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Home And Away

Sylvester Obong'o studied at the University of Manchester's Institute for Development Policy and Management between 1999-2000. Living within the community it allowed him to see the contrasts between society in the UK and the society he was a part of in Kenya.

Photo of Sylvester Odhiambo Obong'oMy experience as a student, and more so as a resident, in the UK was a great learning encounter. It brought me to the realities of living in a community with totally different values from my own, the key word here being "different". It exposed me to confirm some myths and even dispel what had hitherto been fantasies about life in a developed world. I was now face to face with reality of being there.

It was therefore rather strange that on close scrutiny after a few days, it dawned on me, that when all is said and done human beings world over apparently behave the same. They are as selfish as you think they are or as loving and friendly as you perceive them to be.

That does not mean that I didn't find certain practises strange to me at first. I stayed in a private home, so I could say that I had lived in the community and with the community. Studying in Manchester was not my first time in the UK. I had been to the UK on several other occasions. But unlike staying as a student, on those other occasions, I mainly stayed in hotels. Therefore my previous knowledge of the community and the society was rather scant.

One thing, I missed in the community, was the unplanned visits - a neighbour just coming to while away at my place, or knocking on my door to borrow salt or a match box, or better still coming for just a short visit and then staying until after the meal and then begging to leave!

These are the common occurrences in my community in Kenya but nothing of the sort happened during a whole year in Manchester and it made me feel like I was staying in seclusion. The neighbours were not keen on knowing who had joined the neighbourhood.

One concept I disagree on with a number of colleagues is the concept of 'culture-shock'. Yes, the cultures are different and things happen differently, but whenever this difference is expressed as "culture shock", it sounds as if when one travels to the developed world she/he is 'struck in awesome wonder' as to the strange happenings in this foreign land.

My honest opinion is that yes one will marvel at the extent of technological advancement, which is something to write home about, and the extent of societal openness in some aspects of life considered very private in my side of the world. But to call it 'culture' shock, belies the aspect that even within my country Kenya, there are some communities whose cultural practises seem so strange to me. Simply put, 'culture shock' in this era of internet, satellite television and British Council pre-departure briefings is a very strong word to describe a relatively minor experience.

One thing that I could not understand then was that despite the fact that there is a reasonable chance of making it to higher education, the percentage of population who do not have university education is not proportional to the available opportunities. There were far too many people without university education, when I had expected that a degree would be the minimum level of education! And the average person's knowledge about the world seemed below average!

In Kenya an average primary school pupil is likely to know that New York is in USA and not USA in New York. I was at times confronted with certain questions as "is Nigeria in Kenya" or "Kenya in Nairobi", from people I had expected to know better. I was amazed when my landlord who was in his late 60's told me that the last time he was in London, was as a 17-year old and was just on transit!

I Kenya we know and follow with zeal the English Premier League, Italian Serie A, the Spanish La Liga combined better than an average English football fan. We can tell you the England team's probable line-up plus the substitute's bench. Yet I found that many people in Britain did not have a clue on what was happening in our part of the world - save for famine and civil strife!

Call it behaviour shock; I was also left wondering why 'somebody' would chose to live in the streets even in the coldest winter when there are thousands and thousands of council houses and empty spaces at the homes for the homeless? Still on the society, the idea of extended family or even the immediate family is non-existent. I visited a family, where the father confessed to me that, he knew he had a first cousin leaving in Manchester, (I mean their fathers are blood brothers), whom he had not met in 25 years, yet they had not quarrelled!! In the part of the world where I come from that would be a sacrilegious crime. In fact, not seeing your first cousin, or any cousin for that matter, whom you live with in the same vicinity for a month would invite family reconciliation talks to determine what was wrong!!.

The practise of taking old people to homes for the old would invite curses that could never be undone in my society. Old age homes in Kenya are very few - in the whole country they number less than 5 and are for those whose do not have immediate family members. It felt very strange when I heard people applying for admission for their parents to such homes. We live with our elderly parents and it is our primary responsibility to take care of them. The primary motivation for our parents educating us is to ensure their well being in old age! Selfish, of course very, very selfish indeed!

I have picked at these aspects of culture and society because, culture is dynamic and no culture is superior to the other. However for progression we are bound to borrow and blend good practises. There are a number of positive things about all these practises and at the end of the day the net effect of what seem to be negative in one side of the world may equal the positive aspects of the other. For instance, whereas a young graduate, freshly employed in the UK is faced with a heavy burden of educational loans to repay, I am faced with an even bigger burden of provide for my parents and woe unto me if, I am the first born, because that means, additional burden of educating all my siblings. The net effect is in my income.

Education and eventual employment of ones sons and daughters is the only social security in old age and retirement known to my parents. The exact risks involved in our kind of old age security may not be far off from pension fund being declared insolvent. The children may also decide to neglect their parents. And for sure curses shall follow those who do.

I was amazed at how the people in the western world view religion. I had expected a church-going culture to be deeply embedded because these are the people who brought religion to us. What I found out was indeed astounding. That the church is for the very young and the very old, in fact the largest student pub in Manchester was not very long ago a Church. When in Kenya, Cinema Halls and Pubs are being converted into places of worship - the reverse is taking place in UK. And even at that the majority of the church-goers at my church in the UK were not white but black. The irony is that UK has fabulous church buildings but no congregation. Kenya has the congregation and very few church buildings.

But what is my overall conclusion. The key is the individual character. Our societies are shaped by the individuals therein. A positive posture to appreciate our unique differences is key to integration. 'never disagree with a man - if you do, go stand in his position turn around and look at where he is looking, and you will see what he is seeing'.

Has Chevening changed me? Yes! It made it possible for me to expand my professional horizon from Public Debt Management to Public Sector Management. That eventually led to me being able to move on from the Public Service to PricewaterhouseCoopers as a Senior Advisor in Public Sector Group, Africa Central covering eight countries in the region. It brought me into contact with several people and that network is quite useful. I have remained in touch with other Chevening alumni. The world is about people networks, you can deal in dogs but you cannot deal with dogs. You'll always deal with the people who deal in dogs.

Sylvester Obong'o

Scholar content   3rd December 2004
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