Abdul B. Kamara’s Unknown Destination and Osman Alimamy Sankoh’s Hybrid Eyes: An African in Europe are two best sellers in the Sierra Leonean Writers Series’ study-abroad literature. The common theme in the two books is a cultural adjustment on college campuses and social challenges in foreign countries.
Abdul and Osman both left educational institutions in Sierra Leone to study abroad in Europe and Asia, two of the most common study-abroad destinations for Sierra Leonean students. Key in their decision to study abroad is the possibility to enhance their resumes and become top hires in a global marketplace.
As African universities continue to suffer inadequate equipment, facilities, finances, pre-Ph.D. students like Abdul and Osman, with talent and drive for higher education, seek opportunities that can’t be obtained in their country of origin.
Higher education in Sierra Leone has long suffered a decline in quality due to “lack of funding, anti-intellectual leaders, weak regional security, strained relationships between the government and the universities as well as students and universities.” (Challenges faced by African International Students at a Metropolitan Research University, Loretta Gbemudu Evivie, 2009)
When Abdul left Sierra Leone for China in 1987, it certainly wasn’t about travel just to explore the world.
“The novelty of the Chinese scholarship lay principally in the way it was administered,” he wrote in Unknown Destination. “Unlike the beneficiaries of the Russian award and those from other nations of the Eastern Bloc, winners of the Chinese scholarship, at least at that time, were stringently screened in a manner that eliminated all forms of mediocrity and ineptitude in terms of the academic potential of successful applicants,” he extolled.
Chuffed as he was about his own academic prowess, Abdul was aware of the reservations of family and friends. He mentions his fiancée (now wife), who was a student at another University of Sierra Leone campus. She did not want him to go to China since he was already in university anyway.
“My mother, too, I was convinced would not support the idea of departure, since all my brothers had acquired their undergraduate education here at home, “ he wrote. “She might even recall some of the weird stories which she might have heard about China, which would further encourage her to justify my whimsical change of mind,” he said.
For Abdul, his destination, first at a language institute in Beijing, China, and later, a southeastern Chinese province about twenty-six hours away from Beijing on a coal-powered train, turned out to be a lot more dangerous than his Fourah Bay College campus in Freetown.
A growing number of Chinese students in university towns located in major cities like Nanjing and Hangzhou were hostile to Africans. It's no secret that excessive drinking among students is an issue besetting almost every university campus around the world, experts say. In China, Abdul was exposed to a variety of unfamiliar drinking customs and some of the outcomes associated with binge drinking such as violence against African students.
By the time demonstrations erupted at Tian An Men Square in China’s capital city, Beijing, and quickly swept across the country in June 1989, things had become so dangerous that Abdul was forced to leave China and take up an earlier offer from a German university.
“The Master’s degree program was six years in total, and was divided into first and second phases,” Abdul wrote in Unknown Destinations. “Had I read carefully through this three-page cover note, I would have been in a better position to critically and objectively assess the terms of the offer. I was just too excited,” he confessed.
Eventually, Abdul settled for the tuition-free Master’s degree program in Germany, which he and a fellow Sierra Leonean student agreed was better than the American option that was very uncertain and came with very high tuition fees. Moreover, chances of an African student gaining fellowships in an American university were pretty slim, he thought.
Osman Sankoh was a 20-something statistical research assistant when he arrived in Germany on a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship in the mid-1990s.
Like Abdul, Osman’s first stop was a language school, the Goethe Institute.
“Learning the alphabet all over again was truly an interesting experience. Having come from a country where English is the only language of educational instruction, we were required to learn German as a first step to any further studies,” Osman wrote.
But it wasn’t just the German vowels that Osman found difficult to adjust to or the reluctance of native Germans to accommodate a foreigner’s pronunciation of German words.
Osman found the whole experience of learning to live outside his comfort zone frustrating. On the university campus in Njala, Sierra Leone, where he had taught statistics and lived with his wife and children among academic friends, he had a reliable network. Dortmund? Not so much.
“I found out later on that in Germany, a black man must always try to prove himself beyond the normal mark. This is because he is generally assumed to be stupid and worthless until proven otherwise,” Osman observed in his book Hybrid Eyes.
Both Abdul and Osman arrive at their study-abroad destinations knowing very few people in a new country they had to live for some time. They had to learn new things and new ways, eat food that wasn’t available in their own country and meet new people who didn’t look like them.
While Abdul and Osman may not have avoided going out of their comfort zone, they didn’t always cope well with the anxiety of trying new things and being separated from their support network for months at a time.
“In Germany, the problems of an international student do not start and end in the classroom,” Osman explained in Hybrid Eyes. “Although I had a relative and colleagues in German who comforted and encouraged me at very difficult times, I still needed my partner to share my miseries with, someone I could lean on,” Osman wrote rather poignantly.
Arguably, many of the experiences we read about in both Unknown Destination and Hybrid Eyes are framed around feelings of alienation and loneliness as the authors go through cultural adjustment with regard to “faculty attitudes, academic performance, discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes, communication difficulties, religion, identity formation, coping strategies, and relationships with Africans, Europeans, and Asians.”
Interestingly, as the reader goes through these negotiations with Abdul and Osman, I found they were gaining a deeper appreciation of the culture, values, and beliefs of their host countries. To buttress my point, both men have long served as cultural ambassadors backed by strong networks in a global field.
Abdul holds a Ph.D. in agricultural economics and rural development from the University of Gottingen in Germany and has served in technical, senior managerial and high-level representational positions at the African Development Bank, and the United Nations. Dr. Kamara is currently the African Development Bank representative in Darfur, Sudan.
Prof. Osman Sankoh became the Executive Director of the INDEPTH Network in October 2007. Between 2002-2006 he was responsible for the Network's scientific program. He has many years of experience in health and demographic surveillance and in networking of international scientists and research institutions.
Osman joined IN-DEPTH from the Institute of Public Health at the University of Heidelberg Medical School in Germany, where he worked as a Biostatistician / Epidemiologist from December 1999 to June 2002. During that time, he collaborated with the Nouna Health Research Centre in Burkina Faso and spent several research periods in Nouna. Osman is a member of the Advisory Boards/Committees of several international research institutes and academic journals. He has also acted as a consultant on population and health issues to the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the African Census Analysis Project at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.
I think there’s really no study-abroad program that can prepare anyone for all the challenges of being a minority based on race, class, nationality, and sociopolitical and economic background in a foreign country.
If This Isn’t the America I Thought I’d find your “go-to” analysis of the experiences of a typical African immigrant student in an inner-city urban public school in the United States, then add Unknown Destination and Hybrid Eyes to the list of books on the analysis of the typical African immigrant student in universities in China and Germany.