Sharing things

Things that really matter - Lily and Debora revisited

May 05, 2022 The University of Edinburgh
Sharing things
Things that really matter - Lily and Debora revisited
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to a dive into the Sharing things archive and a selection of 5 episodes where the objects are not just starting points, but deeply woven through the lives of our guests. What do you hold close? In the final episode of this collection we revisit the conversation between Lily Mellon and Debora Kayembe and talk about making history, uncovering stories and taking time for yourself.

This episode is hosted by Ayanda Ngobeni, who joined us in summer 2021 before starting her final year as a law student.

Lily is currently completing her research Master’s in Scottish Ethnology, Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University, after graduating with an MA in Scottish Ethnology in 2020. Alongside her studies, Lily is exploring Student Records for Underrepresented Student Narrative as the University Histories Archives Intern. You can listen to Lily on the monthly webinar ‘Meet the…Series’ (a live interview and Q&A session) as part of the VOiCE podcast – We’ve Got History Between Us.

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Debora is the University’s 54th Rector. Debora is a human rights lawyer and is passionate about advocating against issues such as racism, inequality, children in need, domestic violence and child abuse. From 2013 – 2016, Debora served as Scottish Refugee Council Board member and in 2017 founded the charity Full Options, promoting human rights and peace. In 2019, she became the first African to have her portrait erected at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Later in 2020, Debora launched the Freedom Walk campaign, which aims to lobby and campaign on behalf of citizens by promoting social reforms, racial justice and community harmony.

Each episode of Sharing things is a conversation between two members of our university community. It could be a student, a member of staff or a graduate, the only thing they have in common at the beginning is Edinburgh. We start with an object. A special, treasured or significant item that we have asked each guest to bring to the conversation. What happens next is sometimes funny, sometimes moving and always unexpected.

Find out more at

This episode of Sharing things was recorded during the Covid thing. We are still online but 2021 was starting to feel a bit okay.

mages designed by Chris Behr. They are part of his Nice Things icon set. 

[Theme music] 

Ayanda  0:05  Hello, howzit? Welcome to Sharing things. I'm Ayanda, your new host for season five. As usual, we've gathered to listen to conversations from members of our community. Let's go on a journey together while we discover the little things that connect us. In this episode we hear from Debora Kayembe and Lily Mellon.  

Alrighty, so we can just like start off by just giving like a brief introduction of ourselves. 

Lily  0:36  Yeah, so my name is Lily Mellon, and I am a current research master's student at the University of Edinburgh. I am doing my own fieldwork project for my dissertation. So I've been interviewing a lot of people about working from home during Covid restrictions, what that meant about their home space and how they felt connected to it, or how they worked within it. And I'm also an intern for the CRC, the Centre of Research Collections. I'm currently deep within material from the 1880s and finding minorities within the alumni there. I think one of the reasons that the people at Sharing things knew me was I'm a Voice volunteer, volunteers in collections engagement and we have been doing a newsletter and a podcast and a live meet the series over Zoom during all the remote working. 

Ayanda  1:30  Nice, nice. Thank you. That's a very like full introduction, yeah. What about you, Debora? 

Debora  1:36  Oh, I am Debora Kayembe and I like when people call me a human rights campaigner because I've campaigned for human rights at my younger age. I started at 19, actively there as an activist. And recently, I was appointed Rector of Edinburgh University making history. And I think making history is a curse for me, because it's not the first time I make history. I made history before, you know [laughs], I'm the first female African to have a portrait at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 236 years. So I jump into the sea of inequality and with my strength and courage, I try to change the world for a better. So what-- what is, is my agenda at the moment as a rector of Edinburgh University is to look at inequality, but in the top of everything, to introduce respect at Edinburgh University, in the true meaning of respect. That's the-- the challenge I have at the University. And so that's me, yeah, that's me. 

[Theme music] 

Ayanda  2:45  There's a common theme here of representation, and kind of like being that voice for people. And I'm quite intrigued by what she said, Debora, and that means you create a lot of history. What does-- what does that really mean to you? 

