When we talk about beginnings, we talk about the excitement. We say how excited we are to know our fellow sojourners, how exciting it is to be on the journey. But beginnings are far more complex—messier even—than that. Yes, the excitement is a big part of the onset, but then there is the fear, the confusion, the anxiety, the weight of expectation on the one hand and there is the hope, the support, the sheer curiosity for what lies ahead on the other hand. For my first post since starting school at Edinburgh, I could have written about how excited I am to start my master’s program in Africa and International Development here. I could have written about how exciting it is to be part of a rather elite group of scholars who in addition to their studies will be participating in a transformative leadership program. (And yes, I am excited for all this.) I could also have given you, dear reader, a summary of my biography—the path I have taken to the present. But today, I want to reflect a little deeper on my hopes and fears for the year. I hope that by writing my hopes, I will dig deeper on my motivations and goals. I hope that by writing my fears, I will be vulnerable enough to acknowledge them and in so doing find ways to live with them and let others know they are not alone.
- Stay hungry, stay curious
This being primarily an intellectual journey, I am hoping to understand (and critique) knowledge in the areas I will be studying. While I am not interested in “winning” debates in class or becoming valedictorian, I will pursue excellence and curiosity because they are in my DNA. I will take courses that people like me rarely take and ask difficult questions—questions that help us get closer to a truer and better understanding of ourselves and the world. I will look for their answers judiciously in my reading, research, discussions and writing. While also bringing my intellectual and personal experiences to bear, I hope to maintain an intellectual humility to listen to valid arguments, stories and feedback that improve my understanding and my work. I hope my learning and curiosity never ends at the lectures and the assigned texts.
- Art and beauty
Even in the smallest encounters, anyone who interacts with me or my work will see that I look at the world through an artistic lens. While theory and science are important to me, art and beauty run deeper. It’s easy to relegate our art to that place we run to for shade when the sun of academia or work scorches, but I hope to prioritize mine. I hope to write more, creatively; I hope to make better, more powerful photos; I hope to listen to my creative ideas more and help them find life beyond me—and I hope to inspire and help others to do the same.
- Know people, really know people
Contrary to what my introverted demeanour may tell you, I actually want to know you. Maybe not right now, in this small talk when I am overwhelmed by being with people for too long, but over time. Well, wouldn’t these two sentences make lame pick-up lines! Yet they are so true to who I am: I really want to know people, but I love solitude; I want people to know I will be there for them when they need me because I will, but mostly I want to be alone with my thoughts and ideas; I crave to know people’s stories but I am barely interested in small talk with strangers. And I will not apologize for who I am. But still, people—in all their diversity and uniqueness—are probably the best part of this journey. So, I hope I can find ways to be part of caring and interesting communities here. I hope to have deeper conversations with people: to know what really drives them, what they really care about, what really scares them. I hope I can make small but meaningful contributions to other people’s lives here. And while I hope to develop networks and friendships for life, I hope I do not need to be someone I am not or to attend fancy galas in suits and walk around gingerly with a glass of wine to do that.
- Joy and flow
Everywhere I turned to in the past three weeks, everybody kept saying that the one-year master’s program is “very intense”—without providing much in the way of an elaboration. I wanted to call my friends who had been in the program to ask them to explain what “very intense” means. But the first week of classes answered that. In a nutshell, “very intense”, at least for my program, means that you need to spend a lot of time reading (sometimes really difficult texts) and getting ready for classes, engaging with a lot of new and complex ideas and theories and writing several thoughtful, well-researched papers on them. All this in a very limited amount of time.
Yet in the midst of all this “very intensity”, I hope to find rhythms and spaces to be both productive and happy. I want to attain more of those moments that Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’—those moments we are so engrossed in what we are doing that time itself seems to stand still. Moments which leave us happier and with some of our best work.
I hope to slow down more, to find beauty and joy in the usual. In watering my flowers, in a good night’s sleep, in a witty turn of phrase, in the way a beam of light strikes a building, in a thoughtful text from a friend, in gratitude for what I have, in the shape of the clouds and the golden tone of a sunset, in the smoothness of a Fally Ipupa track and in the punchline of a Trevor Noah clip.
