For many young children growing up in Kenya, settling for a profession to put food on the table instead of pursuing their dreams to travel and change the world is a common practice due to the lack of opportunities and support from their parents and communities.
Many Kenyans grow up hoping to one day travel abroad in search of better educational and professional opportunities, but financial constraints coupled with expectations from their relatives to support and provide for their siblings, cousins and parents often force them to ignore their dreams so that they can focus on earning a pay-check doing jobs they don’t love.
For Dr. Susan Kiragu, her journey abroad to become a successful member of Kenya’s Diaspora community was only possible because her parents “opened the door and equipped me with the possibility that the world was mine for the taking.”
“I remember when I was 11, my dad was driving me to school and he was not pleased with how I had performed in school that term (I was number 7 I think),” she recalled smiling.
“He went on a rant about how I had great brains and was university material and I could even be president if I wanted,” she said.
Kiragu went on to excel in her academics, graduating from Kahuhia Girls High School at the top of the class before earning a Bachelor’s degree in education and music from Kenyatta University and a Masters degree in sociology of education from the University of Nairobi.
“I must say that my parents and the love they have for me has been the greatest motivator, and having a happy childhood where I felt loved, safe and wanted set the foundation,” she said.
It was this confidence from her parents and their belief in her abilities that inspired Kiragu to travel to the United Kingdom (UK) in 2005 in pursuit of a PhD in education, which she completed in 2008 from the University of Cambridge after completing a thesis titled ‘Exploring young people’s sexuality in a poor community in Kenya: a case study’.
Her parents played a huge role in her desire to pursue a life abroad, but so did her aunt who had married a foreigner when it was still not very common to do so and gone on to further her studies in Europe, getting her Masters and PhD.
“To me she just had the ‘coolest’ life, jet setting and seeing the world and earning lots of money. At least that’s how I saw it through my teenage eyes and I yearned for such a life,” she recalled.
“I grew up in this context of possibilities and exposure, of love and assurance, and moral setting too, and that’s the foundation that channelled the very possibility that I could travel abroad, let alone study and work there as well,” she explained.
In early 2005 while working as a researcher at a local NGO in Nairobi, she applied for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, got a full scholarship and according to her, “the rest is history”.
She makes it sounds easy enough, but she emphasised that the transition from having a dream and actually living it are two completely different things.
“Most Kenyans back home think that life is much easier abroad because they convert the money you earn in pounds or dollars, maybe per hour, and see that as a lot, but they forget that the cost of living abroad is much higher,” she stressed.
Kiragu blames this mis-perception of what it’s like to live abroad on the Western owned media.
“Because the West owns the media, it is not very clear to Africa that there’s even a deep recession going on at the moment that has seen unemployment rise, along with the costs of public spending and benefits cut,” she said.
“Thus, perhaps many a relative in the Diaspora have lost their jobs or are juggling several jobs just to keep afloat, yet they are still expected to send money back home. Life for such a person is a living nightmare,” she acknowledged.
Her own transition to the UK was not without some speed bumps, but she adjusted over time thanks to the diversity she found in Cambridge.
“The University of Cambridge is probably one of the most international communities in the world so most of us graduate students who were away from home were excited to meet each other and learn about new cultures,” she asserted.
She remembered fondly how her and her Kenyan friends would meet and cook Kenyan food like chapati, beef stew, githeri, ugali, sukumawiki, plantain, pilau, nyama choma and kachumbari, while they would reminisce about home and encourage each other over the pressures they faced from their studies.
“We discussed politics and even dreamed of changing Kenya for the better, joking that such were the very conversations that our founding fathers Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkurumah etc. had when they were in the UK – plan and dream for a better Africa!” she said.
Eventually some of her colleagues at Cambridge including Dr Vincent Owino (Kenya), Dr Zachary Lomo (Uganda), Dr Justin Echouffo Tcheugui (Cameroon) and Dr Martin Atela (Kenya)) formed an association called Network for African Development (NafAD).
NafAD is made up of African students and other students at the University of Cambridge who are interested in African issues and the organization holds interactive seminars to discuss critical issues in Africa.
“Though we have all moved on in our careers now, we are implementing some of the vision that we shared through these meetings,” she confirmed.
In Cambridge, she also said she found an environment that enabled her to become successful thanks to the relationships she was able to establish with her professors.
“At the University of Cambridge, the boundaries of hierarchy are grey, not as sharply cut out as in Kenya, which generally embraces the African traditions of respect and authority to elders,” she said.
“These dulled boundaries have been instrumental to my growth and boosted my confidence in my abilities, because I have freedom to interact with even our director in a very collegial space,” she stated.