Debora  3:01  For me, it means responsibility, but I think it's grace on the top of everything. First of all, it's grace. It's what people can call otherwise, Amazing Grace. But you don't get the grace if you don't deserve it. The grace come from-- from above, we call it God, we call him Allah, we call him in a different name, he's the one who gave you the grace, the strength to do that. But for you, it's a responsibility and when it comes to you, you need to make sure being the first making history is the path that you prepare properly for those who's gonna come finish the work. And you guys come after, you continue what I've started, but if the foundation is well established, everything else is going to be perfect. That's how I see it.  

Ayanda  3:49  Yeah, I agree. And Lily, you do a lot of research into history. Are there moments where you also feel like I'm, I'm breaking boundaries here, you know, with the research that you're doing? 

Lily  4:00  I'd like to think so, certainly there's moments where you suddenly get reminded of that. One of the major things is that no matter where you go in time, no matter what you're talking about, whether it's present day, or deep within the past, it's the human stories within it and that's certainly what always is the hook for me, that's the memorable thing. 

Ayanda  4:21  And is there an example of a human story that kind of like had a big impact on you? 

Lily  4:26  Oh wow, that is a good question. I think with all the stuff that I'm doing at the moment, with the Centre for Research Collections and looking at minority voices, underrepresented voices. I'm currently looking through university calendars finding a lot of Indian students, a lot of African students, a lot of female students, who are all just so underrepresented at that-- at that time. And at the moment, I'm about five years off when it would actually be legal for women to graduate from the university. Some of the stories within that have been incredible and even just some of the names, I know that the Edinburgh Seven is pretty well known now and there's been quite a lot of campaigns around it but there's so many more as well. At the moment I'm researching a man from Sierra Leone who was writing with his brother, and had sent a manuscript to be published in Edinburgh and they just told them that they'd lost it. The brother died shortly after, and his life's work became dedicated to bringing back this book in his brother's memory. Not only did he do that, but after his death, the publishers that he'd originally sent the manuscript to published it and had it the whole time. So there's just so many stories that have been uncovered and I'm, I'm really interested or amazed by how much information can be found from decades prior or centuries prior. 

Ayanda  5:46  But I guess my question to you is, why did you feel it's important to go through these records? What does history mean to you?  

Lily  5:55  I think once you end up going through the raw data and finding the human stories, the names of the people within it, you start to understand just how complex a situation or a story can be. And with history, and with collective memory, it's very easy to oversimplify. And it's very easy to leave a lot of names, voices, on the peripheries of whatever narrative is being given. And I think once you go back through and look, it's a way to bring everybody into the conversation. 

[Theme music] 

Ayanda  6:33  And I guess also, you know, when you're representing, and you're really out there, and you're speaking on the behalf of other people, sometimes do you think there are moments where you might forget about yourself, sometimes? 

Debora  6:44  I don't know, if I-- if I exist, that is my exercise. It's been-- I've been through this life of campaigning for others and it has affected my life in a way that I never look at myself. I always look at the others and the needs they have and it's become very difficult. And going back to history, you know, history determines who we are. And when you go deep inside, to learn what happened to the past, then you are the witness of what happened in the ages and which determine the wave of people today. History is-- is the splendour, the splendour of human behaviour, you know, and it's important to know that because without history, we're not there. We don't exist. You know, that is very important. And in school, I was always the best student in history. My teacher used to tell me, you're really good in history, you are a lawyer, you need to be a lawyer, you must become a lawyer. It was something that my teacher put in my head like this, and then it stays there. They're right, today-- they're right, I'm a lawyer [laughs]. But history, it's so rich. It makes you stronger in the front of any kind of adversity, because you have the knowledge. 

 [Theme music] 

Ayanda  8:11  And it's quite interesting today, because you both brought items from your own history. 

Debora  8:16  Yes [laughs].  

Ayanda  8:18  Lily, would you like to share with us what you brought with you today? 

