Thobeka Mnisi never expected that her ability to sew her own clothing would be relevant to her intellectual interests until she came to Oberlin, where professors encouraged her to pursue her curiosity about the global political economy of the clothing industry.
As a 2018 Watson Fellow, Mnisi will spend a year traveling throughout Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia, Mozambique, and the United Kingdom to learn about the different ways that fashion can be used as a means for cultural preservation.
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States, awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 40 partner colleges. Fellows conceive original projects, deciding where to go, who to meet, and when to change course. They do not affiliate with academic institutions and may not hold formal employment. The fellowship provides a one-year stipend of $30,000.
“I want to understand how sartorial traditions endure in a global political economy where production and consumption is mostly driven by convenience, efficiency, and scalability. Each of the countries I’ll visit will show a unique side of this,” says Mnisi, a fourth-year politics major and rhetoric and composition studies minor from Pienaar, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa.
In Brazil, she will follow supply chains of various garments that are produced domestically.
“The garment industry is mostly an export industry, which complicates supply chains because clothing is rarely constructed and sold entirely in one country. Brazil is unique in this regard because it produces mainly for a domestic market. This makes it possible to track clothing items from the cotton field to the rack, when the full garment has been constructed. I’ll study this to see if having shorter supply chains potentially minimizes the exploitation that seems inherent to the garment industry.”
Mnisi says her fascination with the United Kingdom centers on the kilt, and she intends to spend most of her time in Scotland researching the mythologies and history behind it.
In Indonesia, she will learn about the processes of making traditional fabrics such as batik, tenun, and songket. Ghana has a similarly rich textile culture, but there she is particularly fascinated with the prevalence of Vlisco fabrics, which in some ways have become the quintessential West African and Central African prints despite their Dutch origin.
“I’ll be learning about the relationship and competition between Vlisco fabrics alongside other traditional clothes such as the Kente,” she says.
The final leg of her journey, Mozambique, is the inspiration for her project. “My parents were immigrants who moved to South Africa during the height of the Mozambican civil war in the early ’80s, and clothing was one of ways they connected me and my siblings to our Mozambican heritage. In all of this, I want to see how culture and the economy intersect to preserve or change group identities.”
A graduate of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, Mnisi says she learned to sew from her mother, and while she continued to do some sewing as a hobby, she never thought it would play a role in her college education. One of her favorite classes was Global Political Economy, where she followed the supply chain of Vlisco fabrics from cotton-growing countries to the Netherlands, where the garments are produced before being marketed in West Africa.
“I started thinking about the vast fast-fashion industry in the United States, and my classmates’ rejection of that through thrifting and sharing clothing in the Free Store. Because of the labor intensivity required to make a garment from start to finish, I realized the senselessness of most of the cheap clothing we have access to, and I started researching that. My professors made it possible for me to pursue this curiosity in the classroom. When I settled on this project, everyone was willing to share information or contacts in each of the countries I’m visiting.”
During her sophomore year, Mnisi was selected as an Oberlin College Research Fellow. She spent two summers researching the challenges facing South Africa's education system, then interned as a policy analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Also during her second year, Mnisi was elected to Student Senate. As the senate chair, Mnisi says she worked to make senate more visible, cohesive, and collaborative. Under her leadership, student senate institutionalized a semesterly meeting between the senate chair and the college’s board of trustees to create ongoing dialogue between the two groups; partnered with the Dean of Students Office to provide meals over breaks; and advocated for a daytime shuttle, which began operating fall 2017.
Mnisi has been tutoring for the Ninde Scholars Program since fall 2016, serving as a Ninde Tutor Leader for the past two years. She also works for the Writing Center and facilitates dialogue through the Interfaith Student Council.
She says one of the most practical ways Oberlin has prepared her for the Watson fellowship is by providing opportunities for travel. She spent her first winter term learning Spanish in Mexico and the following winter term living in a small farming community in San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua.
“I organized a solo trip to the Dominican Republic as a project for my Hispanic studies class, and that was basically a micro version of what I imagine my Watson year will be,” she says. “Oberlin exposed me to so many new worlds, and I think all of that makes Watson the most fitting next challenge for me to undertake. I’m still beside myself with excitement about this opportunity.”
After her Watson year, Mnisi intends to apply to graduate programs in public policy with the goal of being a legislator.