Heading Out to Singapore

Mrs. Myra Mutsune was my second high school Biology teacher. Our first had had to leave midway through Form 2, and Mutsune took over. Mutsune was tough; she pushed us in the way she expected KCSE to kick our butts. She was also strict on discipline. Her and Nabil had a big run in. it was caused by the same reason she was always extra tough on Bajaber, she didn’t think either  applied themselves diligently enough to their studies. From her vantage point, Bajaber was a bad influence on other students, being older, skilled on the pitch, and hence a role model. Nabil, to Mutsune’s chagrin, fell for this, and would sometimes act the goof instead of strapping in and getting shit done. And if there was one thing Mutsune could not abide, it was wasting time.

We got along, thankfully. Biology ended up being one of my favorite subjects. And I especially enjoyed ecology. Ecology was not only easy, it was also a cool narrative, bordering on human geography, about the environment. It made sense given how I saw the world, and I loved seeing ferns and the different kinds of plants while walking on trails in Kangawa. Post-KCSE, and having scored a strong A in Biology, Mutsune became a natural ally in my quest for the next adventure. She brainstormed with me on my approach to Dr. Pragnell and how I was to solicit his help in gaining admission into Aga Khan’s I.B. program. She consoled me after my petition proved quite unsuccessful. And then suggested an alternative. Turns out her son and daughter had both completed their KCSE education in Kenya, before attending a prestigious institution called the United World College. Mutsune’s kids had then gone on to attend university in the U.S. I liked the idea. As long as someone else was paying for tuition, I was down! She shared the same opportunity with Situma and Salim, and even offered to help us compose our application cover letters. Over three days, I commuted back and forth to school, sharing drafts with her and revising based on her comments. When Situma and Salim were in at the same time, we’d sit in a room and work on the letters. She read our final drafts and approved. It was time to send these babies out into the world, and find out if they could truly hold water. Sink or swim.

Peter, Staal and Shaka

The UWC application was always advertised in one of Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation. Their Monday edition is titled Blackboard, and it has a wide variety of news related to the education sector. Soon after KCSE results are released by the Kenyan Ministry of Education, the UWC group would place a one-paragraph ad inviting applicants to submit material for review. I went to Nairobi’s General Post Office, GPO, and mailed my envelope. I crossed my fingers, and let it go. Let happen what may, I whispered.

In Kenya the post office does not deliver mail to your door step. Instead, you rent a mailbox at your nearest post office, and check mail as often as you can. Our box rental was at the GPO station. It had originally been my grandmother’s, so occasionally mother would pick up my uncle’s mail and drop it off at his Kariobangi South residence. Hence, there was no way for me to know that UWC had responded to my application. I had to go check the mailbox. My first trip back about a week after mailing the documents turned up nothing. This was on a Saturday, and I’d planned to see Lorraine later in town anyway, so the one hour bus ride to town was not a total waste. About 10 days later, I went back to check our family mailbox and found an envelope from the United World College Kenya National Committee. Turns out I’d been invited for an interview. I went straight to school and shared the news with Mutsune. She was super pleased. We chatted about what the interview was all about. The UWC folks wanted to learn more about me as a leader, how I meant to take advantage of global opportunities, and how I intended to contribute to Kenyan society. I started preparing answers for those questions. Mutsune added it was also important that I discuss explicitly how I would represent Kenya on a global stage. What parts of Kenyan culture was I comfortable sharing with people from all over the world? This all seemed exciting. And also a little daunting. Finally, she added, I should make sure to speak up and project confidence.

The interview was scheduled for a Saturday, from 8am till late in the evening. And I couldn’t wait to go prove my chops. A couple of months before this I’d just read about the mental practice of visualizing success. Every day, in the week leading up to the interview, I spent 5 to 10 minutes meditating my plan of attack. I imagined myself well-spoken, standing tall, and confident. I reminded myself to enunciate properly and not to speak too fast, as I tend to do when I’m nervous. I reflected on my tendency to adopt a poker face when frazzled, and how I should be more emotive at certain moments. I’d sit on a one-person settee, prop my legs up on the coffee table, and lean back. This position was especially comfortable when the lights were out. Then I could just close my eyes, facing the ceiling, and imagine the winning personality I was going to unleash on the selection committee. Saturday morning, I was ready. Even though I expected tea, snacks, and lunch, I started off with a sizeable breakfast. A growling stomach was the last kind of distraction I’d want on such a nerve-wracking day.

Route 111 matatus don’t go into Hurlingham, not unless they’re maneuvering their way out of traffic. This meant I had to alight at Uchumi Ngong Hyper and take a matatu #46. About 15 minutes later, I got off at Rose Avenue, anxious not to miss my stop. I was early. I had time to scope the dusty street as I looked for the gate with a sign saying Dr. Musimbi Ondeko, Chiropractor. I had no idea what chiropractors did, but it sounded exotic enough to be associated with the global-oriented UWC movement. I said “vipi boss!” to the guard, before asking for directions. “Ofisi ya Dr. Ondeko ni gani?” He indicated with his left hand at a two-story building. A placard at the main entrance indicated that I should head to the first floor. I knocked on a varnished door, twisted the handle, and walked in.