Lily  8:21  Yeah-- yeah. So-- well, I'm sure you guys have heard this many times before, but I went back and forth about my object, many, many times [laughter].Close family and friends have been quizzed very heavily or posed this question. But I wanted to go down memory lane a little bit and I was tempted to move away from present day and from my university connections. So it was an excuse to open cupboards that I have not dared to sort through in a while. And my mind immediately went to a lot of stuff that is boxed in my mum's house. And I really wanted to have the physical object with me to hold up to you guys. So my object is a broken Nintendo 64 console, which I have here. And had I not been invited to come and chat to you guys today, then I don't know how long it would have taken for me to remember that I had this. So for anyone who isn't familiar, it's a video game console from the 90s. And I want to say 96, but I wouldn't quote me on that, it's around that time. And it feels-- it feels like show and tell. And I have-- I have the console, I have the games. I also-- going back to the 90s when everything was a lot less wireless than it is today, it wouldn't actually be complete without a Spaghetti Junction of aged wires [laughter] and plug ends that I don't know the name of. It's really a package deal when it comes to objects. So if I did the memory lane, nostalgia element that I was looking for, this brings back memories of me and my sister, taking it in turns to play and watching each other play. We had multiplayer games but that strong childhood memory of taking it in half hour turns and timing it to the absolute millisecond of "it's my turn, it's my turn". So I am the elder of the two between me and my sister. But she always did the Jolly Roger Bay in Mario 64 level for me because the very badly animated eel in that world still haunts my dreams. The idea for picking this object over a few others was the fact that it doesn't work anymore. Its purpose and its function is no more, technically, and hasn't been around for some time. From that the question of, in my mind, why did I keep it? And why did-- why would I be gutted to lose it? 

Ayanda  10:36  I think the fact that it is broken, as you said is why you're keeping it. So why? I'm quite curious.  

Lily  10:43  I think because everything that you attach to the object. I'm not a materialistic person, because I feel that that word has too many negative connotations to be what I mean, but objects have never really spoken to me in the same way as attending a museum or whatever it is. I really look for the human element to, to things rather than the stuff around it. But I think when you have something like that, there's a lot of sense memories that you don't always expect to come up. So it's, it's not just about the thing, it's, I can see where it's placed in the houses that I was in, I can see the friends and family that were around. And it's one of the ways that you kind of map out certain things and remember certain things, the sounds of it, and everything like that. 

Ayanda  11:33  I'm also quite interested, do you mind sharing with us, who was Lily when she was playing this console? A little bit-- a little snapshot into, into who you were? 

Lily  11:45  Yeah, okay-- so a little girl growing up in Glasgow, I guess. My-- my family moved around various parts of the south side of the city, always very close to Queen's Park and I was a very quiet child. I think, if you went back to people from my school year, then 70% of them have likely not heard me speak. So a very insular person who kind of listens first and then potentially forgets to talk afterwards. My house was a really busy one, my mother likes to leave the door open when she's home for people to just drop in. So I grew up with me and my sister, but also people around for dinner all the time, we had a lodger growing up, we had children over to play all the time, maybe on the Nintendo, maybe not, but just quite-- quite an ordinary life. But definitely the sort of home that is busy and noisy and attempts to kind of overfeed whoever's in it. And I've tried to bring a bit of that to my place in Edinburgh today, as well, more so obviously, in a lack of pandemic restrictions, for sure, but I am happiest when a group of friends come over and I can make a massive dinner and we'll catch up over a few drinks and board games for an evening. And I think for me, these games, whether it's a video game, as in a console based game, like the one I brought or whether it's a board game type of thing, I-- I think it facilitates such a lovely conversation and socialisation, it's during these times that I truly can become silly. And I think that having that time to talk rubbish, truly talk rubbish with people can just be so important. There's a lot to be said for it. And seeing that I'm quite a quiet person might be true, but in these sorts of moments, laughing with friends and family, pretending to be competitive about it to deliberately annoy them or just being so rubbish that it becomes funny. It's using these games as some sort of purpose alongside catching up and getting to know things and swapping life, it really feels perfect to me and you can create those kind of laugh out loud moments in life that you're not quite prepared for or expecting. And so over time, it's just created so many important but simple memories. So I've always been one of those people that enjoys this type of thing, but, but doesn't take it too seriously. 

Ayanda  14:08  And yes, Debora, I think you might also have an object that relates to your childhood?  

