Tips for surviving the west as an African graduate student

First, I recommend you read the other two blogs in this series about undertaking graduate studies in the west. Here and here.

Now, let us get straight to it. These tips are not for those kids from rich families who are studying in the west. These are for the poverty stricken lot, those who are on scholarships – those who are struggling to survive out there.

  1. You need to find something known as a thrift store. This a store where mtumba/second hand stuff is sold. In Kenya, mtumba is also rereferred to as ‘clothes for dead white people’. Just a quick aside -I was among the group of people who used to think that these clothes came here because THEY pitied Africans. That THEY were donating them to US. I have since rescued myself from ignorance. This whole enterprise is a multi-billion dollar industry. Its one of the arms of the industry of poverty. When Kagame said he did not want these clothes in Rwanda, he was threatened with all sorts of sanctions by the USA. Kenya too. Kenya put its tail between its legs and retreated. I think Rwanda is the sole African country that is still saying no to this stuff. Anyway, back to the thrift store. Find one. Here you can buy those ‘clothes for dead white people’ and other items at a much cheaper price than you would buy at other outlets.

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2. Your other best friend should be something known as a dollar store. As the name suggests, items are sold at a dollar or slightly more than that. If its cheap, its not good quality, but you are not very interested in quality at this point. Buy stuff here and save your coins!

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3. Look out for sales! There are genuine sales out there. Sniff them out and take advantage as appropriate. Get into reward programs. These can be in stores/supermarkets, etc. You can accumulate some points, which you can exchange for products. It is all about saving/stretching the dollar. If you hear of anything that entails getting discounts take it on. Sometimes some stores have discounts for students. Do not be shy to ask if a store/outlet has this.

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4. Find out which are the cheap places to buy groceries. For my case stores/supermarkets were not it. A fellow graduate student introduced me to Chinese and Indian shops. The price is much better here. You should also try and find out if there is an African store(s) around. The ones that we had in Vancouver sold more of west African food items. The only East Africa product I found there was flour for making Ugali. If you love your fufu, yams, gari, etc, this is the place to get that. I did not care much for Ugali before moving to Vancouver, but after living there and not being able to get it easily, it became a delicacy!

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5. Get to know fellow African students. When I was very new and green I thought that joining African clubs on campus was one way of meeting African students. I went for a meeting of one of these associations and never returned. A Ghanian graduate student described these clubs as a conglomeration of kids of African ministers and politicians. I had never thought about it like this. He was very adamant. I am not hanging out with the progeny of the people who have made my country and continent an economic nightmare. In those clubs you find those Africans who speak with phony accents. If you are a suffering/surviving African find those of your lot! Those are the people who helped me especially with getting housing and other matters.

NB: there are also Africans who do not want to associate with other Africans because they want to be white. There are Africans out there who would not want to even look at another African. Those would turn away when they see you. Pathetic lot!

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6. Create networks with other students from the Global South. Meeting and forging relationships with students from Africa, South America, First Nations, and Asia was one of the highlights of my time there. These are those that Fanon referred to as The Wretched of the Earth. Some of these relationships have remained alive past my time there. Through these students you experience inter-cultural dialogue and exchanges through amongst others, food. As I mentioned in the last post, it was a student from Peru who led me to the work of Chilisa Bagele on Indigenous research methodologies. I also met wonderful people from the Global North. I forged relationships with some of them. A common characteristic of all of these people are that they had either worked in Africa or were conducting their research in Africa or work with indigenous peoples. Authentic human beings! I am not talking about those people who do extractive research in Africa and those who have a white saviour complex. I am talking about people who have been working with the communities they partner with for years. People who undertake their research in the most respectful manner. People who are committed to forging long-term mutually beneficial relationships with the people they work with.

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7. By all means, try and find accommodation outside campus unless you have a scholarship that pays for your accommodation. This way you will get a better understanding of the city/area you are living in as you will have to commute and move around. Getting accommodation was a hassle and a half. This is one of the places where the dragon of racism rears its head quite prominently. Living on campus is a bit like living in a bubble. Living off campus gave me a change to explore many places. There is plenty of stuff to see. Most of the parks are free. Students in my uni had a bus pass. We used to pay for this with the tuition fees. Through this you could use the bus to go to many places without incurring extra costs. The pic below is of my sister Aneeta and I at this amazing work of art in downtown Vancouver. It showcases a diversity of human expressions.

