Study Habits Die Hard

I was hooked on success. After leading the pack in our end of term 1 exams, I wanted more of the same. I figured I could repeat this feat in term two. This was the genesis of study habits that have largely endured to this day.

KCSE exams are a big fucking deal in Kenya. And they were certainly a big deal in my house. But all these was unspoken, of course. My family was not rolling in dough, and I knew that education was pretty much my only avenue to get ahead. My parents worked hard, but I recognized that if I was to escape the cycles of debt which they endured, my path lay through those dastardly end of high school certificates.

I’d go to bed at 10pm, often sleeping mid-sentence as I was chatting with my cousin. Wainaina lived with us, and took care of the family quarry operation. Since we didn’t have a guest room, and he was a permanent addition to the family, he couldn’t sleep on the couch. We squeezed two beds into my bedroom. They flanked what was formerly my mom’s sewing table, which I’d converted into my study desk. By 3am the next morning I’d be out of bed, looking for a matchbox to light a kerosene lamp. It gets chilly in Nairobi at dawn, but often that was not enough to keep me up. If I started dozing off, I resorted to a crude technique that would have made the infamous Nyayo House torturers proud: sticking my feet into a basin half filled with cold water. That shit works. All of a sudden your brain is jolted back to reality and the Chemistry equations you were looking at begin to make sense!

Although I lived pretty far from school, and had to take two buses on my daily commute, I was often one of the first students to get on campus. Arriving at 6:30am usually gave me just over an hour to study quietly before the grounds got noisy. And this was the second pillar in my study plans. I either sat outside in the same spaces we occupied over tea break and lunch hour, or found an empty classroom and squirreled myself away in the corner. With time, I even found a partner in crime. Lois was a year ahead of me, so she had her big exams looming large. She was pretty good at school, and hence she did not wait to do last minute revisions. And while she had more material to cover than I did, I was often a resource when she had questions about topics she’d gone over two or three years ago. I loved my study sessions with Lois, and it certainly didn’t hurt that she was pretty. We had the same kind of demeanor: mostly quiet and subdued. But I also totally had the hots for Diana, her close friend. Tricky situation this. It was the year 2000 and Beyonce’s Destiny’s Child was topping global billboards. “Say My Name” was exactly what I silently willed Diana to do. But my infatuation was more often associated with the feelings evoked by Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay:” sad rejection and unreciprocated affection.

Weekday study plans started at 3am, and continued once I got to school at 6:30am. I deliberately did nothing all day Sunday, except go to morning mass, read the Sunday Nation, and possibly go for a walk with Njoki, or jog by myself. Saturdays, however, were heavy lifting kinda days. I’d be up, dressed, and having had breakfast by 7:45am. This gave me about 20 minutes to walk to the main road from where I could catch a 111 into town. The goal was to be at the Kenya National Library HQ by 8:45. 15 minutes later, I’d have deposited my bag – you couldn’t walk into the premises with that – and I’d be sitting at a desk ready to get work done.



KCSE exams are a big deal in Kenya.

The Kenyan exam school is pretty big on rote learning and memorizing facts. The best students are not necessarily the most creative, but rather those who can regurgitate what they get from their teachers or their textbooks. I had problems with the system, but I also knew I’d have to play by the rules. I planned my Saturday study sessions in such a way that I could review 4 years’ worth of material for every subject. Form 1 and Form 2 lecture notes were fairly quick to go over, but by Form 3 the material becomes more challenging. The stuff we covered in Form 4 was of course super important since that would come up in our final exam. I’d slowly work my way through Math, English, Kiswahili, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Social Studies, and French.

Math and Chemistry were totally intuitive for me. As long as I made time for practice questions, I was OK. English, Kiswahili, and Social Studies were all literature-based. So that was pretty fun for me. But Social Studies was ridiculously counter-intuitive. In Form 1 and Form 2 I approached the subject like philosophy – that all questions were open to interpretation and so the examiner and I could debate on the merits of an answer. Well, turns out I was dead wrong. In response to the questions, “what makes a good society?” there was apparently only one answer. And that was the response you gave in Form 1, Form, 2, Form 3, and … guess what? Form 4 as well! Once I figured out that Social Studies had pre-approved answers I was expected to vomit on my exam paper, I started getting A’s!

My library sessions ended at 3pm. I’d not carry lunch, so I had to make sure my breakfast that morning would tide me over, but I stopped for a break every 45min. I’d walk around and browse rows of old Physics and Chemistry texts from the 50s and 60s. Safety in the reading rooms was not exactly tight, and this was before the era of security cameras. Which all meant I either took my books with me during break – and risked having someone take my spot, or I stayed within sight of my property, lest it get jacked and re-sold as 2nd hand books on Nairobi’s streets. To go to the bathroom you did a quick Hail Mary, and bolted there and back!

Studying at the library was not all work, however. There was a lot of play to be had. In early October, just before KCSE finals, we got about 10 days to go study at home. I spent every day of my study break in the reading room. This was now the last stretch, serious stuff. I even brought lunch with me so I could sit for an extra two hours till 5pm.