This year The SOAS Spirit decided to go further in our election coverage. The SOAS Students’ Union elections can be intimidating, whether you’re a candidate or just a regular student voter. Campaigning is intense, with much of candidates’ success being weighted on who has the widest friendship circle or the best ability to produce a fun video, catchy hashtag or flashy poster. With all of this considered, we decided that the best way for students to get to know their Co-President candidates would be through in-person interviews, which we’ve presented here in the form of profiles.
Interviews by Luke Lowsley-Williams, BA Social Anthropology
“There is kind of a grain of craziness, everyone is themselves.” Lisa Aissaoui clearly loves SOAS. Her quiet, gentle persona comes across immediately from the outset of the interview. Asking how the campaign was going she replied wearily, “yeah, it’s really good… a bit stressful.”
Lisa is a creative. Growing up in France and Morocco, she found herself applying to top universities in the UK. After being given a conditional offer to SOAS and missing one mark she contemplated going to Goldsmiths University. However, upon researching and seeing the university she “realised that SOAS was more a world for me.” After deliberating Lisa decided to refuse Goldsmiths and join SOAS through a foundation course. After being at SOAS now for five years she describes it as “my home.” Starting with a double degree in BA Social Anthropology and African Studies, she then dropped anthropology and focused on African Studies.
She talked lovingly of her Hausa lecturer, Philip J. Jaggar, whom she receives private lessons as the only Hausa student, saying, “I love this lecturer because you see the passion.” Lisa wants to bring back courses that are cut in the future. It’s clear from her solitary lessons in Hausa that she cares deeply about the dwindling Africa department.
Lisa would draw from a variety of wide ranging experiences in organising events if she were to be elected into the Activities and Events position. Most notably is her involvement with ‘Open the Gate’ which is an organisation “whose objective is to promote a positive and contemporary image of African & Diaspora arts, crafts, music, design and culture.” Keeping with Lisa’s African focus she is also setting up a platform and network for African photographers, AfroShoot, which is based here in London.
The arts provide a priority for Lisa’s campaign her interest in photography began as “a hobby, I was doing travel photography, then I got my camera. It’s been a few years and I’m doing professional photography, I’ve had exhibitions and [I] photograph for events.” Lisa’s photographs are an eclectic mix of intimate portraits with vast landscapes showing how vastly travelled she is.
Photographing for events gave Lisa an introduction to sport at SOAS. Trying to capture images from the sports ceremony she describes her experience as seeing “another world, which is kind-of unseen for the other students.” This prompted Lisa to seek to make SOAS Sports more visible within the University. She also wants to allocate more time to reduce timetable clashes that prevented Lisa herself from pursuing sports.
While sport is a focus, it is art which is the priority. Lisa listed many practical solutions that she thinks would encourage the creative arts at SOAS. These include having a room specifically for society meetings, creativity and exhibitions to support collaboration. Lisa holds particular interest in “enhancing the skills of the students” through workshops and supporting educational events. Adding to this list of promises Lisa is also involved in planning an annual event to bring different forms of creative arts together once a year, “mixing all kinds of events into one.”
When asked who Lisa would invite to a dinner party she thoughtfully replied with a mixture of people, including Thomas Sankara, Fela Kuti and a friend. Her gentle, thoughtful personality was tangible throughout the interview. It is clear that Lisa is a candidate with wide and practical experience in events, who also has a deep love for what SOAS is and what it stands for.
“It’s a mind set; it’s a life; it’s to make it as hype; as fun; as YOLO as possible; it’s to make SOAS as fun and vivid as it used to be:” Adwoa Darko’s ‘Make SOAS Lit’ slogan required an explanation. It illuminated how Adwoa will influence the Activities and Events at SOAS with her vibrant and humorous personality. She describes a dip in morale that she has experienced over her three years at the university studying “hashtag law,” and this is where the need to ‘Make SOAS Lit’ comes from.
Darko has been planning events at her performing arts school since year eleven. She has been involved with many of SOAS’ events over the past year in her role as co-Entertainment Officer. Through this role she saw “her work come to fruition,” and thought it would be amazing to have a full-time position to fulfil this. I met Darko for this interview in the union office, which someday she hopes to be hers. It was clear the she already has an understanding of the executive environment. At one moment we were interrupted by a fellow student asking Adwoa who to email about a common place bureaucratic problem. The laughing, humorous personality that I had been interviewing looked serious and began sorting out the problem. It began to become clear that Darko took this role much more seriously than her joking persona portrays.