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8. Navigating supervisory committees. A committee is a group of professors, including your supervisor who oversee your whole research process to the end. The number can vary from 3-5. Understanding supervisory committees and related issues is CRITICAL. For this you need to really find good people in your department to explain to you what the process is like, what the politics at play is, who you need to have on your side and so on. You need to be really smart about it. Your supervisory committee can be a nightmare if you do not get the right people. If you get people who cannot agree on anything or who have inflated egos, you are in for extreme frustration. Senior graduate students who know the professors well are your go to people. They can help you understand this/guide you on how to set it up.

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9. Searching for jobs. You know the way you think of the west as the place where there is no nepotism, how its a merit based society, etc. Drop that thinking. I quickly realized that the only way to get jobs in the department was to be introduced to a Professor by another student who had worked for them. I had made good friends in my lab and they offered to introduce me to Profs they had worked for. The first friend introduced me to a Prof who was teaching communication skills or something along those lines. When we met the Prof – a white lady, she asked me if English was my first language and which schools I had gone to. She said she was looking for someone who had English as their first language or was from Europe/had studied in Europe or North America. She was totally blunt about it. I understood all of this to mean she did not want some African student for the job. I was so discouraged because that was my first shot and thought there was hope because my friend was confident that the Prof would consider me. Apparently, my English was not good enough. The friend who had taken me there was Spanish. The job was given to a student from Latin America and later to a German student. Of course English is not the first language for either of them. Another friend offered to introduce me to another Prof who was teaching the fundamentals of conservation. This one worked out! I worked like a dog to prove myself so that she could consider me for the job the next semester.

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What’s the job?

Teaching Assistant(TA) – the role involves supporting the Prof in teaching duties. The bulk of it entails grading assignments/exams and guiding students as they work on their assignments and such. In some cases it also entails giving of lectures. Guiding students? Yes. Students are totally spoon fed there. If the assignment is an essay, a student can work on a draft and send it to the TA. The TA can tell tell them if they are on the right track, what they should include, etc. Despite all this available support, not all the students get A’s. Students even have access to support from Librarians who can show them how to use citations, but some cannot even use citations properly! If I had this kind of support in my undergrad, I would be getting A’s in each course.

After getting this job, I was in the system. As long as you do a good job, its much easier to get others. It also helps if the Prof you have worked for can put in a good word for you with other Profs.

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10. Relatives demanding for gifts! We have a phenomenon spread across the Global South it appears. Since we have been totally convinced that the west is the land of milk and honey and people collect money on the streets and on trees, you will find a scenario where relatives of students demand all sorts of gifts when students are returning home. This is a huge stress on many students. I know students who never used to go home because they just could not cope with the demands from their relatives. I also know students who spent 1,000 dollars and above buying gifts for relatives and ending up in quite tight financial situations. They work so hard to raise the air fare, and then they have to work some more to find money to buy relatives presents. Bring me an iphone. Bring me a handbag. Bring me a play station. The student who is being asked for all this stuff does not have any of these things. I used to ask some of them why they could not just buy cheap gifts. Apparently, the relatives will take offence if you take them something that does not look expensive. People are unable to differentiate two types of people – people working abroad and students studying abroad. Some of those who work abroad are able to buy expensive gifts for their people. Relatives expect students to match this level of giving. By the way, even some of those who are working struggle with this gifting thing. People are not swimming in money there. The majority are working terribly hard and only manage to pay bills and get by. Please, please if you know a student who is there NEVER ask them for anything. PLEASE. Give them support of whatever nature, encourage them. Do not add to their stress and misery with these demands.

I was lucky; I did not have this problem.

In Kenya the west is referred to as Majuu in urban slang. Literally, this would translate to somewhere that is high but the connotation is a better place, right? Where Machini is, I do not know. I find this terminology very unfortunate because its part of the architecture that sustains the scenario that I have outlined above. Its a justification and acceptance of the asymmetrical economic structure present in the world today.

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11. Working off campus. Depending on your university, visa/study permit, you could be allowed to work off campus. What kind of jobs can you find off campus? All the Global South students I knew who had jobs outside campus worked as security guards, cleaners, baby seaters, or as tellers in supermarkets. Most of the men did those security jobs. I knew an African nun who worked as a teller in a supermarket. As you know, a nun/sister is a person who has very good social standing in Africa. Have you ever seen a nun working as a cashier in a supermarket? In Kenya, nuns live in Karen and such like places. But this student told me she did the math and saw she could not just survive. She asked another African who worked in that supermarket to help her get the job. These kind of jobs pay just about the minimum wage or slightly above. Now imagine asking such a person for an iphone! It is cruel.

