500 DAYS IN THE KINGDOM OF WISDOM
(Personal Experiences of Mawutodzi Kodzo Abissath @ ISS - 2013-2014)
|This is the magical bouquet of flowers presented to me by AES/AFES Professors |
and fellow MA students at MCH Hospital in The Hague
A Ghanaian proverb says: ‘A person who travels sees far more things than a person who climbs a tall tree.’
To obtain admission to study at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Hague, The Netherlands, is one thing. But to spend 15.5 months almost 500 days to actually undertake an MA course in Development Studies at this magnificent academic Kingdom of Knowledge is a different rugby game altogether.
In this essay I intend to share some of my personal experiences with my fellow ISS MA students especially my classmates of our Major Agrarian and Environmental Studies (AES/AFES 2013-2014). Most of them may have some ideas about some of the things I went through while we were there especially during my hospitalization. But they may not be privy to some details being related in this write-up.
After all are we not in the 21st century - a century of knowledge economy and experience sharing? The object of this piece is not to massage my own ego or for self-aggrandizement. Rather, to alert the present and yet to taste salt generations that life cannot and must not be taken for granted!
With that unsolicited philosophical piece of advice, any dreamer who may ever dream to study within the four walls of this enigmatic building should be informed that professors here have no time to laugh. Their smiling faces are eternally glued to computer screens from January to December. At first sight, the ISS building itself looks like a monumental museum - ancient outside but modern inside. And if in your own volition you dare to apply to study at ISS, and you are offered admission, then stop laughing and start reading with critical and analytical mind any communications that may transpire between you and the school administrators. Start that psychological preparation with the admission letter itself. And if you are not clear in your mind about the connotations and denotations of any word, or sentence, or paragraph of that letter, please write back to the school to explain things to you. I can vouch that the school authorities have the patience of a tortoise. They will take their time and clarify everything for you. Never set off from your home country to The Netherlands if you yourself are not too sure what you are about. Do I make myself clear? Ok! Shall we move on?
For the benefit of those who may not have an iota of idea about an ‘animal’ called ISS, here you go:
[…] It is a graduate institute of policy-oriented critical social science, founded in 1952 and able to draw on (over) sixty years of experience. ISS is a highly diverse international community of scholars and students from the global south and the north, which brings together people, ideas and insights in a multi-disciplinary setting, which nurtures, fosters and promotes critical thinking and conducts innovative research into fundamental social problems. Key to the ISS philosophy and practice is the wish to make a contribution to achieving social justice and equity on a global level. Source: http://www.iss.nl/about_iss/iss_in_a_nutshell/
Accessed 16 November 2014.
Having experienced academic life at ISS, without bragging, I can hit my chest and confirm that it is no fluke that ISS is one of the best if not the best Development Studies institutions in Europe. Perhaps the most serious academic center of teaching and learning on this planet of knowledge and skills acquisition. For the past 64 years or so, the school has carved a niche for itself as a globally acclaimed researched-led and teaching-based center of academic excellence. All manner of persons with varied cultural backgrounds from archeology to zoology do journey from the four cardinal points of the globe and converge at ISS to study. Our African ancestors say something to this effect that: ‘If a baby crocodile emerges from under water to tell you that his father and mother are at each other’s throat, you better believe him.
Since the best place to begin any subject is right from the beginning itself, it is logical that I start this episode from the beginning. It was in 2010 that I first applied to undertake a post-graduate study program in Development Studies at ISS. Having satisfied all requirements, the school offered me what was described as ‘unconditional’ admission for two years. That was in 2011. But there was some condition somehow anyway. And that was ‘subject’ to my obtaining sponsorship or funding support to finance the course. I am sure like all other applicants, the institute then linked me to some websites of possible sources of financial aids including The Netherlands Fellowships Programme (NFP) www.nuffic.nl. I was to start the program in 2012. Unfortunately, I could not take the opportunity because I was not successful at obtaining the necessary funding support that year. Thus, with my naked eyes, I saw 2012-2013 academic years going, going, going, and gone. That year busted and evaporated in my face like a vapor or bubble.