One such example of the seriousness in which Darko sees her role in Activities and Events is that of liberation, which she describes to be “a massive part of my campaign” and “really important to me.” At the end of the winter term (2015), she had made a brave and emphatic stance against the ‘Occupy SOAS’ movement that was occupying the Brunei Gallery in response to leaked emails surrounding the course cuts furore. Darko had proposed that the occupations movement and environment was “undemocratic” and “exclusive.” She heavily criticised the movement for clouding the much-planned events of Black History Month. When elaborating on her involvement she described it as “definitely the hardest time I’ve had at SOAS.” What she made clear was that there were things she would have introduced so as to include the issues highlighted by Black History Month, made all the more important, she states, as “course cuts disproportionally affect the Africa Department.” Darko is not afraid of politics. She sees her role in the union as a necessary step towards inclusivity and liberation.
When asked about her frequent event ‘Hip Hop Karaoke,’ this political inclusivity became prominent. She described how her friends had finally felt included and comfortable. Throughout the entire interview, liberation was a running theme. This prompted me to ask why she didn’t run for the Liberation and Equality Co-President position. Caught off-guard with this question, Darko replied saying that “events is something I can see myself doing, and it’s something that I have been doing,” although she quickly added that “I can still bring in liberation [through this].”
Making SOAS lit, it seems, is giving SOAS a new lease of life. Describing SOAS’s future as “uncertain,” and its current state as “disillusioned,” Darko wants to reinvigorate a bit of what we, as students, call “SOASness.” Her jovial, vivid, and full-of-life persona is a reflection of this ideal. Making activities fun and free (“hashtag struggle”) is a priority for Darko. Her own humour is mirrored with staunch liberation politics. When asked what three people would she invite to a dinner party she asked to invite four, I conceded, noting that here is someone who knows what is needed. She answered thoughtfully; Maya Angelou; Oprah Winfrey; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and last but not least, Whitney Houston. This fun, but thoughtfully political stance, has been injected into her campaign. Colourful t-shirts are worn by supporters baring her name in wax print cloth and her manifesto is back dropped by a somewhat emphasised purple. Colour and fun is fundamental to how Darko sees her role, so while liberation is her political stance, fun is the basis from which this is built.
Selja Ryoppy is a recognisable face in the SOAS community. She has been involved with numerous activities, most notably that of sports, but she has also been involved with drama and music. Some might of seen her acting in ‘Carnage.’ Growing up in Helsinki, and then pursuing a degree in Anthropology, Ryoppy ended up at SOAS after a few years travelling and clearly loves everything the university stands for.
Throughout the interview it was clear that Ryoppy is a practical and proactive candidate. She started with outlining where she feels SOAS and its union could improve. Most notably was that of communication between societies and the union itself. “A lot of people just don’t know what is going on,” she says exasperated. “I have the ability to change that:” her ideas and practical solutions are achievable and simple, including setting up a wall calendar as a permanent fixture to remind people of what is going on, as well as cross societal meetings on a regular basis to encourage discussion and inclusivity.
Ryoppy has been involved in many sports: football, squash, rugby, to name just a few. It is therefore not surprising that sports are a priority for her. “Sports should not be a separate part of SOAS: it should be a part of who we are, and part of what we do in a more SOAS way – sport can be more SOAS,” she states. Ryoppy does not see sports as fulfilling its potential to be more ingrained within the main SOAS community and declares that sport is “not just about competitiveness, its more than that.” She followed this statement with numerous ideas of where and how sports can be included, such as charity runs and more women’s-only events.
Being a facilitator of discussion and communication was a running theme throughout the interview. With each problem Ryoppy came across in the discussion,she would return to the same problem: communication. In her eyes, while events need to be “more inclusive, more regular, and bigger and better,” more often than not, most problems that arise are through bad communication within the university.
Asked about her own political stance, Ryoppy took the unique position of being apolitical. “I see this position as not political,” and noting my surprised expression, she clarified, “yes, I see it as representing the students, but as an [SU Officer the] position is not to take sides, it is not to value some political opinions over others. I think my position is to make sure everyone in this union has the possibility to make the most of their time at SOAS.” This statement seemed thoughtful and obviously much laboured upon. She stated that when the Union is given a direct democratic mandate, then they can take a political stance, such as when dealing with such issues like the BDS refrendum. Ryoppy sees the position as facilitating discussion and “enabling people to participate in things that they want to participate in.”
Ryoppy had answered all of my questions with ease, constructing detailed and practical responses and solutions to the various topics that were discussed. As the interview turned towards questions that were designed to be fun and easy, she began to seem uncomfortable and hesitant. Asked what three people she would have at a dinner party after much deliberation she exclaimed “I don’t know any celebrities!” After some thought, she decided upon Jeremy Corbyn, Johnny Depp and “my mum,” before adding “there are too many good people to choose from.”