Confidence and calm

Published: 29/11/2023

For Black History Month, Dr Thungo Kuwani spoke with our Media and Communications Officer Rachel Yeager, about confidence and calm as a black female anaesthetist.

Dr Thungo Kuwani knows that her superpower is being Thungo Kuwani.

All of her: The black, female, consultant anaesthetist. The little girl from Zambia who originally dreamt of being an astronaut. The daughter of her mother and father, now mother to her own children. Dr Kuwani knows who she is and isn’t afraid to be herself.

“I am very comfortable and secure in my identity,” Dr Kuwani said. “I think for a lot of things if you know who you are then when you meet opposition it’s more difficult to break you and bend to other people. If you know who you are then no one else can tell you who you are. I’ve always known who I am.”

The seeds of Dr Kuwani’s strength were planted in her childhood, when she was raised in a family of confident women.

“In my upbringing I’ve been surrounded by black women in powerful positions” Dr Kuwani said. “In my mum’s family all the women are strong and quite political. So you learn to stand up for yourself and who you are. I was quite vocal, and I continue to be.”

Dr Kuwani had an international upbringing, spending time in Zambia, Belgium, and the UK. These experiences exposed her to many cultures and educational opportunities but also showed her that throughout the world there are people quick to discredit and stereotype black women.

“Going to British boarding school – I knew I was going to be judged,” Dr Kuwani said. “But I don’t let that change my narrative or change me, I actually enjoyed my time there. I know when a black woman speaks it’s easy to be labelled, ‘the angry black woman,’ but if that’s all you’re seeing and not what I’m trying to say then it’s you who has the problem, not me.”

The stereotype of “the angry black woman” is a racial trope that has been widely cultivated. Invoking this stereotype in daily life, consciously or unconsciously, invalidates a person, reducing them from a complex human into a caricature.

Unfortunately, Dr Kuwani is all-too familiar with this dehumanising process.

“I remember in some of my training I was the only black female anaesthetist in the hospital, and there’s the assumption the white men are better than me,” Dr Kuwani said. “Sometimes when I made a suggestion you can almost see the snickers. Even now as a consultant when I come into the ward people sometimes assume I’m one of the nurses, or a porter. Then sometimes when they realise their mistake, they say something like ‘You look too young to be a consultant!’ and I just look at them like, ‘Really, that’s the best you can come up with?’”

Dr Kuwani has learned to stay calm in the face of what can be offensive assumptions, never letting what other people say or think define her.

“I’m not going to let anyone bring me down to their level,” Dr Kuwani said. “I just rise above it. I cannot control people, their thoughts, their actions. All I can control is myself. When I talk to my sons, I tell them sometimes it takes a bigger person to walk away from that situation. When the time is right and when the situation is calm then we can bring it back up and address it in conversation. But until then, I’m not going to let it impact my day.”

The advice Dr Kuwani gives echoes what her father, who sadly passed away while Dr Kuwani was in medical school, told her as a child.

“My dad when I was young told me, it’s not because you’re less capable but some people will look at you and see a black female and judge you immediately,” Dr Kuwani said. “But he told me to just rise above it. You’ll have to work hard and prove yourself. It’s not right, but that’s the way of the world. And when you get where you’re going you can help change that.”

And by being herself and sharing her experiences, Dr Kuwani is helping make that change. In addition to the professional side of her, explored in this profile, Dr Kuwani is a multi-layered woman who prioritizes her full and balanced life.

Dr Thungo Kuwani is a Consultant Anaesthetist and Director of Medical Education working in North West London as well as RCoA Final FRCA examiner. She has previously held the post of Clinical Director for Anaesthesia, Critical Care & Theatres in her Trust.