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Inside the Programme

The stretch effect: relearning the inherent value of being human

Published 2 August 2021

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It was at about 3pm on the 26th of January 2020 when I bid my family farewell at the airport. I was leaving Kenya for Cape Town to begin my postgraduate studies in Ethnomusicology. More significantly, I was going to start my year in residence as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. As we took a few photos, my mind kept drifting to the months and years ahead. What lay in store for me? Would I adapt to my new life or would I crumble? Would I ever come back home?

Just the previous day, my family had thrown me a farewell party. Many friends and relatives were in attendance. Some gave speeches wishing me good luck and success, and a few cheeky ones threatened that I should not return without a wife. One of the elder neighbors called me aside and told me, “Ken, we hope that when you go there you will not change. We want you to come back exactly the way you leave.” I nodded in agreement. Two days prior, I had met up with some Mandela Rhodes Alumni based in Nairobi. They all agreed that their respective years in residence constituted their best years in life so far. They spoke of transformed perspectives, of new friendships and of unforgettable adventures. As I waited for my flight, I tried to visualise the new friends that I would make. I played out some of the adventures that we might undertake and tried to figure out which perspectives would be transformed.

While my year in residence has indeed given me lifelong friends both from my cohort and from other cohorts, as well as adventures, it has also served up invaluable life lessons. I have been challenged and stretched to the limit. Two main lessons stand out. The first is about the dignity of being human. Sharing deeply and intimately with fellow scholars, each representing an extension of Africa’s diversity and indeed the world’s, I realised that at the most basic level we are all humans, with feelings, memories and experiences, aspirations and dreams. I realised that we feel pain and despair and experience joy and hope so differently, yet so similarly. I realised that behind the smiles and laughter were broken hearts that kept beating, shattered hopes that remained alive, and greater resilience than I had seen before. I learnt the inherent value of being human, and that everyone deserves that dignity and respect, at the bare minimum. I learnt to relate with people at that level and on that basis, and to be aware of moments when my words and actions may dehumanise others.

The second is that solutions are often unconventional and counter-intuitive, and that I must stay in the kitchen and trust the process. From “facing my shadow” to “stepping into the game” the rewards seem to await those who are brave enough to carry on. I learned that even adversaries can be collaborators and that we only need to figure out our common ground. I learned that my shadow only means that there is light shining on me. And I learned that leadership is a journey, not a position.

Looking back in retrospect, I wonder whether I have disappointed the group that expects to meet the same Ken who left Kenya in January. I wonder whether they will be upset that I am not the same Ken anymore. What gives me confidence is that no matter how many people I may disappoint on my on-going journey, I have no regrets that I journeyed with an open mind

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