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The theme of the current issue takes me down memory lane, to those far-off days in the early nineties when I was an international student at Carleton, and to other distant memories, now generously coated with the gold and magic of nostalgia.

The sound, and sight, of aircraft flying overhead is part of my earliest memories, and I had always known that one day I would get into one of them and jet off to the unknown. This may be why, during my school career, I paid more attention to subjects related to travel and foreign lands, much to the consternation of my teachers.

And so it happened that when I did eventually set off, I already spoke fluent English and French, and was therefore exempted from visa language requirements. First stop Ottawa, where my husband was already doing PhD research in virology at the Ottawa University. Ironically, getting the visa was easier than getting an air ticket. The pre-paid ticket advice was processed in Ottawa in good time, but the Kenya Airways sales office in Nairobi would not release the ticket to me, on a technicality that I have yet to understand, ten years’ experience in the travel and tourism not withstanding. Finally in great despair and with only one week left, I had my first magic moment: British Airways had business class seats available at a lower price than the Kenya Airways economy class ticket!

So off I was, on what was to become the first of many flights, arriving in Ottawa in mid-morning, to an invitingly bright April sunshine, the warmth of which could be felt right inside the airport buildings. Convinced that life in Canada would not take much getting used to, and impatient to get on with it, I did what all my fellow travellers seemed to be doing – opened the door and stepped out into the street.

That’s when it hit me!

The term ‘warm’ is relative. I had thought myself fully armed to ward off the bitter Canadian winter with a double-knit sweater, painstakingly pieced together during the months of frantic preparation, and here I was freezing to death in mid-April.

Later that year, I had reason to thank God for my lucky escape. We invited newly arrived Kenyans to dinner. Being strong, young and adventurous, they decided to walk over rather than take the bus. They got to our place safely enough, but half an hour into the visit, their ears began to drip blood. Lesson learned: ear muffs are not an optional accessory during winter, unless you’re wearing a hooded jacket.

Compared to the severe winters, integrating into the Canadian education system was easy, courtesy of a qualifying year. The biggest problem is getting an institution to give you the benefit of the doubt, and admit you to a qualifying programme. After a series of disappointments, I ventured out to Carleton one day, and had another magic moment. I met with such a warm reception (and accommodating attitude) that my decision was instantly made. In discussions with other alumni since then, I have realised that we were attracted to Carleton by more or less the same things: Carleton is both accessible and accommodating; offices are within easy reach; personnel are approachable and understanding; issues relating to international students are given due consideration; decisions are made and communicated within a reasonable time. Most important of all for me (child of the tropics that I am) was the network of underground corridors, conveniently supplied with vending machines and rest rooms, and heated during the winter.

And so began for me a series of glorious memories. In addition to being relevant and well organised, classes were dynamic and entertaining. My fellow students were friendly and supportive (and here I would like to say a special ‘thank you’ to Graham Fallis and Dawn Morgan).

There was plenty to learn, even beyond the formal classes, including lessons in understanding and tolerating those different from us, lessons which have helped to shape the person I have become, and from which I continue to benefit.

Indeed, I have such fond memories of Carleton, Canada and the Canadian people that I’d better stop here, before you see my tears …
© Esther Mbithi 2006
Published in the Carleton University Magazine, Winter 2006

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