Ademola Rabiu, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemical Engineering, shares his experience as an international student at UCT. He was awarded the UCT Senior Merit Entrance Scholarship in 2003 and JW Jagger Centenary scholarship in 2004 and 2005 and hopes to complete his studies in December. His medium-term objective is to return to South Africa as an MP sitting for Nigeria in the Pan African Parliament.
I have wanted to set eyes on South Africa, the land of King Shaka, since my secondary-school days. The vogue in Nigerian high schools is for students to compete by reading the most novels in a year. It happened that I got a copy of Rider Haggards's King Solomon's Mine and Allan Quatermain. I strangely equate Kukuanaland to South Africa. Why? I don't know. Then came the various songs, the poems, symposia, colloquia, etc, on Rhodesia, Namibia, Soweto, Steve Biko.
The idea of doing my doctoral thesis in Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis started with a conference of natural gas utilisation organised by the Nigerian Petroleum Ministry. Then began the search for the institution with a competitive edge. South Africa is world-renowned as a centre of expertise in this research area, hence my preference for a postgraduate programme at the University of Cape Town. To convince my employer was not as straightforward. I vividly remember the day I took the letter of admission to my boss and mentor, Prof Sanni. His comment was: "South Africa is still Africa; you should have your PhD from outside of Africa." Prof Sanni, aka "the father of chemical engineering in Nigeria", was trained at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. Eventually I was able to convince him that in respect of commercial applications of the gas-to-liquid technology, South Africa is at the forefront. What an opportunity to behold Cape Town, well known in Nigeria as one of the world's most beautiful cities; the Cape of Good Hope, etc.
Life as a student in Cape Town
First impressions, they say, last longest. Right from Lagos I planned the journey in the minutest detail. I arrived in Joburg, having stopped over in Addis Ababa, and then took a bus to Cape Town. What an experience! The expansive open terrain to the left and right. It's quite a scene for someone conversant with the thick, impenetrable jungle of the equatorial forest. I arrived in Cape Town in January and found the afternoon heat welcoming but the wind was another thing. On a funny note, the heat was so intense that I went out looking for an electric fan! Poor me, what a waste! That very day it became so cold in the evening. The second day after my arrival in Cape Town, I joined the Catalysis Research Unit on a very interesting excursion to PetroSA in Mossel Bay, thanks to my supervisor, Professor Eric van Steen.
The attitude of my Muslim brothers and sisters goes a long way towards deepening my love for this country. The reception and brotherhood is marvellous. Right from the ameer of the Islamic Students' Society to other members, the care and concern will never be lost on me. A brother actually paid my fare to Nigeria in December.
Relationship with students
The challenge of being in a multi-cultural academic society such as UCT is quite interesting and worthy of mentioning. The very essence and uniqueness of belonging to such a diverse community of nationalities as prevails at UCT offers a great opportunity for bridge-building, social, cultural and professional networking.
However, life at UCT can also be very challenging for black international students from across the Limpopo in South Africa, and, worse still, for those of us from West Africa and Nigeria in particular, due to the negative activities of very few elements. Paradoxically, while one gets along fine with white colleagues; it takes time to win the friendship and (later) trust of fellow black brothers. Exceptions are those who have travelled overseas or read widely. I will forever be grateful to a Zulu colleague who drove me around the Mother City the very first day we met. So close are we that he asked me to marry his cousin!
The image of black foreigners as economic immigrants contributes a lot to the negative attitudes of South Africans. There is the belief that foreigners are competitors for the few available places. I now routinely go to the townships for tutoring activities where I realised that, save for the adjective, kwerekwere, people are generally receptive to outsiders.
The ChemEng family
This is my immediate environment and happenings there go a long way in shaping my opinions about life here. I have got wonderful supervisors, Prof Van Steen and Dr Michael Claeys. Mine is a restless spirit, with divided attention. They completely work with this fact but are always subtly forcing my focus to the research work. I always marvel at the energy of Prof Fletcher, most importantly his political savvy. It was quite a surprise, when I got an NRF bursary. I have wonderful colleagues, receptive and open-minded.
UCT: An equal opportunity trainer
In all honesty, right from the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment to the Postgraduate Funding Office, student residences, staff and so on, I am impressed in all my dealings - these are far superior to what I obtain at home. Worthy of commendation is the generally welcoming and always cheerful attitude of International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO) staff. The undergraduate and postgraduate students' coordinators are eagerly responsive to our Oliver Twist demands, if only dealing with the stresses of the Department of Home Affairs. The kind of opportunities at UCT for all students regardless of nationalities or funding is fantastic.
Entrepreneurial and leadership education
Intellectualism is worshipped at UCT but there is a need to include in the curriculum general knowledge courses that will impart to students entrepreneurial, leadership/political, cultural and values education. These must be Afrocentric in essence but global in concept. The relevance of a university lies in the relevance of its graduates, particularly in the local market. UCT is and should be proud of being an African university, but with a mission to be a world-class institution. The challenge is to produce graduates that see themselves as wealth creators rather than wealth managers.
Racial tolerance and the media
Most worrisome to international students is the South African media, particularly the electronic media. So little is reported about other African countries [an exception being Zimbabwe]. Imagine, the last All Africa Games was broadcast late at night while the cricket game taking place at the same time was carried live! The real intention of many programmes on the state TV stations beat one's imagination. Maybe they are sensationalistic but I sometimes feel they stir up xenophobic feelings. Ask a Nigerian his feelings about the Special Assignment programme. One would have expected the media to enthusiastically support the efforts of President Mbeki with regard to the visions of New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU), more so now that South Africa is assuming a leadership position in Africa.
I would love to see all Africans, regardless of race or colour, work in concert to rid the continent of the human carnage in Rwanda and the Congo, the bloodshed in Liberia, the Ivory Coast and the Sudan, the poverty, illiteracy and so on.
I believe in using my stay in South Africa and the huge networking potential offered by the many nationalities studying at UCT to build bridges across nationalities, across race and colour. I have always believed that Africa has a rich heritage and one needs only to look into the recent past to discover rich and prosperous kingdoms. How many of us care to learn that there was once a university in Timbuktu, Mali, that far predated any in Europe?
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