I land at my final flight destination tired and sleepy from a long night journey from Africa to Europe. I have struggled to stay awake for all the eight hour journey. Hankering to experience the flight plunging through clouds, gaining and loosing attitude. And hurtling across the smooth air and occasional turbulence. I am glued to the screen in front showing the GPS location of the airplane as it cruises across country and continental boundaries, over dry land and water mass.
I am also marvelling at the actions of the passengers and crew in the airbus in which not a hundred, not two hundred but in excess of three hundred people are converged, destined to various corners of the universe. I am therefore bleary eyed for lack of sleep and from this incessant shuttling between the screen in front and, ogling and fascination with the passengers and crew.
After clearance with the British Boarder Agency officers at Bradford Airport, an overzealous security officer pulls me from the exit queue into an isolated search room. He first puts me through an irritating interrogation. Judging from my red eyes, he is convinced I indulged in a good dose of marijuana before I left Africa and must have carried enough to make my stay in the UK more worthwhile. With these kind of unprovoked insolence only a few minutes on British soil, my confidence to face the West has begun to wane.
The boorish officer then subjects me to a meticulous search on my body and luggage, after which I dejectedly walk out of the small airport to the bus stop. I get into a bus heading to the heart of Leeds City. The courteous bus driver perhaps noticing my restlessness assures me I will easily get the direction to the University of Leeds. I drop off from the bus along the Headrow, one of Leeds main streets. The Gallery, an ancient looking building is the first sight I feast my eyes on. Adjacent to it are equally ancient architecture that seems to obscure much more than they reveal. They stir in me a bit of intimidation by the Western city.
I walk towards a man standing at a bus stop to enquire where I can take a taxi, but he abruptly steps aside as if approached by a leper. I get frightened, thinking I might have done something wrong. In Nairobi someone can go out of their way to direct a stranger to some place. However, it’s early Monday morning and probably not the best of times to go asking for directions in a Western City. The Monday blues you know.
But as I later came to learn, in the West people don’t go asking for direction, you ask Google or give an address to a cab driver to find the way through the maze of streets and link roads for you. You are seen as a beggar when you try to approach people for assistance with something like direction. Tugging a luggage, a sluggish walk and a hesitant approach, my intention is open to interpretation.
The University of Leeds is just about two kilometres from the city centre. I’m armed with an A4 paper sized map that came with the letter of offer of place at the university. I thus resolve am not asking where to take a taxi nor for direction to the university. I will test my map interpretation skills supplemented by a well perfected application of trial and error. Now thoroughly aware the Western city is quite different from the one I have straddled over and over for years.
I walk westwards pulling along my suit case and a rucksack firmly at the back. I am banking all my trust on the map to ultimately deliver me to my destination. After about a fifteen minutes’ walk I recognize some buildings that look like they could accommodate a fountain of knowledge. At least I making some headway. I circle around looking for a conspicuous university main gate which is the norm in our public universities back home. But the University of Leeds, one of the largest in the UK has not invested on an expensive high perimeter fence nor security manned gates. Entry and exit can be made through different accesses in all directions.
I pass through one of the accesses close to a building with the name ‘University of Leeds’ inscribed in large block letters. However, at this juncture I have to stop and ask for direction to the Language Centre. This time I approach a black man. He turns out to be a very outgoing Sierra Leonean PhD student. After exchanging some pleasantries he ushers me to his office and then directs me to a washroom to freshen up a bit. I leave my luggage in his office as I go to report at the Language School. After some formalities I am directed to a university accommodation that is open for summer letting about ten minutes away by bus or taxi.
My new friend advises me to rather seek private accommodation closer to the university which is more convenient strategically and economically. Together we spend the better part of the day contacting property letting agencies around. However, most student hostels have been closed for summer and we call off the search at around 3.00pm. I’m as well completely exhausted now. I have no option but go to the university accommodation. I take a two weeks contract for £140 loosely translating to £10 per day. I begin to do my maths of the equivalence in Kenya Shillings – its KSh. 1400per day. Rent must be very expensive in the West.
