By Georgia Akhigbe and Nazra Abdi
Every September, before the start of the academic term, Queen Mary University of London hosts its annual Fresher’s Fair in the Hive, Student Union. Its aim is simple: to bring new students into the fold of university life, enabling both new and returning students to become active members of the various societies and clubs that are on offer. With hundreds of new – and eager – students on campus together at the same time, the QM Pan-African Society honed in on the opportunity to educate students about #LeopoldMustFallQM, the political direction of the campaign, and some of the wider, student-led decolonial movements that have emerged in recent years.
Georgia (President) and Nazra (Secretary) from the QM Pan-African Society offer valuable insight into the campaigning efforts of #LeopoldMustFallQM in the following article.
The Fresher’s Fair held at Queen Mary University of London on Wednesday 21st September and Thursday 22nd September 2016 was an important opportunity for the QM Pan-African Society to shed light on the #LeopoldMustFallQM campaign. The Mile End campus was filled with faces excited to be a part of the university community that they had recently joined and the various societies and clubs that were of particular social, cultural and political interest to them. For the QM Pan-African Society, the aim of Fresher’s Fair was twofold: firstly, to promote the society as a politically black student-led body and gain new membership amongst students of African descent, and secondly, to raise the profile of the #LeopoldMustFallQM campaign amongst students on campus.
Before Fresher’s Fair, we – the general committee – held a meeting to discuss the ways in which we could effectively promote the #LeopoldMustFallQM campaign. We came up with various creative and intuitive ways of raising the visual presence of the campaign, including handing out red ribbons for students on campus to tie around their wrists, writing #LEOPOLDMUSTFALL on a whiteboard and encouraging students to take photos holding it in solidarity, accompanied by QM Pan-African Society committee members wearing T-shirts with the slogan: ‘QM Must Atone For Its Colonial Foundations’ written across it against the backdrop of the Pan-African flag (see images below).
The Pan-African flag proved to be very eye-catching, with some students recognising it almost immediately, to others asking questions about its meaning, and the society to which we belong. The red ribbon also proved to be a formidable signifier not only for #LeopoldMustFallQM but the wider student, decolonial movement as a whole: the red not only symbolising the spilt blood of those Africans whose lives were lost at the hands of imperialism, but also a direct connection to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford: another student-led, decolonisation movement at the University of Oxford, in which students continue to campaign to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College. #RhodesMustFallOxford chose the colour red for the same reason: to ‘draw attention to this bloodshed and related oppression.’  Thus, students walking around campus wearing the red ribbon became the living embodiment of the kind of solidarity that carries the student de-colonial movement from strength to strength.
As aforementioned, as well as tying red ribbons around students’ wrists, we asked students if they would hold our whiteboard with ‘#LEOPOLDMUSTFALL’ written on it so that we could take a photograph and upload it to our Facebook and Twitter page. Our primary objective was to show the diverse body of students who believe in the core values of the campaign, as well as to stimulate critical discussion on our various social media platforms.
This proved effective as many students agreed to have their photos taken with the board, leading to students coming up to us and asking us what we were doing. This was inspiring to see – since we had been walking up to students and telling them about our campaign, it was wonderful that students were coming up to us in curiosity, giving us an opportunity to tell them more about the campaign. We had managed to generate a small buzz and it was reassuring to see students from all backgrounds walking around with a red ribbon around their wrists at the end of the day.
Before we could do all of this, however, we first had to tell students about King Leopold and why this campaign was important. We did this by walking around with a photo of King Leopold and asking students if they knew who he was. Almost every student we asked did not know who he was, highlighting the importance of why the plaques need to be historically re-contextualised, as to make known his heinous colonial crimes. We used this as an opportunity to tell students that Leopold was the former King of Belgium, and that he killed up to an estimated ten million Africans when he colonised Congo. We explained that the Queen’s Building formerly housed two plaques commemorating King Leopold II (that have since been removed, without note or apology from the university), and that the next steps of the campaign (amongst others) is to have these plaques placed in a separate museum or contextual space on campus, open to the public, so that people may learn the history behind the plaques and the man to that they are dedicated to. Once we had explained this to students, almost all agreed that something needed to be done about the plaques.
Although us going around and talking to students proved effective in promoting both the society and the campaign, we wanted to extend our promotion farther than the people on the university ground. In order to do this, we also filmed a short documentary on the Wednesday of Fresher’s Fair, interacting with students and documenting their particular views and responses to #LeopoldMustFallQM. It was integral that the reactions of students to questions such as “Do you know who this man is?” (showing, of course, a portrait of King Leopold II) were as genuine as possible. In order to make this as informative a process as possible, no prior information was given to students beforehand.
Thus, there are two segments to the documentary. For the first segment, we walked up to students and asked them questions related to King Leopold II and the plaques. Again, we ensured that we gave no prior information as to what the film was for, or about, prior to recording students’ responses. The general consensus was that most people did not know who Leopold was, and many seemed genuinely appalled once we informed them of his crimes. Given that it was Fresher’s Fair, many of the new students that we spoke to appeared surprised that the university they had recently joined had these colonial associations. We asked students how they felt knowing that their university had willfully commemorated a mass murderer, with responses ranging from shocked, to confused, to unsurprised given that many European universities have colonial foundations.
The second half of the film entailed members of the QM Pan-African Society speaking to black students at Queen Mary who had previous knowledge about Leopold, the plaques and the #LeopoldMustFallQM campaign. We asked each student their thoughts on the reluctance of Western universities to decolonize their campuses and syllabuses, and why there appears to be a lack of regard for African and Black lives when it comes to commiserating those who suffered under the hands of imperialism and colonialism. It was important for us to hear the intimate point of view of black students and how the colonial foundations of their university personally affected them. We wanted to showcase that the plaques and what they stand for not only have an effect upon people today, but are incredibly disrespectful to those that died in the past at the hands of colonialism. By creating a documentary, the campaign became far more personal than a hashtag, as we were able to put actual faces and voices behind the significance of the cause. Through this, we hope that the campaign will enlighten a much wider audience, particularly once the documentary has been made viral on social media.
Overall, campaigning for #LeopoldMustFallQM during Fresher’s Fair was an important stepping stone for the campaign. It enabled us to reach out to many students – new and old – and educate them more about King Leopold II and his associations with Queen Mary University of London.