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 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. 


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. 


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!


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.


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.


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!


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.


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 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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


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

Reflecting on Bagele Chilisa’s ‘Indigenous Research Methods’

First of all – this is an incredible book in so many ways. The author is a scholar from Botswana and she writes about the indigenisation of research from an African perspective. She critiques the Euro-western method of conducting research which has contributed to the systematic subjugation of other knowledge systems or other ways of knowing. These methods give the false impression that only certain people are capable of producing knowledge. She argues that these approaches exclude the knowledge systems and ways of knowing of the historically marginalized and oppressed groups from contributing to the research process. In fact, research contributes to the process of “othering”, further colonization and marginalization of these groups, she argues. She discusses two approaches to bringing other ways of knowing into an equal footing in the scholarly examinations of our world; decolonization of dominant research approaches and postcolonial-indigenous research paradigms informed by the recognition that research participants are spiritual beings with multiple relationships – with the land, with each other, with animals, plants and so on.  IMG_1507

In case you have not read my profile yet, I am currently a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Canada. I took a course about indigenous research methods in 2014. A quick note about these kinds of research methods- they challenge what we know as the normal method of doing research, they recommend relationship building between researchers and participants/the researched, they recognize the use of sources of data from say oral tradition, cultural objects and finally, they seek to use research to respond to improvement of community livelihoods. I must tell you, I am fascinated by these kinds of approaches and needless to say, hugely attracted to them and I try to apply them in my own research.

Anyway, back to this course. One of my motivations to take the course was simply the fact the professor had listed a boIMG_8688ok by an African scholar (Bagele Chilisa) in the reading list. Let me explain. I have always been bothered by the way education seemed to be alienating me from anything remotely African..the way that education seemed to tell me that Africans had not achieved anything in the history of this universe…the way that education seemed to tell me that Africa needs to be rescued from itself by a benevolent preferably white person. This troubled me greatly especially when I was an undergraduate student (2000-2004) and I could not find books written by African scholars….at least in my area of study. So, I wrote my essays and assignments and quoted other scholars (I believe they were 100% western sources) and with every citation I felt a huge sense of disempowerment and hopelessness. Granted, there were African scholars who had published works but most of those were in literature and I was studying environmental resource use. I was thinking to myself– Don’t Africans write anything? Is it only white people who know things? What is wrong with us? I was familiar with the Kenyan scholar, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s work on ‘decolonizing the mind’ and kept wondering if we had not been irredeemably colonized- both physically and emotionally (Ngugi’s work will be subject of another whole blog post- absolutely fascinating work!)

In this book Chilisa is unequivocal. She addresses all the issues that have bothered me for decades and it fills me with immense pride to see an African writing such a book and articulating the issues so eloquently. For me, Chilisa answers the question “What is wrong with us?”

The answer is – there is nothing wrong with us. Absolutely nothing. That makes me feel at peace. She writes about the continent in respectful manner (not the same as sycophancy), she is reminds us that our history is one of struggle against oppression and that there are new forms of oppression for which we now need to mount new forms of resistance. One of IMG_8524the ways to do this, methinks, is an examination of the history of our people and a serious investigation into indigenous knowledge/thought. Once we know who we are or why we do things in a certain manner then it is easier to create a way forward. As Wangari Maathai tells us “Africans have been obscured from themselves”. We have been taught to hate ourselves and we have become professionals at it. We need to learn and work towards becoming nicely obsessed with ourselves. To be continued…..