Upon registration with the hostel warden I enquire about the provisions available in the room. No beddings are provided but if I require any I am informed I can hire for £2 a night. “Hang on George, beddings for hire for close to Ksh. 300?” Back home this is an amount on which one can get a night in a comfortable guest house. Really I should begin to take precaution against imprudent spending. So I opt not to take the beddings. Besides it’s summer and a Kikoy cloth I have carried in my luggage comes in handy for the night until I purchase beddings the following day.
Its 5.00 PM and on entering the room I lie on the bed and before long I have dozed off. After a really deserved nap I wake to find its some minutes to 9.00PM. I look through the window and the fading rays of sunset are still peering in the horizon. I begin to doubt the accuracy of my watch. I think perhaps I didn’t adjust it properly when I arrived. It’s quit still outside though. I go back to sleep. When I wake up I can gauge it must be already morning as I have relished in a good enough sleep.
I check on my watch just to see if it could have come back to its senses in the course of the night. It indicates some minutes to 5AM. I edge closer to the window to draw the curtain and peek outside. A morning sun is just struggling to project its calm summer rays. My watch is right after all. There are longer hours of daylight during the summer.
After a well-deserved rest, I’m good to attend my first pre-sessional English class. The entire world is represented here, though am the only African. I can now feel why my fellowship provider underscored the essence of an international exposure before beginning my graduate studies. The Chinese dominate the class in a ratio that is fairly consistent with their dominance in the global population. The tutor asks the class to introduce themselves to me and I am touched by the equanimity with which each say their names.
For the Chinese comes names as Le, Ki, Ye, Yu. So precise, yet so difficult to pick up especially how they pronounce them. From Thai comes names the size of a sentence – Patcharapon, Kasemwearasan, Sivaplangrussane, Tarawatcharasat – hee. “Hello George – I am so & so or so … but you can call me, Cindy, Mick ……” Many of them have English aliases and I’m happy this will make it easy for me to at least call all my classmates by a name. The English aliases also make life easier for the tutors.
However, I am beginning to wonder if I can tell some of them apart let alone getting their names. But it takes me only two days of being in the same class to realize how each looks so different from the other. And how each has a uniquely different personality.
On the third day I approach a library staff for some guidance on accessing the library. After exchanging a few words with him he asks, “Could you be Kenyan by any chance?” I told him yes, I am Njoroge from Kiambu. What a small world, he happens to be Kenyan too. He’s Njoroge from Kiambu! I figure out he could have easily picked my challenged R and L sounds. My accent becomes an asset at such a convenient time.
We hit it off and he showed me around the city the following weekend. He introduced me to the Kirkgate Market where I could get matoke, iwisa (South African maize flour), fresh Tilapia and Amaranthus. At last I can cook some food. I have been surviving on bread sandwiches and french-fries, so I haven’t eaten any ‘real food’ for the whole week.
For my supper on one of the days in my first week, I ate some pastry only to read the wrapping carefully afterwards and realize that I was supposed to bake in the oven at 200 degrees! I lay in bed waiting for the consequences not knowing where I would even seek medication. Fortunately nothing happens. I could not come to terms with how a golden brown pastry with seemingly cooked dough could require some further baking at such a high temperature.
Still on matters food during my initial days, I walk into a fast food café near the University for some take-way for my dinner. It’s around 9.00PM and the café has only fries and sandwich ham left. I decide the two will make a good combination for dinner. I ask for a serving of flies but the sandwich ham has to be weighed so I order a pound of it. The café attendant clarifies whether ‘it’s a pound in weight or a pound in money’ to which I respond ‘a pound in weight’. What a contradiction, the British currency and a unit of measure go by the same name.
The bill comes to about £3 and 77 pence. I fetch some coins from my pocket but I am still not familiar with the denominations so I opt to pay with £5 note. Noticing I have enough coins, the attendant asks me to give him the coins instead. So to make it easy for both of us, I pour the handful of coins on the counter for him to select what will be enough for the bill.
I get so much of the sandwich ham, that I leave the cafe thinking it was offered at a throw away price possibly to clear the day’s stock before closing time. I must on the other hand have left the café attendant thinking that I am great fan of ham sandwiches. My dinner of flies and sandwich ham is simply awful.