- Authenticity vs Openness to Change
In learning and traveling, we not only discover things about others and the world, but also things about ourselves and our place in the world. Admittedly, studying in the US for four years changed me. Had I done my undergraduate in Kenya, I doubt I would have chosen to study Psychology and African Studies. I would probably be the billionth person asking a Psychology student, “so does that mean you can read my mind?” For the record, the answer is no, it’s called Psychology, not fortune-telling. In America, I actively resisted changing certain aspects of myself, like my accent. I remember a friend who’d immigrated from Haiti telling me that one day I’d need to assimilate and me telling him that I was never planning to—that if America could not handle my accent or say my African name maybe it did not deserve me. Yet, I was in my late teens and early twenties: malleable, still figuring out most parts of my identity.
Now I am older. Claiming complete self-awareness would be a lie at best, but there are certain things about myself that I no longer feel the urge to pretend about. I no longer wish to pretend to be interested in certain conversations or social gatherings when I am really not. I no longer wish to pretend to be interested in fields that offer “in-demand skills for the job market” when I am really not. I no longer wish to conform just to fit in when I genuinely have a different opinion. I no longer wish to project to the world a one-dimensional image of myself: whether one of a poor African child resisting poverty or a highly-employable fast-rising professional headed for the C-Suite. I no longer wish to pretend to be the kind of man I am not. And I never wish to write or say a sentence like “the semiotic dialectics of intertextual modernity”, unless I am making fun of it (see the excerpt from Chimamanda’s Americanah below).
Yet, I know my encounter with Edinburgh will change me. And I want to be open to this change. But at the same time, I want to choose my change while maintaining my authentic self.
- Burning Out
This year in Edinburgh brings with it plenty of new experiences. And I am a big sucker for new things; I react to new things with visceral excitement: dilated pupils, faster heartbeat, jumpy movements, hurried speech. So, I am scared of taking in much more than I can handle. As you know from above, the academic program is “very intense” and I have big dreams for my art and my happiness. Then you add other things that I’d want to try out like travelling around Europe and hosting an African-themed radio show. And remember I still want to really know people. Quickly, you see how a burnout is a likely possibility.
Nonetheless, I believe that we rarely know how much we can do or how strong we are until we’re stretched to our limits. Paradoxically, I believe in taking breaks and constant self-care. So, yes, I want to stretch myself, to work really hard, but I want to take care of myself, get me some good night’s sleep and stay fit. I hope to pace myself and use productivity tools to maximize on my time. I also hope to nourish my spirit by finding small pockets of time, even in the busiest weeks, to be in my happy places.
- Settling for Mediocrity
I am scared of both stretching myself too thin and thus not giving the best I can and not stretching myself enough and thus not giving the best I can. (I am gonna let you read that sentence over; I promise it made sense to me when I wrote it). I am eternally scared of giving the bare minimum because I know for people who come from the places we come from or speak the way I do or have hair or melanin like mine, it’s often not enough. I am scared of settling for OK because there is someone who thinks I do not merit the opportunity. And sometimes that person lives within. But more importantly, I am scared to give the bare minimum because I know what I am capable of. And I know that, like Mandela knew, there is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one [I’m] capable of living.
- Shutting out the World
This one’s hard to explain. The extreme form of it would be something that I recently came across in one of my classes: the resignation syndrome. This syndrome, observed in refugee children in Sweden who have experienced major traumatic events, places them in comas for months but their internal systems keep functioning normally. The world has failed these kids so much so that their bodies shut it all out. Of course, this is extreme, but sometimes I respond to pain and disappointment by shutting out the world, hiding from the people and the things I love. I hope I can distinguish between wanting to be alone and deliberately shutting the world out. I am fortunate the university offers many support systems to deal with all kinds of pain. Sometimes all it takes is knowing there is a number you can call. I hope I have the courage to seek help when I need it. Because no matter how resilient we are, we’re never too resilient to need help sometimes.