Black History Month: CDE students reflect on growing up in Africa, living and learning in Williamsto

Jason Ngute: Akoyo, Kenya

Jason was born in Kilingili, Kenya. He describes the town of his birth as being similar to Williamstown in some ways. The people live on small farms, and many people raise cattle or have small tea farms. Most people in Kilingili are subsistence farmers, although some people grow cash crops. Jason and his family are trilingual; they speak English, Swahili and Luhya, the local language.

Jason is the youngest of 11 children of which eight are living. He and all of his siblings graduated from secondary school (the equivalent of high school in the United States). Jason attended a secondary boarding school with about 1000 males between the ages of 13 and 20 years old. In 1992, he left Kilingili for Nairobi to attend the University of Kenya, Nairobi. He received his B.A. in math and economics. In 1997, he began working with the Ministry of Finance as an economist.

Jason first learned of the Center for Development Economics through several people who had participated in the program in the past. The CDE recruits in Kenya, and Jason had the opportunity to interview with professor Thomas Pinckney. After the interview, he says that he was convinced that the CDE was the place for him. Jason enjoys studying at the CDE, and is happy with his decision to come. He especially likes the program because it is short (he will receive his MA in just one year). Of the town, he says, “Williamstown is a whole different place!” He does not consider it boring, but he definitely does not consider it exciting. Jason feels that Williamstown is conducive to learning. He isn’t sure if he could handle the intensity of the work if he was near New York City or any other exciting place.

At times Jason becomes homesick because he misses his family, especially his mother. He also misses eating ugali (the staple food in Kenya), which he used to eat daily. Jason says what surprised him most about the United States is that when a friend invites you to go someplace, you are expected to pay for yourself. In Kenya, that would be considered rude. If someone says, “Let’s go,” that means that they are taking you out and paying for the excursion. Also, in Kilingili, it is not uncommon for a family’s cows to sleep inside the house, however the dogs never sleep in the house. In the United States, it is the complete opposite. Jason seems to be surprised by the close relationship that Americans share with their dogs.

Although there is no equivalent of Black History Month in Kenya, Jason points to several national holidays that capture the spirit of the month. Kenyatta Day (Oct. 20) is a holiday on which Kenyans remember how they struggled and fought for their independence, which they received in 1963. Moi Day (Oct. 10) is about thinking of others and helping those in need. Uhuru Day (Dec. 12) urges Kenyans to cherish their freedom.

Jason will be happy to return home to his friends and family in Kenya, but he will truly miss the people that he has met at the CDE.

Mduduzi Langa: South Africa

When asked if he grew up in a village, town or city, Mduduzi replied that he grew up on a farm. The nearest farm was many kilometers away, and there was nothing near him that constituted even a village. Fortunately, he had 23 siblings to keep him company. A white family owned the farm, and Mduduzi’s father worked on the farm in exchange for the right to farm a small plot of land (similar to sharecropping in the American South). Once he was old enough, Mduduzi also worked on the farm.

Mduduzi never went to school until he was 12 years old. He got such a late start partially because his parents did not place a lot of emphasis on education, and partially because the man who owned the farm opposed him going to school because he was not able to work on the farm as much.

Ironically, he later attended college with this man’s son. Mduduzi saw that other people his age were attending school and learning to read and write, so he decided that he also should go to school and learn these things. Once he learned the basics, he was always one of the highest achievers in his classes. This inspired him to continue going to school.

Mduduzi attended the University of Natal, which is located in Durban. He was a triple major, and received his degree with honors in chemistry, geology, and environmental management. Upon graduation, he was employed as an environmental specialist. His company, SASOL, specialized in extracting oil and chemicals from coal. Before coming to the CDE, Mduduzi was pursing his MBA at Newport University, which is in South Africa.

Mduduzi does not come from an economics background and felt that the CDE would be a good educational option for him so that he could be exposed to economics. The short length of the program also appealed to him. Williams’ high academic rating also impressed Mduduzi. In the near future, he would like to return to graduate school and continue his study of economics.

Mduduzi expected that the U.S. and South Africa would be very different. However, he has found more similarities than differences. The thing that stood out the most to him in Williamstown is that whites are employed as custodians and kitchen help. According to Mduduzi, because of the history of apartheid, one will never see a white person cleaning in South Africa.

Mduduzi was also struck by how small Williamstown is. When he first arrived, he was told to go to the Spring Street shopping center. He walked most of the way down Spring Street looking for the shopping center before he asked someone where it was, and was surprised to learn that he was right in the heart of the shopping district.

Mduduzi says that one thing he misses about South Africa is speaking his languages. He speaks seven: English, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Zulu, siSwati, Ndebele and SeSotho. He also misses the warmer climate and playing soccer with South Africans. He plays soccer here sometimes, but he says it isn’t the same. However, Mduduzi will be sad to leave Williamstown because he will have to leave his newfound friends behind, and of course, the snow.