The human element

One of the things I regret not properly ‘documenting’ throughout this semester is how my classes went.

On the one hand, they were classes like any other I took in undergrad and grad school before, boring at times, entertaining at some other, with tons of reading I wouldn’t always complete on time. Sometimes I was facebooking more than paying attention to the lecture, and sometimes I was simply at loss and wondering how and when on earth knowing how to do matrix calculations by hand, for instance, would ever come in handy in my life. So it was quite a relief, for the lack of a better word, to know that classes, even at the PhD level, and even in the States, were not exceptionally different. There were times I thought I had actually invested myself more into these classes at GSIS, especially preparing for group presentations. I honestly missed those presentations. Spending hours with my friends and peers brain-storming (and I often had the best co-presenters in every sense of the word), trying to figure out a compromise between the time limit we had and our passionate academic minds, laughing at the crazy ideas, listening to others during class. Good times, they were.

On the other hand, there were true moments of revelation, to the risk of sounding cliche. I once had a whole week of excitement and giddiness because I had gone through Feminism theory in IR, reading Fiona Robinson, J. Ann Tickner and Annick T.R. Wibben, and I was simply in love with them and their ideas, and Feminism in general. And everything in the world seemed to make sense.

But above all, it was my class in “Politics and Government in Contemporary Africa” that was the most inspiring one of them all, week by week.Through this class, I was able to realize the prejudices about Africa I didn’t even know I had in the first place.  The fact that it was taught by an amazing professor was the cherry on top of the cake. The class had everything a student could ask for: organization, knowledge, interesting lecture and discussions, and, above all, a contagious inspiration and passion from the professor. Looking back, I had a professor I absolutely fell in love with, in every academic sense possible, every time I went to school, and I think it was that connection (one-sided, I admit) that helped me get going. Feeling, first-hand, the passion and dedication of the professor is the best source of motivation for a student (and the fact that they are directed at an actually interesting subject also helps). This first semester at BU was no exception. If I thought I could not respect Professor L. more than I did throughout the whole semester, the little ‘story’ he left us with on the last day proved me wrong. I hope it’s not something too personal (there were about 20 of us who listened to it, so I wouldn’t think so) and that I can tell it again here in my own words.

“A friend of mine was a teacher at a local school in a small village in Rwanda when the genocide broke out. Her being Tutsi, she was caught during an attempted escape and was to be shot there and then. One of the Hutu men present thought it was a better idea to ‘take her home with him’ and she was kept in his house for months, where she was raped, by him and others. When she was finally let go, she returned to her village and found out that all her family, close and extended, a total of about 300 people, had been killed and only two distant younger cousins had survived. She took them with her and went to South Africa where she built a new life for herself, until the day came she had to go back to her village for some sort of registration. Scared to go back and face her past, she asked me to accompany her, and we went there, after an hour hike in the hills. When we went up there, a woman came running to us, recognizing her, and told her she had kept some of the things from her family and from her house, kitchen utensils and others, in the hopes she would come back. My friend told her she did not need these things anymore, that she had a new life, and told the woman to keep them for herself, and to look after the land her family had once owned. On our way down, she turned to me and said “You know, her sons are among the ones that killed my family… But what can I do? What use is there for me to hold grudge against her? I have my life now and I’m content.” – And to me, my friend and her words, that’s what Africa represents. When scholars and so-called experts are talking about numbers and about the little development and progress the continent has had and is having, I see my friend and how she overcame it all. Africa is not just a number, whether that number be the rise in GDP or the number of deaths. It’s people like her, individuals, who learn to live day by day and overcome whatever misery and misfortune has happened to them.”

How do you not cry when you hear this story on your last day of class? Well, you try hard not to, because you would just appear foolish… Fortunately, even for the cry-baby that I am, I was able to hold back my tears. But this is one of the ‘last class’ I will always remember, for teaching me, among others, that Political Science, and Social Science in general, is actually about ‘individuals’. We are so often told that numbers and statistics, concrete data in general, are what matters, what is real, that we forget that at the center of every “science” there is the human element. We study and research because we believe what we do will somehow contribute to the improvement of human life, our life. It’s not about finding the right numbers that will help us publish papers in renowned journals… even if, unfortunately, you kinda need to do that as well. It’s about understanding people, individuals, and feeling compassion and empathy, and using them to connect the invisible dots that are not there to separate us, but to bring us together.

It may all sound idealistic and utopian, and ‘un-realistic’, but I don’t know, I often think ‘realism’ is overrated anyways.


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