However, in 2013, by the grace of the Divine Intelligence, the government of Ghana, my employer, through the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund), decided to grant me scholarship to participate in 2013-2014 program. And I had this opportunity as a middle-aged man in my 50s. But as a journalist by training, I had a bag full of professional experiences, hanging on my shoulders. As a public servant, I have been serving my country for almost 30 years. Upon submitting my application for sponsorship, I was requested to write a statement of motivation and justify why I should be considered for funding support to do the course? It was only upon complying with this request and other requirements peculiar to GETFund that my application was considered. This was besides my academic qualification - BA in Communication Studies from the Ghana Institute of Journalism/University of Ghana, Legon. The point being hammered home here is that the sponsorship from the GETFund did not fall like manna from heaven. Thus, apart from recommendations from some authorities including a senior lecturer from my University to testify that I could undertake a post-graduate degree program me, one has to satisfy all other necessary sponsorship requirements as well. It was tough, though! But it was worth the while and I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to upgrade myself in order to render further and better services to my country.
But then, due to prevailing economic circumstances, the ministry of finance delayed a bit in releasing funds to GETFund for the payment of my tuition fees and living allowances into ISS’s account as a condition before I was allowed to depart my country to the Netherlands. The result was that when the 2013-2014 academic years took off in September 2013, I could not be present for orientation programmes for new participants. In fact, I landed in The Netherlands on Thursday, 17th October 2013. Contrary to the norm, no soul was at the Amsterdam airport to meet me as was done for all new students who arrived a month or two earlier. The French have a saying that ‘latecomers are always guilty.’ But the institute communicated with online as to what to do if there was nobody at the airport to welcome me. Those who know The Hague would appreciate this point better. From the Schiphol Airport, I took a train to The Hague Central Station. Then I had to take a taxi to ISS campus just opposite the Royal Palace, Kortenearkade12. Later I got to know that the taxi driver cheated me. Instead of taking about 12 Euros as a fare, he snatched 20 Euros form me. That was my first baptism of fire. It seems to me that taxi drivers the world over have the same mother. Even when there is a meter in the car, when they realize that you are a ‘Johnny-just-come’, especially from Africa and you are not too familiar with their currency, or the system, they will take advantage of you and prove to you that they are not ‘Father Christmas’. Some times the western media creates the impression that it is only in Africa that corruption is endemic. But experience has shown that unscrupulous taxi drivers abound on all continents. My first similar experiences were in France in 2002. Then in Singapore, 2004; in China, 2009; and now in The Netherlands, 2013. This simply implies that human beings are the same everywhere. They are selfish by nature and possess a corrupt spirit. If they have the chance they will always take advantage of the ignoramus and the system itself.
Eventually, I set foot on ISS soil for the first time on that fateful day of 17 October 2013 about 11:15 AM. Then I got to know that the first term examination had started already. It meant that I had lost one term of 2013 academic year. There was no way I could have written exams for courses I did not study. Those courses are known as Foundation Courses. Thus, I was told that I would have to wait until the following academic years 2014-2015 to do those courses with a new batch of students starting in September 2014. The implication was that, in September 2014, when the old batch would be busy writing their Research Paper (RP) in preparation towards graduation, I would be compelled to be writing the RP and at the same time attending classes in order to write the Foundation Courses exams simultaneously. And that was exactly what I did. Otherwise, I would not have graduated with my colleagues at the end of December 2014. It is not a pleasant experience at all, reader!
Little did I know that academic experience of reporting late for studies and having to write all exams in carried-forward style wasn’t a child’s play at all. But then the real experience of life and death was yet awaiting me. Before I relate this life and death experiences I went through, let me give this piece of advice to prospective students of ISS. The school has a very, very progressive and fruitful process within the framework of health care system in The Netherlands. All international students no matter which continent they came from must first undergo some tuberculosis tests on arrival in The Hague. This test is so crucial that any foreign student who fails to comply do so at their own peril. Thus, whether you are the Son of God or the Holy Ghost or God the Father or God the Mother, so long as you have incarnated in human flesh, it is in your own interest to undergo that test when in The Hague to study at ISS. The school authorities facilitate these processes for all students without discrimination. And this is very, very commendable indeed. Once you have paid some specified insurance premium, which is part of your tuition fees, you are entitled to enjoy some of these health care facilities at no extra cost to you. So, prospective student must take note of this medical diagnostic process on arrival for purposes of studies.
