Kwakye, left, and Obunbiyi, rightNik Yazikov

Being born in East London to Nigerian parents, I often found it difficult to see my life experiences — many of which have been shaped by my cultural hybridity — appearing in the literature that I read growing up. So reading Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi’s new book, Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto to Change, in the summer before entering my second year at Cambridge was great preparation. The book, published by Merky Books, a new publishing partnership between grime artist Stormzy and Penguin Random House, could not have come at a better time for me, and for hundreds of black girls across the country. Both of the women, so well accomplished, warm, and humble, are inspirations of mine.

I begin my conversation with them by asking about how the idea of the book came about, as not many 22-year olds can say that they have a published book after graduating from university just one year prior. They both giggle and say that writing the book was pure serendipity, as MerkyBooks approached them. From tweeting about the #BlackMenofCambridge Campaign that Ogunbiyi and Kwakye organised in their second year, attending the first Cambridge ACS Motherland Conference, and of course, setting up the Stormzy Scholarship, Stormzy’s involvement with the Cambridge ACS has helped to contribute to discussions of representation at elite universities. 

For Kwakye, the writing process helped to deconstruct her notion of what it means to be an Author to something less narrow. “I thought an Author was just someone who read lots of books and has been working on something for years and years and for us, two girls who had just been plucked out of university to write this book the self-doubt began to creep in”. Ogunbiyi chimes in, “we thought are we really the ones to be writing this book?”

With an air of confidence that radiates from both of the women, I was shocked to find out that they had imposter syndrome during the writing process initially, though it faded over time. As Ogunbiyi explained, “our editors were impressed with the things we were writing about and I felt proud at the end”, Kwakye added “we have been given this opportunity to write the book and in the end it was a really positive experience… everyone who has read the book has been like wow this is exactly what I needed”.

The book explores the lack of diversity within higher education institutions and eloquently discusses topics from decolonising the curriculum to access, relationships, to mental health. It’s “a book not just for black girls” as Ogunbiyi puts it, but a book “for everyone to read and learn from,” Kwakye adds. 

Ogunbiyi and Kwakye graduated from Cambridge University in 2018, and were president and vice-president respectively of the Cambridge University African-Caribbean Society (ACS). Kwakye, of Ghanaian heritage, graduated with a first class degree in History from Homerton, having attended a state school in Chingford, North East London. She is now studying at the University of Law in preparation for her training contract with a City law firm. Ogunbiyi was born in Croydon, South London, she moved to Nigeria aged seven, and then moved back to England aged thirteen, attending a boarding school before she began her studies in Human Social and Political Sciences at Jesus. This summer she graduated with a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York, and is one of the youngest people to take up her current position as a Special Assistant to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

We spoke, too, about the importance of diversity of thought especially when portraying the experiences of Black people in the media and in literature. “Black people are not a monolith...we are all so very different and the book really highlights that”. Kwakye complimented a sentiment that is often disregarded with how the varied voices within the book helps to “move the conversation beyond Oxbridge and shows that we need to talk about the whole system when discussing access and the lack of diversity, it is not just a problem with the universities at the top”.

I was shocked to find out that they had imposter syndrome during the writing process initially

With all the statistics they use in the book to back up their experiences, the book has been made indisputable despite the worries they had about the burden of needing to always use proof to validate their experiences a university. Taking Up Space features 14 other Black and Mixed Race female university students from across the country.

It includes words from entrepreneur and Cambridge graduate Courtney Daniella and Renée Kapuku, a first class graduate from the University of Oxford. A video on Daniella’s YouTube channel in 2016, ‘How we got into Oxford & Cambridge: our experiences & tips’ has now amassed nearly half a million views, and has helped to demystify the Oxbridge application process for hundreds if not thousands of young people, including 17-year old me. It was a catalyst for my decision to apply to Cambridge, as I’m sure it was for many other young Black girls. Daniella and Kapuku were funny and relatable, while also being motivational. 

Ogunbiyi explains that the need for “prospective students to identify with current Cambridge students is essential in getting them to apply”, which is, of course, one of the successes of Taking Up Space. Social media plays a huge role in giving young black girls permission and validation to ‘take up space’, to contribute to spaces that need their voices and experiences shaped by their positionality within society. “We can often take for granted what it is like to feel seen…when you see yourself represented you’ve got the confidence knowing that someone who looks like you, shares the same jokes as you and talks like you, is visible in the university or sector that you aspire to succeed in”, Kwakye adds.

It was nearly two years ago that Ogunbiyi wrote a Varsity article, “A letter to my fresher self: surviving Cambridge as a black girl”. The article received an unprecedented amount of online traction. It was picked up by the i newspaper and was described as one of “the most beautiful, powerful and defiant pieces of writing” that Labour MP David Lammy had read in a long time. I ask Kwakye and Ore what advice they’d give now to the freshers who matriculated to Cambridge last month. “Utilise the communal spaces of cultural societies, take advantage and treasure these spaces…but also don’t be afraid to branch out as your closest friends may not always come from exactly the same background as you”, Ogunbiyi says. This advice strongly resonated with me, as it was a defining lesson learned during my first year. 

“We can often take for granted what it is like to feel seen”

We later laughed about the stark contrast in music played at different Cambridge club nights, and on how the Cambridge club night ‘Fleeky Fridays’ at Cindies was Ogunbiyi and Kwakye’s saving grace as it always guaranteed them great vibes and even better tunes. I ask them what their favourite Afrobeats songs are currently, a question, even I as a lifelong lover of music would struggle to answer. Ogunbiyi’s is ‘Online’ by Nigerian Musician Teni, which samples the Hip Hop and R&B classic ‘Always on Time’ by Rapper Ja Rule and Singer Ashanti. Kwakye took a while to answer, eventually settling on ‘Anybody’ by the Nigerian Musician Burna Boy, who was announced this year as Apple Music’s Up Next artist. We all had agreed that ‘Ojuelegba’ by Nigerian Musician WizKid definitely featured in our list of honourable mentions.

We close the interview on the topic of what they would like their legacy to be. They both pause for a moment. Ogunbiyi begins, “Oh, that’s a good question. I want to invite more people into the conversations the book highlights especially those that are non-Black. 


Mountain View

Sonita Alleyne, the first Black woman to lead an Oxbridge college, wants to bring Jesus into 2019

“With the skills that I have learnt in the UK, I am passionate and excited about young Africans in the diaspora going back to Africa to do amazing things and I want to inspire others to do the same to”. With Taking Up Space launching in Nigeria this December, this movement of Black internationalism is something that excites me too. Kwakye’s idea of what she wants her legacy to be is deeply rooted in institutional memory. She wants to “give people the confidence to want to continue to carry on the conversation… right now I am just focusing on becoming a Lawyer but I hope that I leave a positive legacy”.

Cambridge is a defining time in the lives of most students who study here. For Kwakye and Ogunbiyi, it was the space that has allowed that friendship to flourish, where a sisterly bond was built between them that has impact hundreds along the way. Watch this space as these women are going to continue to take the world by storm.

Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi’s book Taking Up Space can be purchased here.