Behind the front desk sat 2 ladies, whom I’d later come to know as Irene and Rose. I introduced myself, and was immediately directed to the back of the building, where the other applicants had gathered. Looking out the back window behind Irene, I saw that a large tent had been laid out. Plastic chairs were arranged in rows and a few male and female students were seated. I politely excused myself and walked to the back. The area was covered with grass, not exactly a lawn, but more like a private backyard. In addition to the students, I noted several adults. In a few moments, just as I was chatting to the kids around me, one of the older ladies introduced herself as Dr. Musimbi Ondeko. The interview began with Ondeko and several former UWC graduates sharing with us some of their experiences. We heard from Walter, Shiro Mwangi, Watene, Obulutsa, and Osire. They’d finished high school in Kenya before attending UWC schools in the U.S., Italy, Canada, Wales, and Norway. After their undergraduate education, they’d returned to the country and currently worked in finance, journalism, and the healthcare fields. Their journeys back home were crucial in fulfilling the UWC mission: that UWC graduates would be at the forefront of positive and sustainable social change in their communities. This was the model against which our candidacy was to be judged. The day’s schedule started off with some group activities; later on after lunch there were to be one-on-one interviews with 3 members of the national committee. Situma and Salim were seated next to me, and when we were divvied up into teams, they each went to a different group.

I knew I was being watched. I took care to not only participate fully, but also to involve others. Our first task was a typical team building activity: interlock hands and untangle the entire team without breaking contact, while racing the other three teams. We might have been shy while eyeing each other, initially sizing up the competition, but with hands twisted we all of a sudden got very close and personal. We were literally in each other’s space. We laughed uneasily as we grasped fingers tighter, smelling each other’s body odor. Nervous adolescent smiles masked the hormonal rhythms awakened by such close proximity to gorgeous members of the opposite sex. By 11am, with Nairobi’s sun already beating down on us, sweat trickled down our back as we maneuvered limbs — stepping over legs and wriggling underneath arms. My team didn’t win, but we did come a close second. I knew the polite thing to do was to honestly congratulate the winners, as well as pat my team members on the back. The budding leader in me was being let loose.

Having gotten to know each other, we were now tasked with performing a skit. Each team was assigned a topic, and they had 30min to create a script, rehearse, and perform in front of everyone else. The idea was that each performance should be both entertaining and educational. Our assigned topic was corruption — a national ill that Kenyans love to rile against in public, whilst indulging behind closed doors. Our basic scenario was a doting dad rushing to his daughter’s high school visiting day — that Saturday every semester when parents could visit their kids and shower them with love and fast food. Unfortunately, the father rans into traffic cops who flag him for a broken headlight. After discovering that the fellow’s license has expired, they handcuff him ready for  remand. His wife pleads with them and offers KSHS 10,000 so they can get on with their journey. In our imagined Kenya, the lady was swiftly reprimanded for attempting to bribe officers of the law. She, too, was arrested under bribery charges and read her rights. Although we’d come up with lines, we forgot half of them due to stage fright and simply improvised a lot. Dan, this one kid on our team, volunteered early on to the be the Constable. He had no lines but a lot of gruff noises and physical exertion. He manhandled the beleaguered father into an imaginary police jeep. Earning applause from the audience and the judges. We were quite pleased with our thespian skills.

By the time every other team had presented their performance, it was lunch time. There was a caterer at hand who set up plastic plates, complete with white forks and spoons on a table. We were invited to help ourselves to pots of pilau rice, chicken stew, and salad. To fully quench the equator sun, warm soda and water was also offered. Whether out of politeness or perhaps because it gave them another chance to watch us in action, the selection committee asked that we get our food before them. It was only when we were all seated chewing and salving our hunger that they too served themselves. The committee members distributed themselves amongst the different groups, and we were all soon engaged in discussions about life post-KCSE.

