Looking Back: Aiducation/Swiss Study Foundation Summer School 2017

AiduTalent George Jilani studies medicine at the University of Nairobi after graduating high school in 2013 thanks to an Aiducation scholarship. He has already attended several Aiducation academies as both a student participant and coordinator. The Swiss Study Foundation Academy as a two-week summer school program, however, was a new highlight in his journey with Aiducation. Read his story here…

“Excitement boiled in my stomach as I sat by the window on the train travelling from Mombasa to Nairobi in the summer of 2017. Trees rushed quickly past me. I was nostalgic. After weeks and months of careful planning, the long awaited Summer School co-hosted by Aiducation International and The Swiss Study Foundation was to finally start in a few days. My job as a participant as well as the Kenyan host was to organize important logistics for students and speakers as relates to their transport, accommodation and welfare. I had worked for months with a dedicated team of student organizers from both Kenya and Switzerland to plan this first ever summer school of its kind. My heart almost skipped a beat with cheer. I felt like a proud father watching their son take their first terrified steps.

This Summer School brought together 30 students from Aiducation International in Kenya and 15 from The Swiss Study Foundation in Switzerland to discuss challenges facing urban mobility and renewable energy in our world. Inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we attempted to solve the most challenging questions on mobility and energy from a diverse and multidisciplinary point of view with a focus on the situation in Kenya. Students from diverse and inspired disciplines were highly motivated to be participants and experience the fusion of culture and ideology as they work towards a common goal; to solve real and actual problems that affect our world. This, for me, was more inspiring as it was truly exciting!

There was a buzz of excitement as we received the students from Switzerland. We had organized shared apartments in the outskirts of Nairobi for all students to help us reconcile cultural differences and work together with a shared ethos. The academy kicked off in high spirits with an inspiring keynote from the Swiss Ambassador to East Africa, Dr. Ralf Heckner, who insisted heartfeltly on the spirit of collaboration and diplomatic practices to build bilateral relations between Kenya and Switzerland. This was followed by carefully planned ice-breaking games to help students feel comfortable around each other. Then it was time to get to work and we organized the two main challenges Renewable energy and Urban Mobility into four dimensions; Social, Environmental, Economical and Technological. Each dimension had a fusion team of students from both Switzerland and Kenya. Over two week the teams worked in their specific dimensions and prepared position papers. On the final day of the Academy, the two larger groups of students split between urban mobility and renewable energy would present their posters to a jury of experts, researchers, professors and speakers.

The third day of the Academy was exciting and pivotal. By design, the content of the program encompassed both theoretical and hands-on approaches. Inspiring talks by lecturers and professors from a leading local university gave insights on the current state of renewable energy and urban mobility in Kenya. Most of the Swiss students had questions, deep and of utter concern. It seemed almost difficult for them to imagine local public transport without the efficient trams and e-bikes in their major cities. Students in their dimensional groups were challenged in limited time to visit specific landmarks around Nairobi and only use public transport. This gave every student a clear first hand experience on Kenya’s public transport system and more so the structural planning of Nairobi as a city. In Kenya, public transport is majorly handled by Matatus. These are dramatically over-customized buses and mini-buses with extravagant inbuilt music systems and sometimes a television screen for music or movies. They come in all manner of flashy designs and colours. There are no defined times when Matatus fully board and depart from these stops. They operate fully on availability and demand, only pay in cash and fare prices hike incredibly when it rains. Ultimately, this helped create common ground for discussions on perceived difficulties with the use of matatus and suggestions on what could be done to make it more efficient, if any. As was expected, using the matatus seemed like total chaos for the Swiss students. Most of them could not imagine quickly adapting to this specific type of transport easily. They all however agreed that this was a wonderful and exciting experience for them.

We also had some fun and we hosted a Kenya Cultural Night towards the end of week one. The Kenyan participants in their proudest ways organized a Kenyan contemporary fashion display, an introduction to Kenyan geography, tribes, music and uniqueness of specific cultures around Kenya. We also travelled outside of Nairobi for a two day camping experience in the beautiful rift valley. It was a wonderful experience for everyone to see more of the country and for the students to sit down together away from the noise of the city to discuss their position papers and propose solutions for challenges in their specific dimensions. In the evenings the students gathered around a fire and sung into the dark cold night. The hippos in the lake nearby must have been really confused. Kenyan students can be particularly loud. For me, the metaphor of the campfire song and gathering was a sobering reminder of the intellectual heights human beings can achieve beyond myopic stereotypic barriers that have for long held us back from progress.

When we returned to Nairobi, there was an atmosphere of competition as the students further condensed their position papers. The final poster presentations were thoughtful, detailed and ingenious propositions that could really change the game for Kenya. The jury was visibly pleased by the very good work that had been done.

As the dust of the summer school settled, tears and hugs filled the atmosphere as the students bid each other very sad goodbyes. The academy had come to an end. The sobering truth however was that the bonds of friendships we had created had not come to an end. This was just the beginning of great things.

Today, it is summer 2018 as I write this. I am in a public train in Switzerland from Davos to Zurich after a week-long science workshop on artificial intelligence and cracking the brain code. Trees rush quickly past me. I am still nostalgic.”

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