Debora  14:12  No, whoa, this is my friend. This is Donald. I found Donald on Christmas Eve 2018. I think it was the first Christmas that Donald Trump was president of the United States and the racism was rock off in Florida and I was in Florida that Christmas. So in hospital with my son was supposed to have a surgery. So they said you have a name for him and I said Donald and everybody kept looking at me, Donald? Donald Trump is saying bad things about black people here. How can you call him Donald? I told them its the exercise of putting the hatred away from me. Because this is a bear, it's beautiful. I cuddle it, I cuddle it, I cuddle it and there is nothing coming for me than love for this bear that I call Donald. And then is the bridge between this Donald and the Donald who's spreading hatred to the world right there. It was a very different atmosphere, you know, very different atmosphere. And my Donald, we're travelling to Dulles Airport in Washington and then we get there it's huge and the immigration officers say what--where are we taking your kid? And well, it's coming with me. Does he have a visa? No, no, it doesn't have a visa. I'm not leaving him. And what's his name? Donald. Donald? Yeah. Like Donald Trump? Yes, it's the lesson of love and dedications and rescue of feelings that he shares with me and I will not give any room for hatred next to me, at least part of our family, we love him like my third child, so easy. 

Ayanda  15:57  Do you ever have conversations with Donald? Do you bounce ideas off of Donald sometimes?  

Debora  16:02  If I'm frustrated, you know, before becoming Rector of Edinburgh University, I went through hell with racism in this country, here in this Scotland. And I have through some kind of frustration myself and to express myself, I would have him sit next to my bed. And I said, Donald do you know, they said, I'm a monkey. Could you not play with a monkey in the forest? Their friendship between animals. Maybe you guys have something to make-- to make us understand, how you in the forest get along so well, you respect each other. So the idea of respect came to the behaviour on the animal in the forest because they respect each other. Everyone knows his territory. This is the place for the monkey, this is the place for the bear. You don't go there if you are uninvited. That is respect. You don't possess something that does not belong to you. That is respect. 

[Theme music] 

Lily  17:02  Debora, you had mentioned sort of being the history student but becoming a lawyer, but you are based in Edinburgh. So I was wondering what sort of journey you were on in terms of had you been living in America?  

Debora  17:14  It was like my second home for some time it because it was where I found healing for my child. You know, until Donald Trump become president, he stopped first of all the-- the affordable health care, he put it in trouble because my son was benefit from affordable health care there. And then he bought the hatred and I didn't like the country anymore. 

Ayanda  17:36  And how was that like to switch between two cultures? So basically, you have Scotland, and you have America, which are completely different. And then kind of like that switching. How did that affect you and your family? 

Debora  17:49  It impacted my children in a different way, I have to say, you know, I'm always a very adaptable person, I adapt in every situation. But my children have two different reactions. Right until the time George Floyd was killed, my children thought America was the right place for them. First of all, because of the weather, it was much better weather than Scotland, so for that they were-- they're gone. For my son, Ian, you have the weather, you have McDonald's, it's in every corner, there's McDonald's, so he's happy until when George Floyd was killed, and we're not returning. They don't want to hear about America anymore. I mean, their reaction is society determined how you see the society. But I see the society on my own way. And that society is a society based in equality, diversity, respect. I don't care about our skin colour, I don't care about who we are. Just respect. 

Ayanda  18:43  I've always been a person who's about representation. And I'm always the one at the forefront talking, just kind of like this force. A lot of people that I've met, they call me a force. But yeah, I got to Edinburgh and that kind of changed. Because I think for the first time in my life, I was like, a black woman. And I was treated that way, you know, because I remember I felt like it stole so much from me. It stole my voice, It stole who I am. I remember in second year, I think-- I don't know, I went home for summer and going back home and being around family and being around familiar surroundings, I remembered who I am. And the fire within me it never went out, it was burning low, but just going back home, it was reignited. And I came back and I decided there was an opportunity for an internship at the students' association-- so for the Cultural Sensitivity and Microaggressions intern, it's a long title. And just kind of doing research around that and kinda-- I felt myself coming back, I felt myself reclaiming my voice. So in terms of doing that research, I decided to remove the hate and actually start to find ways to create that systemic change. Kind of relating back to what you-- you said Debora about respect. And now when I do face racism, honestly, it really depends, but usually I just ignore it because I don't let it change who I am. I don't let it mould who I am. It doesn't change my day. I don't get angry all of a sudden, if I was having a good day, I'm gonna continue having a good day, thank you very much. 

