Winners of The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition
Four young writers have been awarded Winners and Runners-Up of The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition 2016, the world’s oldest international schools writing competition. The winning essays were selected from approximately 13,500 entries spanning the five regions of the Commonwealth.
Representing nearly every Commonwealth country, entrants wrote about contemporary issues including the Syrian refugee crisis, conflict migration in Africa and finding a diasporic identity.
Senior Winner Inessa Rajah, 17, is from Durban, South Africa. Senior Runner-up Esther Mugalaba, 19, comes from Lusaka, Zambia.
The Junior Winner and Runner-up, Gauri Kumar, 13, and Tan Wan Gee, 14, respectively, are
both Singaporean nationals.
Entries were assessed by a pan-Commonwealth body of judges, drawn from more than 30
different countries across the globe. Judges described the entries as ‘inspirational’,
‘ambitious’, ‘profound’, ‘moving’, ‘imaginative’ and stated that ‘the future of the Commonwealth is bright’.
The four pan-Commonwealth Winners and Runners-up will attend the traditional ‘Winners Week’ in London in October of this year; a special programme consisting of cultural and educational activities. The week will culminate in an Awards Ceremony at Buckingham Palace where HRH The Duchess of Cornwall will present the Winners and Runners-up with their certificates on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen. This will be the third time that the Duchess of Cornwall has taken part in the Awards Ceremony.
Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Michael Lake CBE, said: “The four young people chosen as the Winners and Runners-up of The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition 2016 represent the very best and brightest that the Commonwealth has to offer. Their essays and poems explore contemporary themes with maturity, intelligence and depth beyond their years. We are proud of them and the thousands of other young writers
who entered the competition this year from all around the Commonwealth.”
Senior Winner: Inessa Rajah, 17, South Africa
He might be dead.
It’s dreadful but it’s true. Bobby, my younger brother, pulls at my hand and asks again,
“Where’s Dr. Congo-man?” “I don’t know.”
He might be dead. But I can’t tell Bobby that. He’s four years old. His world does not involve friendly, Congolese car guards suffering violent deaths, killed in their own homes or on their way to work. But, then again, neither does mine. Or, it shouldn’t.
I live in a democratic South Africa. A country praised for its diversity, famous for its ability to mend the wounds of the past with tolerance. The rainbow nation. We flaunt Madiba’s
name on our chest like it is our right. And then – this.
I am ashamed that I do not know the car guard’s name. All I know is the bright smiling face, the colour of dark chocolate, and the strong hands that help my mother with her shopping bags every Friday. All I know is the kind manner in which he bends to greet Bobby – seriously, like he is a man – and how, when he high-fives him, Bobby giggles with glee. My mother – a studious, protective woman – does not so much as blink during these
interactions. She trusts this car guard – instinctively, as if his goodness exudes from his skin. None of us know his name. I like to think it is because of the language barrier, but I am not delusional. I do not know his name because I have never asked what it is. Bobby has, but the man did not seem to understand the question. I have never heard him speak English. I don’t even know if he really is Congolese or if I merely assumed this to be so. He would always accept the change my mother handed him with a sincere “Merci beaucoup”, hands clasped over the few, loose coins as if he were praying.
If I see him again, I will ask him his name and make sure he understands. When – I see him again.
“Maybe we should wait for him by his spot?” “We can’t, Bobby, it’s raining.”
He puffs out his cheeks in exasperation. I smile. We are waiting for our mother to finish her shopping, standing beneath the awning of a restaurant, protected from the rain. It is subsiding but I do not want to risk Bobby’s getting wet and catching a cold. I glance at the ledge across the car park where the car guard sometimes sits, on the few occasions when he is not needed. Something twinges in my stomach. It feels like guilt.
Once, my cousin, who speaks broken French, had a conversation with our car guard. We had been waiting for my mother again, and the sky was crisp and blue. When we entered the car, I asked her what their conversation had been about. She smiled sadly.
“He was a doctor in his country,” she said. Bobby was elated. He started calling him Dr. Congo-man.
I’ve only ever looked at the car guard – properly, like he was a person, not a service – once. I had dropped my wallet and somehow, even whilst carrying two heavy shopping bags, he managed to retrieve it from the ground before I could. As he handed my wallet back to me, our eyes unintentionally locked. Instead of bashfully averting my eyes, as I usually would have done, I stood frozen – stunned by the desolation before me. His dark irises were a morose burnt hue, like somewhere- behind the fronts of his eyes; deep in the corners of his heart – a once effervescent light had been irreversibly snuffed out. The man smiled and moved to place the shopping bags in our car. He’s sad, I realized, and immediately felt idiotic. His country is in turmoil, he was forced to flee his home, and he’s a qualified doctor working as a car guard. Of course he’s sad.
Bobby is bored- kicking a stone between his feet. A television screen above his head bursts with the colour of a cooking spray advertisement.
