So how did it come to be that a lady interested in literature and the arts is waist deep in a technical field? I could lie and say that I knew I wanted be an engineer since I was 5 but that would be far from the truth. When teachers asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I mostly said a doctor, and that is what I would have applied to study had it not been that my father, who pushed me to excel, who believed in me, who danced and danced with the music system at full volume in late March when he and my mother threw me a small party for getting an A of 81 points, perished in a road accident one Sunday afternoon, a month before the selection period. The trauma of seeing him stitched back after an autopsy at the morgue, a cold room with shelves and shelves of steel holding the chill of death, made me rethink how much I wanted to accompany and stay with people when their bodies are ailing and failing them, when they are one step close to the grave, when even I cannot stand the sight of blood and needles and dis-ease. The trauma stayed with me so much so that when I walked into University of Nairobi in October 2010, my mind was already set under the consultation and guidance of my newly widowed mother that I would try this thing called civil engineering, and that she would support me through it all. We figured an additional year from to the normal 4 university years is such a small time sacrifice for a sure career.
The other loose idea that I had, that I swept under the rug during the selection period and that would later become a nag, was that since I had started being interested in literature in high school, and by the time my mother came to help me carry my things home – mattress, suitcase and all other high school paraphernalia – was that maybe I could study literature for my undergraduate. That did not come to pass. Instead, we made a wild gamble that has paid off in ways we could never have imagined.
What we also did not imagine when we were filled with excitement when I received my letter of admission to Jkuat was what the next years in campus held in store for me. I had always been a present student – I did my school work and adhered to school rules with ease. However, the unexpected exposure (on my end) to different mindsets, cultures, religions and ways of life did a number on me. Up until then my education was primarily Catholic – born in a Catholic home, always went to a Catholic Church (still do), had Catholic friends, went to Catholic schools. That kind of exposure was useful for me, and also harmful. Harmful in that combined with the grief I was carrying around like a shadow, combined with questions of existential meaning ( at that point I was riddled with the Question- why live, if after all you will die?), and trying to find a footing in my young adult life – still girl, not yet woman – it became a potent combination that spiraled me into an identity crisis. It is from this period of my life that my 10 piece poem series “Hours” sprung up. The interesting thing is that on the outside, I appeared to be doing well, while on the inside, I was barely holding up.
I dwelt so much on the meaning of my life, on the fact that I felt I was betraying my innate literature oriented abilities by studying engineering while there were others to whom engineering came naturally. (An engineering class is full of competing number-one kids and top-five-in-class kids by the way, and no matter how much you led the pack in primary and high-school, there are some who flawlessly outperform you academically with minimal effort). By the time I hit 21, my identity crisis was full blown and I was having such intense and continuous bouts of depression that I could not bring myself to attend all classes, and I missed them sporadically. I remember once I could not leave the bed no matter how I tried. Another time we had a Soil Mechanics CAT the next day, and no matter how much I read, nothing was registering. I read and reread a page severally, and by the time I got to the bottom, I had forgotten all I had read before. It was as frustrating as it was bewildering. I had a colossal (very private) meltdown, and that evening, I called my mother and said – I am quitting this thing. And she listened to me, and encouraged me to stay put, to keep on, to rest if I must, but to go on.
Go on and keep on I did. And I am glad I did. It was also about that time that I met friends who stayed with me, as I was, and accepted me for who I am and who really were very instrumental in helping me regain my sense of self, my happiness, my reason for being. For someone who had not known colossal failure before, whose s
ense of self was quite largely pegged on performance, I was happy to see that I could be loved by others without being the excellent one. (This is a perspective that has stayed with me, so much so, that I am first and foremost myself before I am anything else. So that if I was to lose my career, or my other interests, I would still be me and content, with the mere fact that my “I”, my person still has an intrinsic and infinite value no matter what.)
I was also happy for the poetry community that other comrades like Sanya (Mechatronix Engineering), Annette (Financial Engineering), The Okelo (Electrical Engineering) and Irauka (Financial Engineering) and I and others had created to quell our creative side while in a technical school. We were successful in our own small project that we had the chance to meet people like Dorphan Mutuma, Dante, Ngartia etc. And as it turns out, I did not lose my creative side after all. I still write, and the compounded experience of getting into life and living hands on has added flavor to my life and to my writing.
In late 2016, I graduated… By then I was happier, more gratuitous for the chances life has given me, for the friendships that sustained me, more empathetic and understanding to others because of the existential pain I had endured and the failure I had experienced and bounced back from, that prior to uni had been a foreign concept. Graduation felt less about the papers and more about coming to.
As I look back, I am very grateful for the 6 months period between my 4th year and 5th year that I worked for an NGO that deals with vocational training. Prior to that, it had not occurred to me with full gravity that there are some for whom KCPE or KCSE was the end of their education. I was aware of the fact, but not acutely concerned. Working for that NGO, seeing how youth my age or younger were struggling to get placements in vocational institutes (that deal with mechanics training, electricians, plumbers, welders, cooks, hairdressers) and struggling to get work for meager pay made me appreciate the chances I have gotten in life. Even the mere fact that I can comprehend calculus calculations while there are some to whom LCM and GCD is a problem at that stage of their life ignited my appreciation for life, for my course at uni so much so that when I resumed school for my fifth year, I was so eager to learn and to collaborate with other students. I will forever be grateful for the that period of my life.
In late 2016, I graduated with the class that I joined in fifth year, the one that came after us because that’s how life is. You plan, but life shows you another path. But by then I was happier, more gratuitous for the chances life has given me, for the friendships that sustained me, more empathetic and understanding to others because of the existential pain I had endured and the failure I had experienced and bounced back from that prior to uni had been a foreign concept. Graduation felt less about the papers and more about coming to.
|With my Mum on Graduation Day at JKUAT, Juja, November 2016|
I know of many of my peers who have not gotten jobs up to now while some got jobs even before we finished the coursework. Some are being paid handsomely, while others not so much. And what I am picking from this tree called life is that everybody’s life is uniquely different.
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Update: People are sending me private msgs telling me how much they needed to hear something like this. So, if you are courageous and can relate to this post, you can comment below, to let someone else know/see that they are not alone. Thank you.