Speaker, writer, mathematician: Multifaceted Mohutsiwa calls Iowa City home

Verified on Twitter with nearly 40,000 followers, Siyanda Mohutsiwa is most known for her viral hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar.

Assistant+Professor+Siyanda+Mohutsiwa+poses+for+a+portrait+at+Dey+House+on+Monday%2C+March+25%2C+2019.+Now+verified+with+almost+40K+Twitter+followers%2C+Mohutsiwa+spoke+in+a+2016+TED+Talk+about+how+African+American+youth+are+finding+their+voices+on+Twitter.
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Speaker, writer, mathematician: Multifaceted Mohutsiwa calls Iowa City home

Assistant Professor Siyanda Mohutsiwa poses for a portrait at Dey House on Monday, March 25, 2019. Now verified with almost 40K Twitter followers, Mohutsiwa spoke in a 2016 TED Talk about how African American youth are finding their voices on Twitter.

Assistant Professor Siyanda Mohutsiwa poses for a portrait at Dey House on Monday, March 25, 2019. Now verified with almost 40K Twitter followers, Mohutsiwa spoke in a 2016 TED Talk about how African American youth are finding their voices on Twitter.

Alyson Kuennen

Assistant Professor Siyanda Mohutsiwa poses for a portrait at Dey House on Monday, March 25, 2019. Now verified with almost 40K Twitter followers, Mohutsiwa spoke in a 2016 TED Talk about how African American youth are finding their voices on Twitter.

Alyson Kuennen

Alyson Kuennen

Assistant Professor Siyanda Mohutsiwa poses for a portrait at Dey House on Monday, March 25, 2019. Now verified with almost 40K Twitter followers, Mohutsiwa spoke in a 2016 TED Talk about how African American youth are finding their voices on Twitter.

Kinsey Phipps, News Reporter

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Siyanda Mohutsiwa was in her home country of Botswana studying mathematics when she met the writer J.C. Hallman at a Catholic orphanage. He told her about a place in the U.S. called Iowa City, where the best writers in the world come to study.

Before then, Mohutsiwa had no idea writing was a career option for her, she said, though she had written professionally since she was 12. A teacher of hers recognized Mohutsiwa’s talent and got her a weekly column in a national paper.

By the time she was 19, Mohutsiwa had thousands of Twitter followers and a YouTube channel on which she spoke about African literature, and she had written more than 40 nonfiction pieces published all over Africa, she said.

Specifically, she used Twitter as a platform to connect youth across the continent.

I started teaching as a TA in my second year, and I grew fond of UI students. They are humble and honest. It’s such a great place, this city. There’s something about it that’s kind of illogical. I feel so free to be strange, which is something you don’t feel in small places.”

“I figured out how to speak the language across borders and relate to young Africans,” Mohutsiwa said. “I tapped into political curiosity at the time, the awakening in the postcolonial state in under 140 characters.”

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Mohutsiwa created the viral hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar, inviting the African social-media community to use satire and comment on stereotypes of their home countries. It was not her first creation of a successful hashtag, but it was the one that grabbed the attention of people everywhere.  News organizations all over the world reached out to her.

In 2015, Mohutsiwa was invited to TEDx Amsterdam to do a TEDx Talk on Pan-Africanism and social media. Following that, she was a speaker at the TED2016: Dream conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her talk has drawn more than 1 million views on TED’s website.

From Massachusetts to Dublin, Mohutsiwa has traveled all over the world to speak on African politics, youth, and social media. Just last week, she served on a panel in London concerning the positives of social media on political movements.

“It’s hard enough to express ourselves in a place we are most comfortable, but to be in a different country and away from what you know is terribly inspiring,” author Jess Walter said. “It’s rare and really cool to have someone who can express themselves in so many different ways.”

While social media are a major platform for Mohutsiwa, her passion has always been writing. She applied to 13 graduate schools across the globe, including Oxford, Columbia, and Cornell. All 13 accepted her. With Hallman’s voice still in the back of her mind, she traveled to Iowa City in 2016.

A large factor in her decision was conversing with Writers’ Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang.

“I knew I had encountered somebody with a real profound love of reading and writing,” Chang said. “To us at the program, that is the most important quality a person can possess. I always think of her in that way — of her love of literature, stories, reading, and writing,”

Mohutsiwa graduated from the Workshop in August, and she was immediately hired as a UI adjunct assistant professor, teaching creative writing in the English Department. She is writing a novel about a sex-trafficking victim in Italy, she said.

“I started teaching as a TA in my second year, and I grew fond of UI students. They are humble and honest,” Mohutsiwa said. “It’s such a great place, this city. There’s something about it that’s kind of illogical. I feel so free to be strange, which is something you don’t feel in small places.”