Friday, July 14, 2006

Why have your head ‘permanently damaged’?

There is much taunting and cajoling for those who ‘out of their ‘wildest’ thoughts’ decide to embark on a doctoral program. They are definitely in for a ‘permanent head damage’ (PhD), as the snide goes. The image of a rugged dressing, untidy and unkempt hair and some dilapidated, dirty bags full of books is clearly etched on the minds of those who dismiss them who have undertaken the eternal ruin of the head (sic). From more positive thinking, a PhD is supposed to compensate financially for the amount of time and energy spent in school. There are always dreams and prospects of a good salary with a good life to go with it; nice car, spacious villa … you know, all that goes with a happily-ever-after ending, like a romantic movie or book. With the revered title, Dr. respect comes your way with the people just imagining the good that is to come from your endeavors. We hardly take cognizance of the cognitive fact of further studies. I have always, however, respected a humble gesture I received almost a decade ago from humble people. I had just finished my high school education and had qualified for the university. In my country then, one had to wait for an agonizing one and a half years before joining varsity. Having spent a significant amount of time away from my village, I chose this time to bond more with my roots. As a bright son of the village, a number of parents who had their sons and daughters in high school approached me to tutor their sons and daughters during the holidays. They utterly disregarded the fact that art subjects were my strong points. I have to admit in this public space that I really struggled in Chemistry, and to a lesser extent, Maths and Physics in high school. This is the main reason I was admitted to a BA degree at varsity. The parents would however not hear any of this; I continued tutoring the high school students during my undergraduate days, and as the parents insisted, on these subjects normally regarded as tough. Interesting enough, as I progressed at varsity, the easier it became for me to proficiently tutor and teach them chemistry, Biology (which I never undertook in high school), and mathematics, as I easily coped with my literature modules at varsity. Two of my high school ‘holiday student’s’ have recently completed degrees in engineering, having passed well in sciences in their matrix examinations. Their parents have forever being thankful to date for my assistance to their children. I am a fresh PhD graduate, and I am equally thankful to the parents for trusting in me. I have realized that undertaking further studies not only makes you competent in your area of specialization, but also makes it easier for you to grasp new and concepts and ideas you have not encountered before. I have had of late to do some exciting environmental research in natural disaster management, and the professor I was working with was full of plaudits for a job well done. While studying for my Masters, I had a chance to tutor in information technology to undergraduate students. Don’t forget that all my university studies (both undergraduate and postgraduate) are in Literature!! I have been at the receiving end from sources that believe that with literature, all I can do is write novels, poetry and plays, hence I will die a pauper since there is no money in publishing. I hardly bother answering to their comments, since I believe I am capable of anything at this level. I am sure I can survive any Engineering course, anytime. So if one asks, why a PhD, I think I have all the answers; it is not that hard to become a jack-of-all-trades and a master of all. It all takes positive thinking! I think it pays to have your head permanently damaged. It widens your scope of thinking and enables one to see the larger picture of life.


Whenever I feel disoriented, a game of chess brings me back to my usual senses. As I pondered over my next move after a two game thrashing by my teenage nephew, I remembered the therapeutic session we had with Tracy Rowe of Investec before she gave us very useful tips on professionalism. This was a day after an enlightening and brilliant talk from robust Kuseni Dlamini. Telling one’s story, what they call narrative therapy, is crucial in expunging pent up emotions. Colleagues went on about imprisonment, working as barmen, sad childhoods, exciting moments in life as well as embarrassing moments, shattered dreams and faded hopes(Joseph, I still hope that one day, I will be as prolific a striker as Samuel Eto’o). However, an aura of optimism amidst a dark past was enveloping throughout. What struck me most was Pascalia’s story, which was my story, this time not in Zimbabwe but in Kenya. Interestingly though, these two countries share a common colonial legacy… settler colonies, armed resistance and suffered the direct rule under Her Majesty. It is no coincidence that both countries have produced leaders who leave a lot to be desired; Uncle Bob (Robert Mugabe) and Uncle Dan (Daniel arap Moi). The two leaders’ difference is only in academic qualifications with one being a man of letters while the other should have stuck to his initial calling…. goat herding (guys I have nothing against goats; the meat is quite tasty!!). Sticking to the narrative therapy, I remember my other job (colleagues, forget about the barman story for now) as an intern when I was in my 2nd year at varsity at the premier human rights organization in Kenya. Brilliant boy, from the university, my first task was to type a letter. Had I seen computers…yes. Did I know how to use them…? Never. It took me a whole day to type a one page letter on MS Word (holy heavens, and here I am blogging!! Or is it bragging?!). Sounds more like Pascalia’s story, not so? Over the three months, I was able to overcome challenges and when our university acquired Internet facilities, I was in the forefront of utilizing to the maximum the facility. Three years down the line, I was teaching Information Technology for the Humanities to undergraduate students at Wits University (yes, Wits, Johannesburg). Cutting a long story short, I think the computer challenges we faced just show how education systems can be inadequate, but again, computer facilities only held sway in Africa less than a decade ago (we were born at the wrong time?!). It is encouraging that today’s kids are computer whiz- kids (I still learn a few computer tricks from my 14yr old nephew in Kenya). Given the life stories of the Zimbabwean and the Kenyan, (I’m sure there are worse stories we can get from both countries), we have endeavoured to overcome all these challenges, ranging from bad governance, to economic mismanagement, low levels of technological developments, etc. Surely, there is hope for Africa. What is expected of us, as Kuseni Dlamini aptly puts it, is to transform from being consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge. Experiencing life outside our depressing domains is a step towards embracing globalisation, a modern day reality; realizing the malfunctional systems which are our origins, embracing the fastidious life of more industrialized nations and producing knowledge which will uplift the horrible living conditions of our people is the important cycle of globalisation; local to regional to global to local…ad infinitum. We should think and act local, regional and global simultaneously. … and I made my next move, but was checkmated by the accomplished chess player, my young nephew (whom I had taught the game less than one year ago). I was to avenge for the defeat in a three game-win in a row the next day against some anonymous chess player (we are living in a global village, aren’t we?) on The player might have been Garry Kasparov…who knows!!!