After two weeks in university accommodation I move to private accommodation. It’s on a Saturday and my appointed day to make a proper meal for myself in the privacy of a kitchen that I will be having all to myself – the university hostel had a shared kitchen. I make a mash of boiled matoke (bananas) and potatoes and proceed to make a delicious mutton stew.
Right above the cooker is an apparatus for sucking hot vapour emanating from boiling food. I think its call it a hoody? I decide this one of the western sophistications that will raise my power bill unnecessarily and opt not to turn it on. What is the wisdom of sucking away steam from a delicious stew circulating in a large and well aerated studio anyway?
Just as I am getting ready to remove the stew from the cooker and sit down to enjoy my dinner, the unexpected happens. An alarm fixed on the ceiling goes on and spoils my dinner and my whole evening. Little did I know that it is designed to detect any steam or smoke in the room. It does not discriminate between the two – smoke from a fire or steam from cooking food. It has been triggered by the hot steam from my food wafting in the room. It’s around 9.00PM and I am in panic. I switch off electricity from the main switch but the damn thing continues screaming.
I’m scared stiff and helpless thinking my neighbours must have called the police or fire brigade and they may show up any minute. Sirens are common here, but they are likely to come blaring a very loud one on the emergency mission for my rescue. When they happen on the scene they will probably interrogate me or even arrest me for ignorance to apply technology as required. I begin to pull myself together to be able to exonerate myself by looking as naïve to the West as I can.
Fifteen minutes are gone and no response to a possible SOS sent out by my neighbours. I find my letting agent’s emergency number. But wait a minute, if this alarm does not constitute an emergency I will part with £20. I gather some courage to open the door, the window, turn the power back on and then switch on the hoody, a fan and even the winter humid air extractor. I then wait for about 20 minutes but the alarm does not stop or subside even a notch lower.
Desperate times calls for desperate moves. I pick my phone to call my younger brother who is an expert electrical artisan for advice. But it’s past midnight in Kenya and he must be fast asleep. I scroll down the phone book to get the number of the Kenyan librarian friend. The number of the Sierra Leonean PhD. Student I met on the day I arrived comes first. I call him but he is driving and he will call me back later. “Bu…. but… I am a bit of scare”…he has already disconnected the line. In the West people think and talk fast.
I quickly send a text to both of them (the Kenyan & the Sierra Leonean). The S. Leonean calls first and after explaining to him my predicament he tells me, “George it must have absorbed a lot of vapour, take one of your short (shirt) and fon (fan) it”. He calls back again after 15 minutes and tells me to keep fonning.
I fan it until my hands get tired and my neck gets stiff because of looking up the ceiling. Just as I am giving up my Kenyan friend calls. He tells me not to get scared at all as this is a sign that I’m safe from fire. He advices me to try to remove its battery. The offending contraption is firmly fixed on the ceiling, a few inches above the wardrobe. So I pull a table in order to reach it. But after scrutinizing the device round and round I can’t figure out how to chuck out its battery.
It’s just a small piece of plastic contraption the size of a ceiling rose, yet it has caused me so much trouble. My next impulse is to crush it and I go looking for a stone outside. I can’t find any so I go for one of my shoes with the hardest heel. But then again I stop to think how much it could cost and some possible repercussions of destroying it.
The idea to stuff the space between it and the wardrobe with a duvet to absorb its screams comes to mind. And alas it works, the pitch of its incessant screaming decreases substantially. I have my supper past midnight and go to sleep. The following morning I wake up to a quiet and lovely room but of course with my hands and neck still aching. How would I have known the gadget was allergic to both steam and smoke?
While I’m only pursuing a pre-sessional English course, I have already begun to feel the stimulating academic environment. I am anticipating it however. In the pre-session English class one of the skills taught is being able to hear others in their varying English accents and also to be heard in your accent. So every day we must have discussions on various subjects in pairs or in groups.
