Connecting His Past and Future

Feb. 2, 2017

When Nelson Mandela passed away near the end of 2013, Princeton’s Umqombothi African Music Ensemble gathered under the 1879 Arch and moonlit sky to perform a beautiful tribute to the revolutionary leader. Achille Tenkiang ’17 led the stirring performance of the a cappella group’s rendition of “Asimbonanga,” an anti-apartheid protest song, and recited a powerful self-penned poem about Mandela amid the group’s striking harmonies.

But now I’m here in tears, and I’m not crying because you are dead. I’m crying because the world does not know who you are. Now that you’re gone, they’ll try to plasticize you, to soften the wrinkles on your face and erase the scars on your skin. They’ll pretend that you never existed and pretend that there were never any fires in Soweto. Now that you cannot speak, they’ll twist your words. Tata, more than ever, it’s important we share all chapters of your story...

Throughout his years at Princeton, Tenkiang was a politically and socially active student, often turning to music and poetry to express his interests in subjects like racial equality and diversity. Interestingly, Tenkiang didn’t arrive at Princeton to pursue the arts or English or even politics. He came to study engineering, having attended a STEM high school in Bear, Delaware.

“I would not have considered myself an artistic person before coming to Princeton,” Tenkiang says. “My high school was very math and science heavy, and there weren’t many outlets for students to express themselves artistically. I suppose I already had these inclinations but never had the space or resources to actualize them. Princeton made that possible.”

After taking engineering classes his freshman year, Tenkiang’s academic trajectory changed dramatically when he traveled to Ghana that summer on a PIIRS Global Seminar called “African Cities: Their Past and Futures,” taught by Simon Gikandi, the Robert Schirmer Professor of English.

“It was just an incredible experience for me,” says Tenkiang, who was born in Cameroon and moved to the States when he was 3 years old. “I came back home and decided I wanted to pursue African Studies full-time at Princeton.”

Unfortunately, Princeton didn’t offer an African Studies major.

After speaking with several professors who suggested that he initiate an independent concentration in African Studies and Development, Tenkiang petitioned the Dean of the College, who quickly approved the curriculum. This past spring, Tenkiang was the first student to graduate from the University with an independent concentration in African Studies, leaving an indelible mark on the Princeton.

“When I look back, it was somewhat groundbreaking,” he says. “I really tried to curate my own academic experience at Princeton and make one that I thought would be most fulfilling to my personal and research needs. The questions that I wanted to explore wouldn’t have been feasible in the existing academic ecosystem at Princeton, and I knew that I wanted my work to be interdisciplinary.”

As a student, Tenkiang sought many opportunities to travel while expanding and deepening his studies both on campus and abroad. In addition to the Global Seminar, he traveled to Cameroon and Senegal to conduct research as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow at the end of sophomore year and then to France for the fall semester of his junior year to study Francophone Literature at the Sorbonne and Paris VII-Saint Denis. He was named a PIIRS Undergraduate Research Fellow later that year, which funded his trip to Ethiopia to conduct his senior thesis work.

Tenkiang also earned undergraduate certificates in French language and cultureurban studies and African studies, in which he won the Senior Thesis Prize for his work on the role of public monuments and the work of memory in post-colonial African cities.

In addition to his scholarly work, Tenkiang was also active in a variety of organizations on campus. He co-founded the Black Leadership Coalition, was co-president of the African Students Association, and served as a member of the CPUC Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force. At graduation he was named a Young Alumni Trustee to the University’s Board of Trustees.

Currently, Tenkiang is in Kenya working with Fatuma’s Voice, a grassroots arts and social justice organization, to organize a series of slam poetry workshops with urban refugee youth. He is pursuing this opportunity through the Henry Richardson Labouisse ’26 Prize, which awards funds to graduating seniors who pursue international civic engagement projects following graduation.

“This project combines my passion for slam poetry, social justice and African cities,” says Tenkiang, who plans to work in human rights. By leading word poetry workshops, he hopes to learn “how the refugees define citizenship, and how they view themselves as bodies in the periphery while wanting to be a part of the national fabric at the same time.”

In addition to his work in Africa, Tenkiang wants to give himself time to ponder the questions he wants to ask and the problems he’d like to solve moving forward in life. 

“It was a challenging four years and I just want to make sure that before I jump back in, I’m in a good place.”

Kenya is a good starting point.