Architecture Student in Japan Carrying the Hopes of Two Kenyan Villages.

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By Mukurima X Muriuki

My name is Gideon Kiptoo Serem. Most of my friends call me Giddy. I am from Kenya.  Currently, I am in the last-year of my Master’s course, studying Architecture at Shinshu University in Japan. My current research is on environmentally-friendly designs of buildings and cities.

I was born and raised in Eldoret, a principal city in Western Kenya. Growing up, life was not that easy. My family was not rich and both my parents worked very hard to ensure we had the basic necessities. They would leave early in the morning and come back late at night. Being the first born, I would be called upon, on many occasions, to make dinner for my siblings, warm water for bathing and ensure they finished their homework.

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I attended primary school in Eldoret and later joined Moi High School-Kabarak in Nakuru for my secondary education. While in high school, I was privileged to serve as the deputy head-boy. This gave me an opportunity to know many students from different backgrounds, which in the grand scheme of things, enabled me to appreciate my upbringing and learn from others.

After high school, in 2009, I gained admission to Jomo-Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) to pursue Actuarial Science, which I would study for only one year before relocating to Japan.

I had never dreamt or even thought of going to study outside of Kenya. While still in my first year at JKUAT, I remember receiving a call from my mom.; she wanted me to check a newspaper advert in one of the local dailies. I went to the university library and checked this advert. It was a scholarship offer by the Japanese Government, known as MEXT Scholarship.  They were offering scholarships for students who wanted to further their studies in Japan. My mom implored on me to give it shot. At first I hesitated because I had never been to Asia before, and I was quite afraid to live that far away from home. She however, insisted that I apply. I agreed.

The next day I went to the Japanese Embassy where I started the application process, which, together with the screening process, was very tedious. It would take over a year to know the results of my application. Towards the end of 2009, I was the recipient of the best news ever-I had been selected as one of the five lucky students who would be granted scholarship to study in Japan.

Life in Japan, at first, was not easy. My initial assumption was that English language is spoken in all countries of the world. To my utter disbelief, when I landed in Japan, very few could speak the language. I remember having a difficult time communicating with the staff from my school who had come to pick me at the airport.  Moreover, all supermarkets had products labelled in Kanji (Chinese characters). I vividly remember buying salt instead of sugar and confusing vinegar with oil. There is a day I bought cat food thinking it was cereals.

Foreigners in Japan account for a paltry 1.5% of the population. Out of this, the black population is almost negligible. Whenever I walk in the streets or on my way to school, people stare at me as if I am from a different planet. At first, this irritated me but after sometime I started taking this in stride. All in all, Japanese people are welcoming and very friendly.

There are very few students from Africa studying in Japan. There are only 3 people from Africa in my university. In my department, I am the only African. Everything we study is in Japanese. The professors cannot speak or understand English well and therefore I submit all my reports and exams in Japanese. This was and is still a challenge but I have always taken it positively. It takes time to master and write the Kanji characters. When siting for exams, all students are allocated the same amount of time, irrespective of how fast or slow one is in the language. Doing research requires one to read a wide variety of journals. I usually take about three times the amount of time taken by other students to read and understand one journal or academic paper. Despite all this, I graduated top of my class in the undergraduate.

For the Master’s course, I am a self-sponsored student and that means I have to combine working part-time with studies. At first looking for a part-time job was very difficult. I could not get a job, say, with MacDonald’s or food stores because Japanese customers would be frightened by my skin colour!  My first job was as a kitchen staff, cleaning dishes and washing the restaurant after it closed. The manager never wanted the customers to see me so I was always in the kitchen. I worked at the restaurant for a while before quitting. The reason I quit is because I sometimes worked till late at night and could not wake up in time for school the next day. I looked for work at English schools but no school hired me because I am not a “native” English speaker. Lady luck smiled on me eventually, when a Japanese friend introduced me to an English school he was working for. I still work in the school to date.

The Japanese society is a time conscious society. It is customary for a Japanese to be punctual. In companies and public institutions, meetings start on time. The trains, buses and flights are always on schedule and if in any case they are not on time, the company officials apologize. In Kenya, it is “ordinary” be late. People turn up for meetings late and it is common for flights to be half-hour late.

Japanese people are very respectful and courteous. Respect is the backbone of the culture here, and it’s ingrained in their rituals and traditions. They use honorific language and bow to show appreciation. Whenever you enter the bank, offices, trains and restaurants, the staff bow to welcome you and when they bid you goodbye.

Japanese people are also very organized. For example, Tokyo with over 36 million inhabitants has a well-functioning and efficient transport system. It is all about collective effort.

The most difficult moment of my life was on April 4th 2012 when I lost my mother. She was 24 days shy of her 52nd birthday. She had been battling Lymphoma cancer for more than 15 years. She was very sick towards the end but never let us know how bad it was. This was because of her love for us. She did not want us worried about her. At that time, I was in my last year of college in Japan. I was so sad and depressed by the fact that I could not be by her side at that difficult time.

The best day of my life so far, has to be the time I got the scholarship that allowed me to pursue studies in Japan. The whole village in my mum’s home area of Chepkoinik in Kericho County and my dad’s village of Burnt Forest in Uasin Gishu celebrated. I am happy because I have a path whose end promises an opportunity for me to lessen the financial burden on my family. I feel that I am carrying the hopes of the youth in those villages. I was a role-model to them. I remember how my young cousins narrated poems and sang songs to encourage me. It was as if they were sending a soldier to the battlefield. Thinking of this day, and the words of my mom and relatives has always motivated me to work extra hard in everything I do. I hope my achievement in Japan would inspire the young people in villages and my hometown to work hard.

I am currently in my first year of graduate school. God-willing, I will graduate next year and I am looking forward to pursuing a doctoral course. Upon graduation, I hope to work for a Japanese company for a few years to gain the experience. My ultimate goal is to go back home, form my own architecture studio and at the same time work as faculty in a university so that I can pass the knowledge I have gained to the next generation.

My advice to anyone looking to study or migrate to Japan is first, to be prepared for anything. Not everything goes as planned. Be prepared to deal with any eventuality. Secondly, you have to manage expectations as life abroad is not as easy and fun as many people back at home think. Lastly, always be yourself.

My unsolicited advice to anyone would be, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”- John F. Kennedy.

If you are a Kenyan Living in Diaspora and you would like to be featured, write to me: mukurima@gmail.com