Debora  20:24  You know, the Black Lives Matter came, Black Lives Matter left. The slap on my face, just because I was black and a lawyer, educated in Africa, being a lawyer from Africa. I had slap on the paper, on the face, on sitting and talking to the people, the-- I remember one as an asylum seeker, one of the nurses told me, "you are not a lawyer here, you are an asylum seeker". What does that mean? Does that mean being an asylum seeker, you didn't go to law school? They-- they, this university made me Rector and, and all the news on the TV shows that I was a lawyer, a very prominent lawyer who has realised so big thing in this country. What is it that people think now when they look at that? Everything went on TV, all international media, I keep thinking, thewoman who humiliated me this way. What-- what do you think today? You know, that's why you don't pay attention to whatever race you are, don't pay attention to small minded people, people who are small mind, what worth you, is what you have here in your brain, here in your heart. I think heart is the best place to be. Protect your heart against any sort of hatred, and you'll always be the winner. Always. 

[Theme music] 

Ayanda  21:44  And I'm just quite curious as well, just in terms of, you know, there's a lot that goes on, even if you're like-- you're a woman, there's, you know, this a lot that ties into your identity that people want to discriminate against. And yeah, I would like to know, from Lily and-- and you Debora, basically, what is your escape? 

Lily  22:06  Yeah, yeah. Oh, god, it's a good question. I think, for me stuff like, these games do provide a form of escapism and a break from things, I am definitely someone who can't switch off quickly or easily. And so quite often, I'll find myself multitasking, relaxing things. So that's-- there-- so there's no space for extra thoughts or little to do list things, because taking time for yourself can just be so important. And all my previous jobs have been always been so immersive. I work for a sound company in Glasgow, so PA, live events, music gigs, and things like that and when you go away working with people, even just for a week on some thing, you really enter this bubble, and you work long hours with people and you get really close. So your time is really snatched up, or you become immersed temporarily in this thing, in this project and the next and also, I au paired in Sweden for two years. And again, you know, I lived in with a family and even if I technically finish my work in the evening, the kids do not disappear, you cannot pack them away for the next morning. So it becomes a major part of your life and your existence. And your identity is really attached to your work. And I think I'm always someone who's attached my identity to my work and surrounded myself with people who are doing the same. And I've felt that really recently about student life and studying at the university or just studying in general, perhaps there's also an element of being confined, or way more confined during Covid restrictions, as it's that lack of kind of gap or boundaries when you're a 24 hour student compared to a nine to five office thing somewhere. But until your course completes, there's the next assignment and there's something hanging in the background requiring attention. So there's no set hours, it's your project. And I've been doing my own research project for the past year, and it's my own, or I'm in charge of it. And it's my responsibility for that. And so technically, I can always be doing something. And often my response to that is, when I feel like I'm doing a lot, is to do more. And I know that there are similar people out there and that phrase of saying, you know, ask a busy person to get something done, I think really holds true. But I, I think I said at the start as well, I'm an intern with my studies, and I've just finished up a previous one as well. And I have all the voluntary Voice stuff for the podcast and the content creation there, which I absolutely love. And I also have another volunteering position too. But sometimes it's just about how you take time for just you and how-- when you have lots of roles or when you're someone who defines themselves in many ways by the work and are wearing different hats, maybe in your job or in your life in general. Then you just take time and switch off and that is this object for me, or a representation of, of that, within this object. I still play games today on consoles, which aren't broken, or just on my phone, and I'll have a YouTube rabbit hole playing in the background or some really rubbish TV and my mind just goes blank. And I take that time and I, I go back to things I'm doing, I think better for it. So this object is kind of wrapped up, either in escapism and quiet for me, or the opposite being surrounded by people and noise and, and yeah, life. 

Ayanda  25:37  What about you, Debora, what's-- what's your escape? 