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12. White beggars. Yes, there are white beggars. I know people in many parts of Africa cannot conceptualize this. In Kenya, white people live in the best neighborhoods. Those who venture into poor areas do so because they are working with the poor. There are no poor white people in Kenya. During my very first days on campus I encountered a white beggar. When she first asked me for money, I did not hear what she said. She was on a wheel chair so I thought she wanted help. I leaned in and she said: MONEY! In a rather aggressive manner I must add. I left that place very fast. I once met a Kenyan who had lived in Vancouver for a long time. One time his mother came to visit them. She ventured into downtown Vancouver and a beggar approached her. She was so shocked that she launched into Dholuo and said: A white person is begging me!!? The tip here is that you should just get used to it. There are white beggars. There are poor white people. I know there are Africans who cannot process this and give them money.

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13. Jehovah witnesses and the like. These people know that Africans are just ultra religious. They see an African, they see a potential convert. They will come talk to you. They even tried to convert a friend of mine who is a buddhist and told her she will go to hell for not converting. Another Ghanian friend was nice enough to let them to his house. They started coming every Saturday and he was too nice to tell them not to come. He just kept complaining on the side. I am not sure what they were converting him from because he is a Christian. If you like these religious things, these people might not be a problem to you. If you do not not, just do not entertain them.

14. Haloween pumpkins. Pumpkins are a central part of Haloween decor. You find pumpkins displayed all over. My friend and I thought that this was a ridiculous waste of food. We stole two of them from the department and carried them home. We were so worried of having been captured by the security cameras and having our faces stuck on the noticeboard as pumpkin thieves. It would have been quite the scandal. The pumpkin turned out to be totally tasteless and a total waste of my time and energy. I had to haul it on a 45-minute bus ride from campus. Never mind the stress and worry of having been captured on the cameras. Do not bother stealing those. It is totally not worth it.

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15. Speaking in class. If you come from a system where students do not speak in class like I did, you will struggle with this one. All courses have a participation grade. Part of this grade is allocated for speaking/making contributions in class. I thought you should say something when you really have a compelling argument to make. This is not the case. White people have mastered the art of talking. Someone can go on and on in class and when they finish, you cannot tell what point they just made. But that is how you get participation grades! I got quite low marks in one class because I did not say much. The same Ugandan nun/student I mentioned in the previous blog told me to ensure that no class ends before I say something. That is just how it is.

One strange thing you will find is that students eat in class. Someone can just whip out a carrot and go CRUNCH! Or even a plate of salad or whatever and just start eating while the class is in session. All this is accepted.

Let me stop this here.

I hope these tips are helpful to somebody out there. Feel free to add other tips in the comments section.

Surviving in the west as an African graduate student: stories from the first year of my PhD

If you have not read my previous blog on how to apply for graduate school in North America, I suggest you start with that one. This is a follow up on that. So, after getting the visa and all, I prepare to leave to the land of milk and honey-as is portrayed to those of us in “shithole countries”. I flew from JKIA – Heathrow – Vancouver. One of the first things that I noticed at YVR (Vancouver airport) was beautiful carvings and art of the indigenous peoples of Canada. I thought to myself: ah these people really respect indigenous people and their culture. Let me just tell you – ignorance is very, VERY bad. This was a very naive thought, as we shall see below.

I was on my own. I had booked a hostel where I would spend the night because university accommodation would not be open at that time. I took a taxi from YVR to the hostel. On the way, I noticed a few potholes or roughness on the road. You mean they have such here? I checked in the hostel with my massive baggage. My room was on the third floor. None of the three people at the reception offered to help me with any of it. Quite the welcome! Did I say it was in Winter? I settled into my room and barely slept that night. Jetlag. One of my professors came and picked me up and dropped off at my university accommodation. I had been used to living in a big house with a nice view of the Ngong hills and now I was living in a studio apartment..by the way, this is a fancy name for a bedsitter. And the rent was CAD 800 per month. That is about KES 64,000. I had read on the university website that one could find accommodation outside the university but I did not know how to go about that. I decided I will start by living on campus and figure it out from there. 

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I had been in touch with some students in my department and one of them and her husband came to take me grocery shopping and show me other places to buy stuff. They told me that I should buy second hand things in a thrift store as this would be cheaper. My first shopping bill for a few items at the supermarket came to CAD 80/ KES 6400. I was beginning to see first hand, just how expensive Vancouver can be. These new friends helped me do a few other things to settle in. I spent the first few days familiarizing myself with the large campus. One of the first places I visited was the Museum of Anthropology on campus. Here again were stunning displays of First Nations art and  other collections. There was a gallery for almost every continent. The African one was small and the sign clearly indicated that these objects were derived from missionaries and colonial officials who had been in African countries during the colonial period. Having worked in the heritage field and having known a little about the politics of museums, I was not too surprised. But I just felt violated being in that African section. I got out of the Museum at 5pm. As soon as I stepped out, I realized it was dark! Dark at 5 pm? Winter. 

