Socialising comes in very handy when you are a stranded UNE off-campus student studying a Masters of Arts with a major in Peace and Conflict studies with access to patchy internet and a postal system that I will simply – and kindly – refer to as meandering. In fact a drinks outing can pretty much be chalked up as study time. Inching your slow way across the city of one-lane streets, footpaths doubling as motorbike and/or bus lanes that quickly convert to mud, taxi drivers imploring you to take a ride, and hawkers selling anything from fresh flowers, puppies, sunglasses and IKEA catalogues (there is no IKEA in Kenya) to get to your choice of venue – Ghanian pop and Maroon 5 pumping out at earth-shaking levels – is Evening Obstacle One. But also an excellent opportunity for cramming.
And Nairobi, Kenya, is not a city that people just end up in. It’s certainly not a place where you meet people who are just ‘doing this until something better comes along.’ While it’s a bit cosier than other development hubs such as Mogadishu and not (quite) as chaotic as Bangladesh, the reasons that bring people here are never boring. I work for a local Kenyan women’s rights NGO but WASH is the current buzzword. (We meet them in the bar. “Oh I’ve just been out in the field, rural stuff you know.” We nod. There’s a pause. “Boreholes.” Eyebrows raise. Subtle change as we shift into impressed silence.)
Discussing people’s stories and work is a delight, and a revelation. Hear the delighted cries coming from a group of newly introduced development workers…you work WHERE! You do WHAT! What does that acronym EVEN MEAN!? It’s also a chance to sneak in a few of those seminar questions you’ve been battling with, (“So, A.C Epstein says that female wage earners are less productive because most WASH programs don’t adequately address issues of infrastructure. Discuss, and ah – annotations too maybe?”)
Studying via correspondence can be tricky at the best of times. Losing the chance to instantly exchange ideas and thoughts about concepts and topics brings the danger of narrowed ideas that miss crucial third-party analysis. Interaction with others is vital to understanding and processing new information. The immersion of a classroom environment means the lecturers knowledge is better transferred, with less distractions and more scope for rapid responses to any questions and thoughts. With the wide range of students a course such as this attracts there are a range of experiences that can inform and build on your own opinions. Face-to-face exchanges give a great opportunity to debate your ideas, uniquely formed from your experiences, values, ethics, age and background in order to tease out a deeper and more structured conclusion. This collaborative learning process is a key part of comprehension, particularly when discussing such broad topics as international politics, development and history and the integration of international players into conflict zones. But you miss that, studying via distance. And then you also miss other things, when studying in Kenya, like your textbooks arriving. And a constant source of power with which to download your readings.
But it all ties together somehow. While between homes due to my employers unease about the security of my house – situated next to Nairobi’s largest informal settlement and the headquarters of a contentious political party and just weeks out from the first General Elections since the devastating post-election violence in 2007 – I stayed in a guesthouse. The nice couple and I bonded over the daily power cut. ‘Soooo. What are you studying?’ they asked politely as I stared gloomily at my Mac and we sat in the rapidly darkening lounge room. ‘Peace and conflict in Sierra Leone…’ I answered. ‘But the textbooks never arrived and I can’t access the online reading list.’ ‘Sierra Leone you say? Funny you should say that…’ Turns out I’d moved into the house of an ex-UNDP Chief of Party and a former conflict zone journalist. ‘You want to know how it really went down there?’ ‘Um, YES.’ I answered, surreptitiously pulling out my notebook. Well the evening ended with tales of wild helicopter rides over conflict zones and anecdotes about the very people my UN reports were quoting.
The next house I stayed in was that of a photographer friend, who was out in Zambia. I completed my essay on the experience of women in post-conflict reconstruction as his haunting pictures of women in refugee camps across Africa stared out at me from the walls. I queried him about women’s role in post conflict socio-culture reconstruction and he pondered for just a minute before affirming that in many refugee camps it’s the women who form social units and focus on rebuilding community structures. Another friend was a source of on-the-ground knowledge about women’s role in economic reconstruction when we discussed why his International microfinance organisation focused on offering loans to women.
Quick research taught me that distance learners must have a tolerance for ambiguity, a need for autonomy, and flexibility. A strong focus, time management skills and the ability to work independently with well-defined goals are also important. To that requirements list I must add…friendships with those in interesting places.
- Katy Carlan