Thoughts of an international student from Kenya
Growing up for me was more of a task than it was a process like it is for most people. Born to a humble family in Kenya, I spent most of my time on the farm, tilling the land and hoping that the season would bring good harvest. At the age of 10, I was responsible enough to care for my three younger siblings.
The world around me was peaceful and promising, despite what most might say about living in Africa. Just having my whole family around reassured me of every morning.
But, as I grew up, my view of life slowly changed. I began to see and hear things that children never really pay attention to. I began to understand the news. I was more aware of and alert to happenings around me. By the time I joined secondary school, there was no turning back.
Satisfying my curiosity, I spent lots of time reading about famous people, curious to know what was special about them. I continually talked to my teachers in the quest to understand what it took to be famous.
In particular I had an idol, Dr Benjamin Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. His four books – Think Big, Gifted Hands, Taking the Risk and The Big Picture – became a fascination of mine. I closely followed his new achievements, including his award, the Presidential Medal of Peace.
I figured that if I knew how he became who he was, I could learn to be like him, so I tried. Before long, my dream career became neurosurgery, with no other plans whatsoever. For the four years in high school this goal seemed feasible.
Unfortunately, I did not graduate an ‘A’ student and my dream of going to medical school crumbled before my very eyes. Depressed and confused, I cried for nights, wondering where I had gone wrong. After my mourning period was over, convinced that I had to find another way out, I started to read all over again.
Searching through newspapers, magazines and books for an alternative to medical school, I stumbled upon Zawadi Africa, an NGO sponsoring African girls to go to the US for undergraduate studies. Torn between disappointment and anxiety, I followed my way through the rigorous recruitment process, and eventually won myself a scholarship to study in the US.
The first time I told my family I wanted to go to America, my brother laughed so loudly, I thought I was a fool to even think about the idea. But I had an inner determination and an unrelenting driving force, compelling me to go on. Eventually, I brought home an acceptance letter, and my family was overwhelmed. My mother is still overwhelmed four years later.
The transition from African farm to US university
The transition from a village farm to an American university was no easy task. Coming from a humble background, I found myself lost 95% of the time. I consistently lost my trail of thought in conversations. I had to repeat myself over and over in class and my ideas always sounded outdated and silly. For months I refrained from talking in public from the frustration.
In addition, I realised that to eat, I had to cook my own food because the food here was very different.
The only thing that seemed to be going right was my scores. I still had the enthusiasm to become a doctor and I knew that to go on and specialise in neurosurgery, I needed stellar grades. I somehow managed to make acquaintances whose help and love carried me through my first semester.
Returning in the spring semester, I was well adjusted to campus life. My accent improved greatly, so much so that my first job on campus was in the office of undergraduate admissions, where I gave campus tours to prospective students and their families.
More self-assured, I joined a couple of campus clubs, continued my job and maintained my position on the honours list for the next two years. At the end of second year, I ran for a senate position on the student government association and got elected.
As if life was not done with me yet, I had a rough start. Outspoken and very opinionated, I found it aggravating when students sounded petty. I grew up in an environment where food on the table was no guarantee, and here I was representing students who complained about food. I couldn’t wrap my head around why the senate even had a position for such a task
But we all grow, and we never know what we are missing until we find it. I made new friends in the senate, which helped me adjust to the position. I slowly learned how to accommodate the student body without compromising who I was.
Before long, I realised that indeed there was a problem with the food and it had to be addressed. Together with the senate and the student body we made a change to the campus meal plan. We had a reshuffle in the dining management, resulting in a better relationship between the students and service providers.
Newer projects came to mind, and I decided to run for the senate for a second term and was re-elected. I knew the pressure I was putting on myself given that I moving to my senior year, but I was not about to let my pet project fade away. The students are happy with the changes in the dining service this semester, though they came with new problems that the senate will continue to address.
While all this was transpiring, I continued my quest to become a doctor. I volunteered at a nearby hospital, found an internship at another and found a second internship in the campus office of distance learning.
I co-authored a paper with students from all over Africa on a project we called Consultation for Higher Education. The aim of our initiative was to be an active part of the higher education changes we hoped to see and experience in Africa. I also started my honours research, and hope to finish by completing my thesis next semester.
Something changed inside me
But something changed inside me the last couple of months. Despite all these achievements, I feel empty inside. I feel like I have spent my whole life chasing a life I wish to live, rather than enjoying the one I am living. I don’t regret the choices I made at all. I am grateful that I made them, because otherwise, I might never have come to this realisation.
I thought that life in America would be a lot better than it was in my village. But the more I stay here, the more I miss the farm. I miss being 10. I miss the days when I trusted humanity and believed that anything was possible. I miss the days when I had no idea what life was like outside my mother’s bosom. I miss the peace.
I do appreciate the different opportunities I have come across by leaving my home, but I am worried about bigger things. My interaction with people from all over the world confirms to me that as we grow into better technology, something slowly grows out of us.
In my opinion, we are losing a beautiful part of what being human is all about. We are slowly becoming slaves of the expectations the world has of us, while sacrificing what we should expect of the world. We are detaching ourselves from the enjoyment of solitude and family.
We are consistently busy, going through life like zombies, never stopping, until we have no choice but to stop. It irks me to watch the news, because I cannot comprehend how the same brilliant human minds that can invent an aeroplane can make policies that leave children on the streets with no food.
I cannot understand why some people have more than they will ever need in this lifetime, and would never share it with those who have nothing. I don’t understand why we spend so much time complaining about what we don’t have instead of appreciating what we have.
I don’t understand why it is so important for us to change other people’s lives and countries while our own homes are on fire. I don’t understand why families and marriages are no longer given the priority and respect they deserve.
I cannot for the life of me understand what it is we are after.
Actually, I don’t see the same value in anything that I did before. I have too many questions about the things that we value in life today. In my opinion, it is not worth calling myself human if I sit and pretend that everything is OK and that the global world is getting better. Yes it is getting better, but for whom and why? It seems to me that the sweeter life gets, the more alienated from reality people become.
I choose to stay in touch with the truth.
The truth that: people are suffering, that we need to stop and think about what is really significant in life. The truth that no matter how far I am from home, I can’t sleep in peace knowing that thousands of babies will die from malaria and other curable diseases.
The truth that: if we wanted to make a change, we could. That I had a wrong view of many things and that now my conscience reminds me daily that I have to be a part of that change. And as I work my way through my last months of college, my vision and mission has changed.
Whatever it is that I decide to do with my life, it will be for the good of humanity. I am no saint, but I know the truth. And I pray that as we all go through college, we shall open our eyes to the reality out in the world.
Just because we have food to eat every day, doesn’t mean everyone else does. Just because we have the ability to complain about injustices, doesn’t mean everyone else can. Just because we have the opportunity to be in college, doesn’t mean every teenager does.
As such, we ought to view college, not as a place where we simply come to get education for a better job, but as a mini-world.
A place where we meet representatives of the places we have never been; a place where we can share the pain of those who have no one else to tell; a place where we can learn the truth and learn how to be ambassadors of humanity rather than slaves of our mediocre, uninformed assumptions about the world and its people; a place where we can freely be changed.
* Morrine Omolo is an international student at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the United States.