Bellies full, tongues loosened, too. We laughed while listening to mishaps from UWC life: rooming with a white kid who was seeing a black person for the first time; learning to eat using a fork and knife; dealing with homesickness. It all sounded plenty tough, but I remained unfazed. If that was the price for seeing a new part of the world, and exercising my adventurous spirit, so be it. I was down. The committee retreated indoors, setting themselves up in three rooms where they were to field face-to-face interviews. Given the personalities on display, we could already predict which panels would be tough. Ondeko clearly had a big personality. She could come across as intimidating. I was not eager to spur with her. Watene and Walter both looked like goof balls. But that was not necessarily a good thing. I felt anxious that if I could not match their sense of humor, I’d immediately be relegated to the bottom of the pile. It might have been a fun day hanging out and role playing, but at stake was someone’s future. This was clearly demonstrated when we had to fill in our preferences. To me this was akin to asking a starving man what he’d like to order for an eight course meal. Nothing? Everything? Don’t care as long as it’s edible? There were 27 applicants, vying for 7 spots. The odds were not terrible, but clinching a scholarship certainly wasn’t going to be a walk in Kangawa forest, either. To help us fill out the preference forms, we were informed that some UWCs offered full scholarships, including airfare to school and back, while others did not. There was no point in me dreaming about attending schools in the U.S. or Wales. My family was in no position to pay for an international flight, let alone pay tuition in foreign currency. Canada and Singapore were known to offer full rides. Clearly those were the spots I should gravitate towards. I certainly must have heard of Singapore before that Saturday, but not in any context that I can remember. I had no idea whether Singaporeans ate with their nose and walked on their hands. But after seeing a school magazine highlighting a Kenyan scholar who’d been a star basketball player, I decided this would be my first choice school. I not only figured that most of my peers would shy away from such an exotic location, I also had a sense that the west could wait — that eventually I’d get to see Canada, the United States, and Europe. Chances to study and live in Asia, however, I intuitively knew would be few and far between. I marked the United World College of South East Asia as my first choice destination, handed in my form, and walked into my group interview.

I’d been on adrenaline all day, and as often happens I was about to crash. The lunch break helped to revive me a bit, but I knew I’d have to perk up some more. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my limbs so as to rev my engine. I wanted to hit the ground running once those questions began flying at me. I walked into the office, and Rose indicated which door I should open to go face the proverbial music. I entered to find the panel reviewing my application material. At least Musimbi and Shiru were; Walter and Watene were yarning about something. They ushered me in with a big karibu, gesturing to a seat directly in front of them. I sat down hoping they won’t ask me questions based on the cover letter; it had a fair number of embellishments. Maintaining eye contact was something I’d repeatedly imprinted on my brain. That, plus firm handshakes, were key features of making a good first impression. Or so I’d read.

The interview panel sported smiles on their faces. I took that to be a good sign. I adjusted my body posture to demonstrate attention and enthusiasm. I nodded as Musimbi posed the first question. She was interested in my involvement at school. The UWC program was all about grooming future leaders; this was an easy shot for me. I put down the water bottle from which I’d just sipped and began rattling out the different ways I’d practiced my leadership skills at Aga Khan. There was my St. John’s Ambulance Cadet experience. I’d emcee’d a one-day interschool literature and drama festival. I’d written an essay about global issues that received a commendation from the Commonwealth Essay Competition. And of course I’d participated in the school’s community service initiatives. This was another important segment in one’s candidacy: the ability to articulate how a UWC education would enable a student to return to Kenya, share their skills, and contribute to social justice.

They nodded satisfaction. And Watene pounced next. He was interested in how I’d represent Kenyan culture while abroad. What artifacts could I call upon in showcasing Kenya’s beauty and diversity to people who’d perhaps never heard of the country before? I’d spent four years in high school engaged in debates about African literature. It wasn’t a large leap to elaborate on how oral storytelling and the songs of Kenyan communities could be used to showcase Kenyan culture. Watene pressed further; could I give an example? I paused for a bit, before launching into song. I knew “Kanyoni ka Nja” from stories Wainaina would tell me. I sang a few of the opening lines and Watene roared back in laughter. He was pleased.

Clearly, they’d set themselves up to ask one questions each, so I turned to either Walter or Shiru, expectantly. Walter sat up in his chair, he was gonna go next. He asked me about my career plans and how those would enable me to create positive change back home. I thought back to the glossy college brochures that Aga Khan Academy stocked in its library. Colorful magazines with well-dressed and attentive students at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, University College London, Sheffields, etc. I’d soaked this in and decided my dream was to pursue either genetic or chemical engineering. I went with chemical engineering to answer Walter’s question, expounding on how an undergraduate degree in ChemE would help me work in recycling. I argued that given Nairobi’s fast population growth, what the city, and other urban areas on the continent needed, was serious effort in waste management. Not only would proper waste disposal reduce risk of diseases, it would also offer raw materials for a home-grown manufacturing industry. They all nodded in agreement. My fantasy sounded convincing enough.

It was now left to Shiru to pose the last question. Instead, she took the opportunity to thank me for attending the interview, as well as explaining how the next steps of the selection would go. Obviously, the committee would have to complete the rest of the panel interviews that afternoon, after which they were to reconvene the week after for final deliberation. I asked about how long before I should expect to hear back: 2-3 weeks. We shook hands all around, I went out back and chatted with Ruth and Salim for a bit, then walked out the gate to catch my ride home. I was anxious about getting a positive response, but there was little else I could do at this juncture but wait.

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