Debora  25:40  Many people does not know this. I'm a very spiritual person. And my escape is in the Bible, because in my life, I face a lot of torture, physical torture, and mental abuse. I had that too much as a child, and I grew up with it, and I've grown from it. So I've had the exercise of protecting my soul, and keeping my soul healthy, and using the Bible, the reading of the Bible, and impersonating the reading of the Bible is my escape. Every time people do bad things to me, every time people plan something bad to me, I always have the Bible reading Psalm 23, I read that a lot, glorify God in His magnificence. This is my escape. Many people don't know that-- they think I'm not spiritual. I'm extremely, deeply spiritual. And that is my strength, because I know to whom to talk, to whom to open up, and to whom to glorify, when I am reduced to nothing, I glorify Him. 

[Theme music] 

Ayanda  26:46  So basically, here on Sharing things for our final question, we like to ask if you had to pick one word to describe your object, what would it be? 

Debora  26:56  Refuge.  

Ayanda  26:57  Refuge?  

Debora  26:58   

Refuge, yes. Because with Donald, Donald knows the clarity of my soul, I express my feeling to Donald, and he does listen to me, he doesn't say anything bad, he's just still watching me. He is my refuge. That is all it is, it's nothing less than that. My refuge, to whom I can say anything. 

Lily  27:21  Do you think in some way, it might be similar to what you were saying about spiritualism being an escape for you? 

Debora  27:27  You know, Mandela says something very rich. He said, I pray to whom, whatever God may be, for my unconquerable soul. I know who I am, I know my value. And there is a God somewhere, it can be made or not, he can be up there. But my soul is mine. And no one will destroy it with hatred.  

Ayanda  27:48  That is-- that's so beautiful. Wow. Very, very powerful. And you Lily, what about your-- your word? 

Lily  27:56  Yeah, I think-- I think my word would be memories. I think, before I've said about how people and stories matter to me way more than the object surrounding them. And I think that that's why my object has been kept despite it not working, because it's the memories attached to it, is what I remember. And it's what I feel when I look at the object, it, it has a new purpose now, in that way. And I think also, the important thing for memories with me is not that there are specific ones or strong and complete memories, it's odd sounds and pictures and smells and snapshots and flashbacks. And it appears together like a dream, or, like, I don't know, kind of like a kaleidoscope of information now. And not all of them are necessarily my own. Some of them have been told to me by other people and some of them have been kind of solidified in a photograph, or whatever it is, but it's just that feeling that you get when I look at this object, it's the warmth and the security and the kind of calmness that that can provide for a little second and a great deal of my messages to my sister today involve screenshots or little photos, something from decades ago with a message you know, do you remember this? Or, you know, can you remember the name of this and, and that can be way more important sometimes than messaging. You know, right, it's been a few weeks, catch me up. Tell me about the drama at work and your relationship with this person. And did you get this thing sorted and have you emailed back that person, then sometimes that sort of catch up with a person is just as important but it can feel like life admin, whereas a silly quick message back and forth that amounts to something ridiculous, like, like, do you remember this weird ice cream game where you paired awful flavours together in that Scooby Doo museum game that we had and my sister will only respond with the words artichoke, anchovy and peanut butter. And that's-- that's the sort of thing that can make my day and feel a real connection to talking rubbish with someone can be really important. This object does represent an example of something bigger. And it's just that which makes memories so, so important to me. And it's the little things I think. I think that's what I'm trying to say this whole time. It's just the little things. 

Debora  30:28  Yeah. Talking about memories, my mama was from Zambia. And she was not loved at all by my family in law because my father was a tribal leader. He's supposed to marry the Congolese woman, but he married a stranger woman-- a foreign woman. Since I've become Rector, I don't know why but is this memory of her singing lullaby to me in order to help me to sleep. Because I used to be a quite a fidgety little girl before going to sleep. And my mother would take me to bed and she would sing the lullaby, she would sing and she would sing and so lovely, and now go to sleep. Memories are beautiful, they are beautiful. 

Ayanda  31:08  Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing of yourself. I really enjoyed it. 

Debora  31:13  It was a pleasure. 

Lily  31:14  Yeah, it was such a pleasure. Thank you.