Now, back to my life and death experiences. When I arrived in The Hague I went for that preliminary medical check-up mentioned above. Then a few weeks later, I received a letter from the medical authorities asking me to go back for a further check-up. When I went with the appointment letter, the doctor was so nice to me beyond my expectation. He invited me to his computer screen where the result of my x-ray was documented in their database. Then he took his time and explained every detail and suggested that I should do the test again because some of the first pictures were not too clear for him to do proper diagnosis. I was surprised at the way the doctor went about the whole episode. If I compare this approach with what pertains in my own country, it was like some angels were attending to me. It was amazing! It is important to give praise when praise is due and condemn when the need arises. After the second test, I was given an appointment to go for the result again. And when I went back the doctor said everything was all right and he was satisfied. Then I raised my hands towards the heavens and praised Jehovah.
However, around February 2013, I started experiencing some unusual disorder with my urinal system and reported to our school doctor. The school doctor then referred me to see a specialist at the Municipal Centrum Hospital (MCH). A test was conducted and the doctor told me that I was development some prostate problem or so. The doctor is a lady physician. She said to me that she wanted to be sure so a series of tests were done. Eventually, it was confirmed I was developing a prostrate cancer. The doctor then advised that even though it was just the beginning of the cancer, it would be better to do a surgery rather than to use medication. So, for the first time in my life in April 2014 I had no choice but to undergo a surgical operation. The operation itself was successfully performed at the Rotterdam Hospital based on my doctor’s advice. However, some complications ensued later on and I had to be admitted at the MCH hospital for about three weeks.
It was during my hospitalization period that AESers demonstrated sincere love and fellow feeling towards me. Led by our then Convener, Professor Jun Borras and the current Convener Professor Mindi Schneider as well as other lecturers like Dr. Oane Visser presented a special bouquet of flowers to me in the hospital. Then I was told that the very first day the entire AES villagers mobilized themselves and came to visit me at the MCH they were frustrated by the hospital security. They were not allowed to see me at all. When they came again for the second time or so, they were permitted to see me on condition that all of them must wait at the reception and only two or three persons would be allowed into my ward at a time. They could not spend more than five minutes or so per group. The hospital workers created the impression as if I were some ‘Arabian King’ on admission whom ordinary mortals should not see. These were my lecturers and professors. Even then they were asked not to speak with me while on my bedside. Yet, they insisted and came up all the way on the 10th floor only to be told that I was sent to the theatre for some treatment. Thus, they could not see me personally on that Friday, 17 April 2014. This situation heightened tension, which made my Professors and colleagues to doubt if I was going to survive at all. I must apologize for the inconveniences the hospital staff subjected these top academics and fellow students to. I sincerely apologise for this unnecessary medical protocol? Some of the health workers have the tendency to overdramatize issues. But the doctors and nurses deserve commendation anyway. I wish to take this opportunity to express my deepest appreciation to fellow students, lecturers and Programme Administrators who visited me in hospital. Even the Christian Bible stresses the importance of visiting sick people in hospital. It is practically impossible to mention names of individuals who visited and presented gifts to me while on admission.
Some Zimbabwean students turned themselves into prayer-warriors. That, for the entire period that I was on admission they made sure they came to the hospital every evening around 5:00PM each day to pray for my quick recovery. So, I started calling them the ‘three musketeers.’ And their prayers worked like magic because I believed in prayers. Another Zambian female colleague automatically became my resident Pastor. She has a knack for preaching and praying for me at all times. There was one particular classmate of mine called Sergio who would always go to the open market and buy me some fruits. I remember the first time he brought the fruits I could not sit up let alone peal an orange. So, he had to peal off some of the oranges for me. As I was eating the fruits I was also crying like a baby simultaneously. It was not funny then at all.