Turning on the television nowadays is a depressing affair. The news channels will greet you with events ranging from bad to worse. Currently, the cynical lenses of the world’s news cameras are directed at South Africa, my home. It’s unnerving, watching familiar streets – streets I’ve walked upon- enlarged on television screens, lined with violence and horrifying rage. “Foreigners are stealing our jobs,” a furious, young man shouts, saliva flying from the side of his mouth. In the background, foreigners are yelling. Fleeing. Terrified. Refugees- people- shot in the streets. They escaped to our country in an attempt to run from chaos and pain, but instead found themselves running in a circle, directly back into the all- enveloping arms of injustice. The irony of it is cruel and shameful. It baffles me- how a country so scarred by intolerance and hatred could fail to muster empathy for those cast
out of their homes for the same reasons. But wounds leave you bitter and sore, despite the rainbow-coloured bandages we wrap them in. It is 2015, and the lesions are resurfacing- raw and unhealed. So once again, refugees’ homes burn before their eyes, their security vanishing in wisps of spiteful smoke.
I wonder if the Congolese man has a family; a little boy, like Bobby, or a daughter with his complicated eyes.
The rain has stopped. I am suddenly aware of the stillness beside me.
There is no reply. I whirl my head from side to side, searching for him. He is nowhere to be seen.
“Bobby?” I say again, my voice growing shrill. Intense panic grips me, yanking my heart to
my shoes. My head is light. I duck behind pillars, searching frantically under tables.
Fear corrodes my senses. I’m on the verge of screaming for help, someone- anyone- when-I see him. He’s sitting on the ledge across the car park, his smile so big it is sliding off the sides of his face. The kind, Congolese man is standing beside him. I melt in relief.
As I approach them, admonishments directed at Bobby already lining up on my tongue, I catch sight of the atrocious laceration on the man’s arm. Words abandon me. The wound looks like a burn, and my eyes well with pity. I look into his eyes – for the second time- and see the eyes of a man cheated by life, a man whose inner light has been yanked from him, and trampled on, more times than fate should allow. My sympathy is useless. I feel inadequate beside him- his resilience immense, my futility rendering me small. What could we possibly have in common?
The man does not notice my guilt, or perhaps he does and finds it as pointless as I do. He is pointing at something behind me, to which Bobby turns his attention, his face breaking open in delight.
It is a rainbow- iridescent in the remnants of the rain.
“C’est magnifique, oui?” says the kind man.
Bobby laughs, enthralled by the rainbow’s beauty- and I smile at the sound of his laugh, a universally wondrous noise. I look at the man and we are smiling together.
Perhaps we do have something in common. Perhaps we all do. I ask the man his name. His smile broadens – and he replies…………….
Junior Winner: Gauri Kumar, 13, Singapore
Visiting a foreign country can be an otherworldly experience. Venturing into unknown territory, and you’re left with a feeling akin to being an alien in human skin. Unsure of the practices in your new surroundings, you spend your time in public self-conscious and anxious. Worse is navigation, as the winding roads and alleyways you allied with at home have turned against you here. You struggle against the cobblestone tide, as the crowds surrounding you swim through the streets with ease. Yet, the crucial cultural difference is not presented in etiquette or road maps. The main difference presents itself when you idle in a cafe, submerged in the chit-chat . The pure shock of something as mundane as coffee-shop small talk becoming inaccessible to you seizes you back into reality. You are reminded that no matter how hard you play at being a local, you will never belong to their kind.
Now imagine that country, the country so foreign and strange to you was the birthplace of your entire family, dating back generations. Imagine if that country was the one you called ‘home’.
My parents, and theirs before them, were all Indian, speaking Hindi. Neither me or my sister can say a single word in our mother tongue, despite years of effort and lessons. These non-mutual sounds are not simple differences, forgettable and trivial. These are electric fences, making connection nigh impossible. Saying anything other than ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ becomes verbal minefields. Your relationships with older relatives, less able in English, are nonexistent. Can you love someone you cannot understand?
Language barriers are more than they seem, as anyone who has ever tried to relate to their relatives can attest to. Words are the foundations of culture, and when you can’t use them, your validity as a ‘true’ member of your country is a house made of straws, painstaking to create and all too easy to break. Explaining a word which has no equivalent in English is akin to describing colours to the blind or music to the deaf. Idioms and metaphors are crucial to the spoken word, but nonsensical to the non-speaker. Even learning something as a third language could leave you rather clueless to colloquial terms and slang. This marks a significant difference between you, the foreigner, and the authentic locals. Portmanteaus and puns are lost on a foreigner. Hearing your relatives crack jokes in a distant language, only to be unable to explain punchline when you ask them to translate is a common occurrence in not-quite bilingual families. There is an (ironically) unspoken divide
between you and your family when their childhoods centered around an alphabet which looks like gibberish to you.
This is not a beg for help, or a dramatisation of the situation. Millions of children and adults would face this same scenario worldwide. After years of hard work, I have gained a passing understanding of Hindi. Conversations between me and my grandparents are conducted in both Hindi and English. I have come to embrace a mystical cypher as my history and culture. While I will not lie and say that this is my ideal, it is a situation that I do not face alone. Being an outsider by being monolingual is something I have come to accept.
My forefathers spoke Sanskrit, my more recent predecessors communicate in Hindi, and I? I am on the road to being the first of my family to bilingual in another way, conversing in English and German.