Book Review: One of Them - Musa Okwonga
Astria Zahra Nabila
“People often ask how it is possible to remain out of touch with the majority of society for your entire life, but it’s really quite simple. If you go to a preparatory school from the age of seven, then you board at Eton till eighteen, then you live with your schoolfriends in private accommodation at university, and then you see them all in the City, you essentially spend your formative years in a gated community. That’s why you see politicians who attended boarding school looking bewildered when they wander around underfunded areas of the country – it’s because they are seeing actual poverty for the first time.” (pg. 63)
While watching a documentary of one of the most prominent boarding schools, Eton College, eleven-year-old Musa Okwonga was transfixed by the grand depiction of the school and besieged by sudden fervour to become part of the institution. Coming from a middle-class immigrant family, Okwonga learned in his early years that education offers the best route to dodge racism and discrimination, that it is important to conform, and doing one’s best is the only way to do that. His years in Eton later proved that the reality is more complex than that; the inequality which he sought to escape is well enmeshed in the education system.
In his memoir, One of Them, Okwonga weaves his experience of entering elite education in Eton College, a public school for boys well-known for its prominent contribution in educating numerous elites from prime ministers, aristocrats, to world-renowned actors. Central in his memoir is his reflection on the interconnection between elite education and the UK’s murky political landscape. Being of Ugandan heritage, Okwonga was among the few non-white students attending Eton College. His racial identity and social class equip him to critically examine his experience in Eton vis-à-vis his white counterparts.
Okwonga’s memoir excels in a way that it is critical without being unnecessarily negative and spiteful; there was the good and the bad. He reminisces fondly several friends that he made and a number of teachers who he admired and respected. Okwonga was a committed student, and he acknowledges Eton’s commitment to provide the very best education for its pupils. However, he also remembers the bad, starting from Eton’s unwillingness to disclose its colonial past, the few altercations, both physical and verbal, that he had with fellow students to the feeling of estrangement.
One aspect which I find particularly interesting is his poignant observation on Etonian culture and power structure and how they echo real-life politics. He portrays this as somewhat paradoxical; how honours and awards were generously handed out to celebrate students’ accomplishments, but at the same time visible efforts were subjected to mockery. Okwonga tells a popular story in Eton about a student who reportedly recorded every second that he spent socialising instead of studying so that he would not miss even a second of his revision session. This story became a source of disdain rather than admiration. The Moral of the story is that the truly impressive students are those who come out first without apparent efforts. Students hide their hard work. Okwonga described this as a preparation for the ruthless corporate world, and at the same time as a pretension of natural greatness among his peers.
Most importantly, Okwonga’s memoir captures the failure of elite education in addressing inequality and injustice, a particularly grave shortcoming considering that a significant portion of the UK’s leaders are products of the so-called first-class education. Out of the 55 British prime ministers, 20 attended Eton. “….[Y]ou essentially spend your formative years in a gated community. That’s why you see politicians who attended boarding school looking bewildered when they wander around underfunded areas of the country – it’s because they are seeing actual poverty for the first time.” (pg. 63)
Okwonga begins his memoir with his childhood dream of escaping discrimination through education, but throughout the book we witness his gradual understanding that there will always be an invisible line separating him from his white schoolfriends. White privileges enable his peers to enter one of the country’s best schools with limited to no efforts, compared to Okwonga’s status as a scholarship student, for example. Racial discrimination follows him, from within the school environment to the outside world. He carefully avoided any contact with drugs due to fear of the negative stereotype of black males and drug use, while his white peers recreationally used drugs in their adolescent years. He encountered racial profiling and threats outside school, from authorities and fellow citizens alike, despite his education. He criticised the infamous neoliberal rationale which prevailed among his peers: efforts will always pay off. For them, structural constraints are out of question.
His years in Eton definitely left a lasting impact on Okwonga’s life, not only in formal education, but more so in his own identity. His education puts him in a schism: he would never be fully part of his school fellows, yet his education also alienated him from those who shared the same racial identity and social class. One of Them ends with a hopeful note. Okwonga currently works as a journalist, an occupation that is not particularly popular among Etonians, and follows his passion in writing. The ending offers some sort of question for Okwonga’s dilemma presented in the beginning of the memoir: whether to attend Eton’s reunion or not, considering his choice of career in the creative field is a far cry from his Etonian peers’ work in politics and finance. His decision not to attend the reunion symbolises a break from the school’s failing, including its complicity in perpetuating inequality.
With only a little over 200 pages, One of Them is relatively a quick read, but infused with beautiful writings. This book is recommended for those who wish to understand more the dynamics of education and inequality, and to debunk the popular myth that education is the great equaliser to all.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 01 — March 2022