Its initially difficulty to converse in our heavy accents influenced by our mother tongues and our diverse national languages in Africa, Middle East, Asia and South America. For instance someone introduces himself as Isaac and all you hear is hijack. But with time we get used to each other’s heavy tongues and we can effectively communicate.
Our interaction also exposes how little we know of each other’s cultures and geographies.
Many have little knowledge about Africa with respected to its people, diverse countries, political systems and even more glaring misconceptions about the weather.
It is a wet summer in the North of England. From my discussion in class with my tutors about the draught ravaging Northern Kenya and Somalia captured in the UK press, some have formed a notion that much of Africa is a desert starved off rain. One even sympathetic that I must be having a hard time with the rainy weather because I am not used to rain in Africa.
So when the tutor offered me an opportunity to share a little about Africa’s weather, I let them know that what we are having here is just drizzles compared to the proper downpour that pounds much of Africa’s land. I inform them rain in Africa is preceded by roaring thunder and lightning and followed by a storm. That it might cause floods, and in in worse situations, may sweep away bridges and displace people.
I am yet to hear any thunder or have my way lighted by lightening in the West. Nor see the streets clear as people make haste to get out of the city during a rainy rush hour. Nor hawkers who will capitalize on a storm to do a brisk business with a hiked price of an umbrella. Neither have I seen buses fill up as people scamper from the streets that can easily become impassable. I’m yet to experience a proper storm in the West.
I have my own misconceptions too about the day and night hours. I am wired to a constant cycle of twelve hours of day light and twelve hours of darkness. The pre-departure tutorial offered by my scholarship provider must have forgotten to inform us about a fluctuating day and night cycle in Europe. So I thought a day’s routine would be altered to fit to the hours of light and darkness. When it fell dark at 4.00PM, I thought school and work would come to an end to allow people to go home.
For an uninitiated African slum native, life in a first world city has had its fascinations in the high level of technology application. You approach a door and it flies open without any magical words like ‘open sesame, close sesame’ in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The computer technology is especially tremendously in application in academia, shopping and banking.
Late from the University library one evening, I pass by an open super market and decide to buy some stuff for breakfast. I approach the till expecting to be met with the “Hello Love” greeting by a cashier. What an awesome acknowledgement that I looked forward to it every time I visited a super market. But there is no cashier past working hours in this particular outlet, its self-exit time.
As I wait for my turn at the till, I carefully watch and listen as the shopper ahead of me scans her goods and puts them in a bag, then slips a note, receives her change and leaves. Confident to have go at it, I scan my fast item but the machine cannot scan the next. Each time I retry it orders me ‘to remove scanned items from the bagging area’. What is a ‘bagging area’ for heaven’s sake? I am headed for yet another serious clash with Western technology. Fortunately, the security guy at the entrance hears the man-machine quarrel and comes for my rescue.
There is as well enhanced security in the City. You step out of the main library doors and you are out in the street. The doors of residential houses where I stay face the street and people don’t necessarily have to invest on burglar proofing. You withdraw money from a cash machine embedded on a wall along the street without having to look over your shoulder.
But while here you cannot help to appreciate the social animals that we are back home who easily get into a talk with a stranger you have met in a matatu (public service vehicle). It indeed faces erosion from the technological dynamics driving the world today, where people can interact more closely on social media than at a personal level. It is such an invaluable social asset that we should jealously guard.
I do not miss to draw some parallels too. The pent up frustration among the youth has arguably become a common denominator across socio-cultural diversities world-wide. In early August 2011, the UK was rocked by riots that took on a violent twist, disrupting business in her major cities. Such violent eruptions are common in the global south.
I was at Leeds city centre curious to have a glimpse of how it would unfold, in the quest by the riotous youth to stretch the mayhem further north. The scattered groups of youth threatening to unleash chaos were however tactfully thwarted by police using the experience gained in London and Manchester, and insights for countering similar eruptions borrowed from New York.
It is an enthralling moment for my contemporaries in an international fellowship programme from the global south who are in the West for the first time. So I share my initial brushes with systems and technologies in the west on our online networking platform. If only to provoke others to bring up tales and share the fun about their initial encounters and culture shock in the west. Some so uniquely interesting to go unspoken.