Sunday, September 19, 2010

School books, finger scans, and privilege

I started writing this post September 9 and am hoping that on this, my third try, I will finally post something! Not having regular internet access is making the blogging a little tough. I planned on getting a mobile modem from a company called Orange but that is proving harder than anticipated. After visits to 3 stores across the city, not only have I been unable to locate a unit, but have also been informed it won’t work on my computer. Tomorrow I will give in and buy the more expensive, but working Zain version.

But enough complaining for now. I owe everyone an update post after my first two weeks of classes. I like to joke that USIU in some ways is a metaphor for Kenya- a thin veneer of shiny modern efficiency covering a whole mess of disorganization and non-sense. USIU scans my fingerprint every time I go to the library, but the library catalog system can only be accessed on (some) library computers. They make the effort to provide all course texts as books loaned for the semester, but they give you books your professor has not selected.

This brings me to an interesting non-academic learning moment. I firmly believe that education is the answer to development in the third world. In my first week I have come to appreciate just how difficult gaining that education is. Imagine you come from a working-class family outside of Nairobi. You work hard in school and work odd jobs to help support your family and pay your own school fees. You make it out of a less than stellar secondary school and work for a few more years, saving up money to apply to a University, likely in Nairobi. You get into school, pay the fees, and manage to move yourself to the city. Perhaps you live on campus or maybe you find a servant’s quarters that someone is renting out and you settle in for your studies.

You’ve worked hard and made it all the way to University (a feat in itself) and during your first class you are assigned weekly readings from books you can’t even locate to buy. You and your whole class rush to the library to look at the one copy at the University. After working out with your classmates who can have the book when, if you can afford it, you take the book to a copy shop and have them photocopy the whole thing. That’s just for one week. Now multiply that by many classes, many weeks, many years. You spend just as much time trying to access course texts as you do reading them. Mind you in the middle of this, you don’t have regular internet access to lazily surf the web for online resources or scanned articles.

Now compare that to the typical American college student, who at best, struggles to pay for their course books, and at worst never opens their brand new books, purchased at the school book store across the campus. Add in the 24 hr/day internet access and largely residential University set-ups and you’ve got quite a comparison.

Now some of my classmates experienced what I just described, and some of them went to schools abroad. But all of them are accustomed to strategic reading and book use in higher education. I, however, am not. I have spent the last two weeks with my friend in the library trying to locate the one copy of books to read, or books on the same topic as our reading. It’s frustrating. It’s inefficient. It does not serve my academic education. But it is exactly why I am here. Lesson number 1.

Class wise, it’s a little more straight lecture than I’d like in one class, and too basic in another, but bits of interesting information throughout. I am going to have to be highly self-motivated and a bit self-taught to get the most out of it. I am also going to have to learn not to shutter every time my country is mentioned unflattering or my leaders quoted inaccurately. Unlike my usual self, I’m sitting back and watching more, feeling less ownership over some of the conversations, but enjoying a different perspective and a class full of people intimately knowledgeable about South Sudan vs. North Sudan, the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia, historical alliances between Tanzania and freedom movements, and Uganda’s backslide of democracy. East Africa nerd heaven.

Monday, September 6, 2010


As you may be noticing, I am playing around a bit with my blog design. I'll settle on something soon enough, but in the meantime, feel free to let me know what you do and don't like.

Orientation Day

Still catching up…

Communication with USIU has been at times strained. They didn’t let me know I was accepted into the program until a month before I left, and then only provided me with a calendar brochure, a health form to fill out, and a note that orientation would be held on Friday August 27 starting at 9am. I scheduled my flight for the 24th, planning on arriving late on the 25th, and having the 26th to rest and get a bit settled.

A few days before leaving for Nairobi, I emailed a former colleague of mine who is doing the same program and asked if he could give me a ride to orientation that Friday. He replied that I could of course ride with him, but it was going to have to be on Thursday because they had changed the day of the orientation!

Needless to say, no one had notified me of the change, and I immediately started to wonder if I would show up to campus and be greeted with a “Rose who?”

So flash forward to 6am the morning after arriving in Nairobi. I’m up, delirious, and a little cranky. At 7am, Dickson picks me up and we set off for the traffic nightmare that is Thika Road, and the only way to my new school from central Nairobi. We maneuver through the traditional Nairobi maze of matatus (vw vans used for public transportation that drive with a death wish), giant SUVs bumping over gaping holes, and little 4-door sedans doing their best to squeeze into the open spaces.

2 hours later we turn into our well-groomed campus and begin wandering from building to building. After following some students into an undergraduate orientation session we finally find our slightly older group of graduate students across the grassy quad on the far end of the campus.

At 10am when the 9am orientation still has yet to begin, I follow vague directions to the accounts department to pay my tuition. Bounced from one line, to another, I finally find out how much I actually need to pay, tell the accountant a number, and pay. No official statement, no one-stop shop, no automatic calculation of what’s due. Just a scrap of paper someone has scribbled a number on, slid underneath a window.

Satisfied with my accomplishment I walk back to the lecture hall where they have just begun the day’s orientation. Looking around I am certainly the only muzungu (white person). The IR and Business school orientations are held simultaneously, but it seems that my classmates are all a few years into their professions, fairly successful, and all curious as to who I am.

Surprisingly, the first question I’m asked by just about everyone is if I am from Kenya. I am not asked if I’m an American, Italian, Brit, or Japanese (as is usually the series of guesses from folks in Uganda and Tanzania). It’s refreshing, Even if it’s fairly obvious I am ‘other’, my classmates start with the premise that I am of them.

After a long day of not so helpful orientation, we make our way home around 6pm and I just about fall asleep in my chair. Tomorrow is Promulgation day, and then I begin the search for an apartment. No rest for the weary.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The BIG Move

The past year has been quite insane, filled with three moves (involving 3 states and 2 countries), 3 international and 5 domestic trips, two jobs, a grad school application, family crises and celebrations, and clearly a lot of change. As you know, my most recent major life change has been a move to Nairobi, Kenya as a Rotary Global Ambassadorial Scholar. I will be living here, in Nairobi, for the next two years, studying for my Master of Arts in International Relations at USIU.

Since I have gotten off to a pretty bad start of keeping this blog updated, I’ll try to recap the past few weeks. I left for Nairobi on August 24 from my family home in Indianapolis, IN. As expected, getting packed was a pretty heavy lift, but after weeks of preparation, a lot of family and friend support, and a few days of actual packing, I had fit my life into three large bags, a guitar case, and a backpack.

I flew from Indianapolis to Boston, where I met up with my good friend Meg for my 6 hour layover. I will just say here…Meg=hero. After a wonderful lunch and catch up time, I boarded my Delta flight for Amsterdam, where I connected with a KLM flight for Nairobi. I arrived around 8:15pm a day later, quickly moved through immigration (they now give you visa’s upon entry for $25!), and then stood by the baggage belt for about an hour. After clumsily loading my man-sized bags onto a cart I awkwardly balanced my guitar on top, and slowly rolled to the pick up area.

I quickly spotted my very tall and very blond friend John out of the crowd and we made our way into the city. My former colleague, John had agreed to pick me up and let me stay with him until I find an apartment (he also=hero). Before heading home, we picked up another former colleague and friend of mine who happened to be in town, and went out for dinner and a drink. A pretty great way to start your time off half-way around the world.

I then collapsed into bed, not looking forward to my early wake up the next morning for school orientation...