in. There is no-one in the entrance lobby. Outside the porter’s lodge stands a middle aged woman with all the hallmarks of Oxford dowdy chic. Her well-conditioned but slightly messy hair frames a face that has been surrendered to the work of time. A scarf is tied loosely around her neck. She wears a grey, form-fitting trench coat over loose black plants. The outfit is completed by navy-blue Ferragamo pumps. Her step is agile but her eyes are distracted. Thuli tries to catch her eye but the woman looks past her. It is just before term and the building is completely still. This was Thuli’s college. She looks around the deserted halls and feels no desire to call on the warden. She steps back into the daylight.

Thuli walks on. A new building sets her off into a mild panic. But a minute later, she finds that the Royal Oak is still intact. At the exact spot where she expects one, a homeless person sits outside St Cross College, engrossed by his book. The real change is that Thuli sees more of the town now. She sees the shop owners, the assistants, and the woman in a power suit wheeling a lawyer’s case – that other Oxford that was barely visible to her as a student. As she walks past a bank, she notices the mortgage rates. Grown-up eyes. Nostalgia kicks in. With the benefit of time, she has to admit to herself that she had a decent time here.