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I met my supervisors after a few days and we discussed the classes I would take. I found the teaching method to be too boring and unengaging. This is a top-tier research university so the emphasis is on research. I was the sole African student in all the classes I took. It was an uncomfortable experience. In one of the classes we had to do group work. I, of course, ended up in an all white students group – all women. I made a mistake of citing wikipedia in one section of the assignments. One of them launched into lecture mode about how that is not an academic source. I felt quite vindicated when I learnt that there is a professor in the same university who allows the use of wikipedia a source. This is controversial. Some of the information in Wikipedia is even more factual than what you find in some academic papers. The politics of the aKAdemy! There was general cold treatment from the whole lot of students in my group. When they gave me attitude, I returned the favour. I could not wait for all these classes to end so that I could focus on my research. I did not want to deal with these twits and their racism. In one of the classes I met a student from Nepal, who would become a dear, dear friend. She still is. The sole good thing to come out of all the classes I took. Two of us at a fireworks show on one of the beaches in Vancouver. She is probably the main reason why I survived the whole PhD thing without a mental breakdown!

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I registered to participate in two conferences on campus. The first one was in the faculty of forestry. I gave a presentation about forests and indigenous knowledge systems and even won an award for that. I also attended another conference organized by indigenous peoples. At this conference I met a student from Nigeria. She was in the Faculty of Education and asked me if I had met the Kenyan professor who worked there. I hadn’t so he offered to introduce me. We talked about housing and it turned out that she was living on campus and also wanted to move out to find cheaper housing. We agreed to stay in touch and look for housing together.  This student shared with me about two important tips for survival – shop in the dollar store and also buy no name brands. I will explain about these in the next blog post.

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I had been doing my financial calculations on how to survive in Vancouver and things were just not adding up. I was under immense stress. I used to have these massive headaches that could just not go away. I had carried some little savings and even that was dwindling quite fast. One day my mum calls me and asks: are you experiencing racism? I do not recall what I told her. I had not fully grasped the nuance of racism there as yet. We talked about financial difficulties and family members suggested that they could contribute and send some money. I say NO because the place is so expensive it will just end up bankrupting everybody. I could not sleep on some nights. I started applying for jobs!! I heard nothing back from most of them. A friend who had studied in the USA told me that he had done a job related to raising funds for the university from the alumni. This job happens in a call centre. You call alumni and fundraise for the uni. The more you raise, the more you are paid. I applied for that job, got I interviewed and I got it. I hated it. I am person who generally hates begging and I just found it too difficult. Call it what you may, but FUNDRAISING =begging. You call people, they hang up, those who pick up quickly drop the phone when they realize it’s about money, and to make matters worse, the majority cannot understand your accent!! One day I called and someone picked the call. I spoke to her. She said she did not have money to give. She was disabled and on a wheel chair, and was willing to donate her time if that option was available. When I shared all of this with my supervisor, he told me they were not interested in such offers. They were only concerned about raising money. I could not wait for the shift to end each day I had to go there. I was MISERABLE. I did not last for two weeks in that job. I quit and was back to the drawing board. Luckily the Nigerian student I had met told me that she had found housing outside campus and if I did not mind, we could share that house. It was a two bedroom house and each one of us would pay CAD 500/KES 40,000. We would be commuting on the bus for 45 minutes each way. This was a glimmer of hope. If I cut my rent cost, the financial pressure would ease. We pursued this option. At the end of the semester we moved into this house. How I hated campus housing. It was like living in a dorm!! I felt the sweet smell of freedom when I started living off campus.

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One day while I still lived in campus, I met a Canadian man as I was walking to the faculty. He stopped to chat. Where are you from? What are you studying? Then he proceeded to say: be wary of Canadians, they will smile at you, but stab you in the back when you turn away. This was a total stranger. We said our goodbyes and each of us went on their way. While I lived on campus I borrowed a heater from the administration because it was too cold. I was supposed to return it by a certain date. I exceeded that date and had to pay a fine. The admin sent the floor representative to my room. A white woman. She can smiling but I later learnt that she went and reported me to the admin that my room was too hot. The admin lady gave me a lecture about how their heating system cannot go as high as temperatures in “Tropical countries”…yada yada.  The only good thing about living on campus is that I found a 5 dollar note in one of the flower beds. I was so excited that day!