As for my fellow Ghanaian students they were always there for me. Even after I was discharged from the hospital they had been cooking for me sometimes. They were very, very supportive. But ISS academic activities made no provision for any breathing space. So sometimes, for weeks there would be no news from my compatriots. Either they were on some study trips outside The Hague or were bogged down by multiple 4000-word essay assignments for various courses. Most often the time for the submission of these assignments may clash. There is something called moodle. This ubiquitous moodle is the online system through which all academic works and communications transpire between school administrators, lecturers and students alike. If you forget to check on the moodle for one hour, thousands of urgent mails may be awaiting your responses. But my fellow Ghanaian angels demonstrated that unique Ghanaian proverbial hospitality towards me. Incidentally, out of five students from Ghana for 2013/14, four of them were charming ladies and I was the only old man among them. All of them could pass as my own daughters. And they would be teasing me and calling me ‘akorkra’ meaning an old man. And I enjoyed the accolade. I am a ‘colonial man’ and they are post-independent computer babies. So, they are techy savvy. Thus, when I did not know something especially anything concerning numeracy or mathematics I would not hesitate to consult some of them for assistance. These days some of these computer babies’ mothers were dated online. Some of them might have been conceived online, delivered online, breastfed online, educated online and I suspect when they die they will be buried online as well? But even though I have no head for figures, I was endowed with creative spirit. And I could compose poems at will. There was a particular poem titled ‘Swimming among the beauties’ composed over 20 years ago. My angel compatriots love this poem so much that any time we met together they would be pestering me to recite it for their enjoyment free of comment. In fact, my young beautiful spinsters have placed an advance request that I should recite a special poem “If I were the bridegroom” for them when the time comes for their magnificent weeding ceremony soon after graduation. I am waiting for their invitations with a lion’s appetite. This is by the by.
But one student who actually saved my life was Antoine of Rwanda. It was he who prompted the school authorities by calling the school’s Welfare Officer Martin when I was seriously ill after the operation. Martin then alerted the school’s home doctor Dr. Ramdi. He assessed the situation and called for an ambulance service to rush me to the MCH hospital on that fateful Tuesday, 15 April 2014. It is a date that would enter the Akashic records of my life in this incarnation. Little did I know that I would be on admission till Wednesday, 7 May 2014. Even some of the doctors themselves expressed surprise that I was able to survive. Because the original operation was done at the Rotterdam Hospital upon the recommendation of my doctor at the MCH. But when the complications set in after the surgery, Urologist specialists decided to admit me at the MCH for medical attention. So, they referred to me as their special patient. These doctors were creative and did very well. I am grateful to them all. God grants them patience to be patient with patients.
Eventually, I had to spend the entire month of April and first week of May 2014 in hospital. Thus, apart from missing the First Term (September-October 2013) classes, I had also missed out Third Term (April –May 2014) classes again. The implications were that I had virtually missed about four months out of the 15.5months for my MA Programme. In terms of academic calendar this was a big loss and one has to be a genius (which I am not) to cope with and successfully complete the course with the 2013- 2014 batch. It was really tough to say the least. But it is said that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough ones get going!’ This explains why most of our year group MA graduates for 2013-2014 could not believe their eyes and ears when about 17 students could not graduate for various reasons, I was able to make it with our batch. Some requested for extension for their RP, other deferred their courses while other for personal reasons, I graduated together with our batch on 12 December 2014. It was like a miracle. Even when I failed in one Foundation course “An Overview of Economic Thoughts” the Board of Examiners (BoE) readily upheld the appeal by the AES/AFES Convener on my behalf and they themselves quickly arranged for a PhD student Eri, to serve as my tutor to prepare me for a re-sit so that if I passed then I could participate in the graduation ceremony. I did the re-sit on 9 December 2014. According to that course leader, I did fantastically well! Thus, I was among the Flying Scholars of the 21st century MA Graduates of ISS. Another Akashic record of my life in this incarnation. And it came to pass that what is written is written!
For the ISS BoE, I can vouch for their integrity, honesty, objectivity and sincerity. Of course, they are human beings. But they endeavour to apply the rules and regulations of ECTS credits in accordance with Dutch laws. And if you have a genuine problem and you appeal to them they would assist you to sail through. That is, when you prove to them that you are serious, studious, determined, self-motivated and full of zeal and perseverance to succeed. Conversely, if your attitude betrays your character that you are some one who came to Europe to cool off, you would go back to your country without MA Degree in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Period!
Mawutodzi Kodzo Abissath (MA Development Studies ISS/Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Hague, The Netherlands, Dec.12, 2014)