She has even been acknowledged as a successful migration story by the university and Deutsche Welle (DW) media, a German international broadcaster that offers in-depth, reliable news and information in 30 languages including Arabic, Kiswahili, Indonesian, Urdu, Russian, Spanish, German and English.
Thanks to her network of Kenyans within Cambridge, Kiragu social adjustment was almost seamless, but this was not the case when attempting to get used to the UK’s weather and food.
“The hardest thing to get used to was the grey UK weather and bitter cold in winter. However with time I have learned to dress in layers and I am used to it now,” she said.
“What I do not like is the snow. It’s beautiful and fairytale-like on the first day, but turns to a nightmarish health hazard when it melts into ice; slipping and falling is common during the winter,” she stated.
She also had difficulty adjusting to the taste of the food and the bland taste of the meat in the UK actually forced her to become a vegetarian during her first year abroad.
“The fish was too fishy and the beef and chicken were lacking in flavor. I also found the salt not strong enough and I had to pour on so much to my food to make up for the bland taste,” she said.
“Tropical fruits like mango, papaya and passion fruits were also exorbitantly priced and I stuck to apples and oranges. Often I used to carry Kenyan spices and tea, if only to salvage the food,” she revealed.
Kiragu eventually got used to the British cuisine and after completing her PhD in 2008, decided to remain in the UK after receiving a job opportunity to work as an educational researcher for The Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge.
Her research interests include understanding why children ‘drop into school’- research with children who face a myriad of hardships but do not drop out of school; and constructing hybrid sexuality education curricula through consultation with pupils, teachers, parents and other school stakeholders.
She strongly believes in research for social justice and inclusion of indigenous knowledge’s in curriculum and though the offices at Cambridge, her research projects have been in 23 schools in 5 provinces in Kenya.
“I’ve had the privilege of living in two worlds and being able to use my knowledge and expertise in my home country, which has its pros as Cambridge provides me with facilities and access to the latest literature in my field,” she said.
“Kenya is where my heart and work is, so I’m able to interpret and transfer the theory I have learned, practically to the ground in Kenya,” she stated.
Her research on Kenya and her love for children resulted in a book published earlier this year called “Old Enough to Know: Consulting Children about Sex Education”, which she co-authored with her colleagues.
The book is based on qualitative research that they did in eight schools in Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.
“We investigated the sources, contents and processes of how children who are away from school understand sexual knowledge and we asked how this interacted with AIDS education programmes in schools,” she explained.
“To collect the data, we used a triangulation of engaging, interactive and visual methods including digital still photography, mini-video documentaries, as well as interviews and observations,” she added.
She credited these innovative methods with allowing children to speak freely and openly about sex and sexuality, in contexts where such talk would be seen as a cultural taboo.
“The research also shed light on teachers’ fears and struggles with a lack of training and limited opportunities for reflection on practice and it further created space for school community dialogue with conflicting voices of community stakeholders who are both aware of the dangers faced by children living in a world with AIDS and who are also afraid of the many cultural, religious and moral restraints to sex education in Africa,” she revealed.
Kiragu and her colleague Dr. Colleen McLaughlin returned to Nairobi in April to launch the book, but she often returns to Kenya several times a year for research and other service based responsibilities.
In 2009, after seeing real poverty in the schools in Kajiado, she climbed Mt. Kenya to raise funds to build a dormitory so that children wouldn’t have to walk 2-4 hours on their way to school, which sometimes put them in danger of rape or abuse from “waylaying” men.
“I managed to raise £600 (Sh78,668) through friends and we managed to buy some building stones. However the stones are still there as we have not found a sponsor to help us continue with the work,” she said.
Kiragu is still looking for someone to sponsor her vision but even while in the UK, she continues to look for ways to give back to Kenyan communities, especially to children.
“I have been collecting bras from my neighborhood in Cambridge thanks to my landlady Joy Barker who started spreading the word to her networks after I shared with her my experiences with girls in Kenya who were short of underwear and bra’s,” she said.
“Shortly after she got the word out, people started bringing us bras and it has not stopped. It’s over a year now and we have collected about 800 bras, which I distribute to our school communities when I come to Kenya,” she revealed.
With the help of her colleague Dr. Molly Warrington, she has also been able to collect and donate new underwear, along with writing tools for students after she realized to her horror that they were even sharing pens.
Unlike some Kenyans that travel abroad and decide to remain out there, Kiragu yearns of returning back to live and work in Kenya for good.
“I would love to move back to Kenya to continue the current research that I am doing. I have a heart for children, especially children who suffer and I have been working with some poor children for four years now,” she explained.
“My goal is to learn from research but go beyond it and have resources for holistic interventions; and being on the ground would help me be more effective,” she said.