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Oh I forgot to tell you something else. I had my umbrella stolen the very first class I attended in the faculty of forestry. It was raining. I sat in the lobby to wait for my class to start. I forgot my umbrella there and when I went to check, it was missing. This was one of those small umbrerra!! umbrerra! hawkers start selling in Nairobi once it starts raining. Now I had to buy an umbrella and that cost me CAD 20. This one was also stolen later on. Yes, there are thieves in Canada too. I really felt the pinch of spending so much on an umbrella. This was the most expensive umbrella I had ever bought.

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One day while I still lived in campus I decided to go to the student union building to get free food in order to cut costs. Someone had told me that there is a group that gives free food there on certain days. I went there and there was a few people lining up with food containers. I was so ashamed. I was like..am I actually lining up for food aid!!?? I did not last 3 minutes on that line. I went back to my bedsitter. I drafted a letter toy former boss asking him for my job back because this PhD thing was simply not working out. I was ready to call it quits before even a semester was over! Somehow I ended up not sending the letter. Then I met a Kenyan professor who taught there and we talked at length. I shared all my sorrows and frustrations. He told me to try look for jobs in the department and he told me that my supervisor should be supporting me in all this. He also underscored that quiting was not an option. He told me that such opportunities do not come by just like that. The scholarship I had was extremely competitive and he made me realize that I should appreciate that no matter how hard things were. He also linked me up with other African students. One of them was so wonderful. She was a nun from Uganda. When we first met, she told me: I know you must be feeling like a fish on land! She understood my struggles. Luckily after the first semester one of my committee members had some research funding and attached me on that project and I started earning some money. I also moved out of campus and was saving on rent. I survived the first semester. 

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One of the major stresses I had was thinking that I would be stuck there and not even be able to afford a ticket to go home. When I started working, my sole interest was saving money in order to get a ticket to go home. By August, I had found the cheapest ticket possible with the longest layover in Europe, but I was happy not to be spending another winter(December -March) there. I thought I would kiss the ground at JKIA like Arafat would do in the Gaza strip. I spent that winter in Kenya laying the groundwork for my research. I had at this point figured out my research topic. That was also quite a HUSTLE. At the beginning I wanted to study community forest associations and forest governance in Kenya. As I read through various literature, I shifted my topic to understanding people-forest relationships through the lens of indigenous knowledge systems. At some point in my first year, I met a fellow graduate student from Peru. We got talking about research methods. She showed me a book she was using- Indigenous research methodologies by Chilisa Bagele. She lent me the book for the weekend. Once I started reading it, I was hooked. I had never heard of indigenous research methodologies never mind, indigenous theories. This was a watershed moment.

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Here was a book by an African scholar who spoke to my struggles, thoughts, experiences. I had always thought of research as a dry sterile experience characterized by formulating hypotheses, being OBJECTIVE, detached , etc. Chilisa challenges all of these notions and advocates for research processes that tap into our emotions, feelings, experiences, etc. Her work led me to the work of other Indigenous scholars like Maori scholar Linda Smith, Canadian First Nations scholars like Wilson , Kovach and others . All these scholars were calling for a critical examination of conventional research methodologies and proposing novel research strategies that get to the core of the struggle of their communities. From this point, my research got really interesting. I could see a whole new world of possibilities. 

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Indigenous scholarship led me to indigenous politics and struggles. I got really interested in this because it resonated so much with the struggles of African people. For those that are not familiar with this, Indigenous People/First Nations are the original inhabitants of North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Like Africans, their lands were conquered by through unparalleled European greed and savagery, their land was stolen, and in some cases they were hunted down to extinction. In the Case of Canada, deliberate attempts were made to exterminate them through amongst other methods giving them blankets laced with leprosy. At the time of conquest the population was estimated to be between 300,000-500,000. By 1867 this had come down to 100,00-125,000. Do the math! For those that remained, they were told their culture and norms are barbaric and that’s they should be civilized/ be like Europeans. Deliberate strategies were put in place by the government to achieve this mainly through what was referred to as residential schools. Indigenous children were striped from their families and enrolled in these institutions established in collaboration with churches. The legacy of these schools is a dark one. Massive molestation of children by clergy and other forms of abuse were documented. Indigenous scholarship is firmly hinged on this painful history and is unapologetically aimed at emancipation of indigenous peoples from multiple and intersecting forms of oppression. Their works resonated with me because, as I said, it mirrors the struggles of African societies. 

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Ultimately, the first year was rough, baptism by fire. In the next blog I will share some tips for survival for African graduate students.