Straight off the bat, studying Anthropology does not sound an exciting course to pursue at the University. For Gabriel Oguda, however, a man who dances with the pen-and while at it- spits words full of wisdom and philosophical anecdotes, there is nothing else he would rather be, than an anthropologist. You just need to read one of Gabriel’s social media posts, and you will be hooked. Forever. Irrespective of your political or ideological leanings. He has the gift of the gab. A gift that followed him right from his village to Norway.
Who is Gabriel Oguda? I spoke to him a while back on his journey.
“When I received the email that I had been admitted at the University of Bergen in Norway, for my postgraduate studies, it was a mixed reaction of joy and anxiety. I am a village man. I struggle to live in the city. The thing about village life is that it is pure and true, honest, and lively. We have our challenges in the village but hypocritical neighborliness is not one of them. Anytime in the night, you can walk down the footpath and ask for help from the only homestead with a bicycle to take your ailing child to the nearest health facility and they would lend it to you without conditions. You can never sleep hungry in the village and your adjacent neighbor has something to share. Village life thrives on overflowing altruism; you do not get that in capital City-Nairobi-where I have lived since 2003.
Norway is a beautiful country with one of the highest human development index in the world. When I first landed at the Flesland Airport, in Bergen, culture shock greeted me on arrival. My friend, and one the few people I look up to, OtienoAluoka, had driven me to the Nairobi airport from his house in Jamhuri, an estate within Nairobi, where I was staying with him for almost a week. Here I am now at Flesland and I know nobody. Newly arriving students had been asked to provide their itinerary so as to be picked from the airport to the Students’ Centre where they would be provided with room keys and monthly stipend.
The first mistake I made flying to Norway was to do so without any money in my pocket. I was stranded at the airport. At first, I was comforted being part of the crowd at the baggage collection area, but when the conveyor belt started running and passengers collected their bags and made their way to the exit door, it started dawning on me that I had to seek help to get to the Student Centre who were closing by 9pm. It is 7.30pm and I haven’t made any move yet. It was like participating in The Amazing Race, Norway edition, and I was in Team Last.
I walk to the airport information desk, which was now empty since most flights had arrived or departed. It was being manned by three students, the one I walked up to was interning from the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, in Trondheim, up North. Since I was running late, I decided to cut to the chase; “I am willing to sell you this iPod Nano for the price of my taxi ride to the Students Centre.”Of all the items in my possession that day, the iPod Nano 5 was the most cherished and highly prized. I do not like engaging in pity-parties, village life taught me to be tough, and I was willing to engage in business to bail myself out, even if it meant parting ways with my temporary totem.
I had watched the Apprentice UK Edition before, and I was willing to put my negotiation skills to the ultimate test. The lad, instead of quoting his counter price, decides to whip out a 100 NOK note from his wallet, asks me to keep my iPod, and welcomes me to Norway. I thank him with all the kind words I had mastered from my 10-year Scrabble conquest back home in Kenya, and set off to the commuter bus line with the swiftness of a millennium falcon. My first coin in Norway was from an act of kindness. Bergen might be a city in architecture, but they developed without leaving the virtues of village life behind. Exactly what the doctor ordered.
One of the clauses in my two-year postgraduate scholarship stipulated I had to return to Kenya immediately after my graduation. If I decided to stay back, and many students on the scheme did stay back, the education grant would be converted into a loan and I would have to repay it with compounded interest. From day one, I decided to take the first option of returning home. I was not ready to change my mind.
Living away from home is torturous; your mind plays tricks on you all the time. The period I was in Norway was the time I made many friends on the social media Platform-Facebook. You are lonely for the most part, and since there’s free unlimited internet connection everywhere, you spend a considerable amount of time online. If you don’t find anything constructive to do, you might start harboring suicidal thoughts or get embroiled in negative living – of drugs, gambling, or crime.
My idea of keeping conscious was to identify the local football club and follow them all around. The city of Bergen is proud of SK Brann, the Norwegian 2007 premier league champions, and 2016 runners-up. I never missed any home game at the Brann Stadion. I often dropped by to watch them train and even won a fans’ award from their veteran goalkeeper Hakon Opdal. At the Fantoft Student Hostel, many thought I had been signed as the official club tannoy man. It was my way of keeping my head above the stormy waters.
There’s enormous pressure on Kenyans living abroad to deliver. All of a sudden people back home thought I had discovered a pot of gold. If your village chief’s calf injures its toe on the way home from the grazing fields, the village thinks you are in a position to send something, in monetary terms, to pay the veterinary to have a look. If the cockerel fails to crow on a given morning and as result the whole village runs late, you’re updated like your contribution is what stands between your village and a 7 magnitude earthquake. You’re struggling to make ends meet away, and people think you have become a monumental snob because you are swimming in a bottomless pool of money. A lot of foreign students broke their back to make their villagers happy. I am not saying it is wrong if it works for you, but I saw a different prescription to this never-ending bother; I chose to tell my people the truth every time I called home. I disclosed everything I was doing, I broke down how I spent my monthly stipend to the last coin, and this, ultimately, made them go easy on me. We were friends again. Honesty, for the most part, is still the best policy.
When I got the scholarship, I made it known to everyone who cared to listen. Some people wait for a lifetime for a moment like this; I had to pinch myself severally to confirm my luck. My disbelief was premised on the long-held philosophy that those who study abroad, especially in Europe or North America, have a higher valuation coming back to the job market. I made it known that the University of Bergen is where Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi studied for his PhD, and at the time, he was consulting for the Brookings Institution. He would later be headhunted to serve as UNCTAD General Secretary. It was even juicier that we areboth Anthropologists. I wrote him an email at some point and he told me to keep it going. I was over the moon, because I knew when I came back home, jobs would just be screaming my name.
But Kenya is a strange country. No one really cares which school you went to or what you did while there. Here, like in every country that embraced the worst traits of capitalism, merit counts for nothing. You are invited to a national talk show on youth empowerment and the quality of discussion in there is so horrible you could have as well sent your phone charger to represent you. In Norway, the national government has a centralized data bank of all their unemployed graduates, and they take it upon themselves to plug them into positions that fit their career grounding.
Here, in Kenya, you will find an Environmental Science graduate employed as a bank teller, a Food and Nutrition graduate marketing spark plugs, and a Bachelor of Commerce graduate watering a football pitch. It is bad that most of our graduates are unemployed, it is worst that most of those employed only work for the money. Passion is an alien term in the Kenyan job market, I am lucky to belong in the razor-thin list of Kenyans whose jobs are in line with their career-orientation. Hopefully one day this country will change the way it looks at Diaspora students coming back home. They deserve more recognition than what they currently have.