Written by Veronica Kirigo
When I began going to school, I quickly knew that I would enjoy the place. As unusual as it is to claim school years were the best time of your life, mine were just that. I enjoyed the material and soon enough my dreams were geared towards an academic life. I wanted to be a professor, to get all the high accolades. My enthusiasm for education went all the way to university. My career choices were highly scholastic, my advisers made them sound and look lucrative. And so, when I ended up in medical school to study physical therapy, it was no wonder.
The course was fairly new in the market. When I joined Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, I was enrolled in the third class of the degree program since its rollout in the country. Our lecturers had done their diplomas here and travelled, mostly to South Africa, for further studies. On coming back, the faculty of five men pitched the idea to the university and got the go-ahead to start the program and develop the curriculum for it. With the shift in healthcare towards mitigating the effects of lifestyle diseases, and with the new wave of allied health being included to support mainstream health, I knew was on the right career path.
Soon enough, I found my place in the class dynamic. I was singled out as a hardworking excellent student and I was elected to be the class rep. I enjoyed doing the work; scheduling classes and practical lessons and of course, having direct access to tutors. It was normal for the class rep to have the lecturers’ contacts and to have conversations with them outside school matters. I was their access point to the students and they were mine to my dream.
They never tell you though, that the dream can take a very different turn in reality. This is exactly what happened to me. By the time I got to my third year, I had learnt enough about the course I was pursuing. As far as dreams went, I intended to follow in the footsteps of our lecturers and join the faculty someday. After all, being a new course with such a high market value, there would always be demand for more tutors to develop the required capacity of clinicians in this sector.
In the same year, one of the senior-most lecturers started making passes at me. Having grown up with considerable affection from teachers, it did not occur to me that this was more than a good student being liked by a teacher. As it is with most smart girls, we don’t consider ourselves attractive enough to lure men. Our education is important to us. So, we focus on developing it, excelling at it and of course, we follow the rules and dress modestly. We never draw “such” attention to ourselves and we look, with disdain, at those who work so hard to get lecturers to look at them in “that way”.
And so, I missed it. I never needed my grades upped. Neither did I struggle in understanding the material. So, when this man asked for a hug and felt me up in my fourth year, I was honestly shocked. Now, a little background. He was below forty, had spent most of his adult life pursuing this education and was right on the way to becoming the first professor in the country in this field. He was the personification of my dream. Before the “hug”, he represented everything I wanted to be. I had been prudent in responding to him, just from pure adoration.
Being studious also exposed me to a lot of media and information. I relished films and books where the smartest students in certain fields had romances with their tutors. The mere thought of bonding at an intellectual level was very attractive to me. And dare I say, I did think that was what was happening to me. I was almost done with school anyway, with one semester to go. My grades were excellent, and here was my gateway to excellence showing romantic interest towards me.
Well, I would not be writing a story of courage if that was what actually panned out. In fact, I would not be writing any story here. But here we are. In the days to finishing my degree, we had several encounters. I clearly emphasised that I needed to finish studying first and that I never wanted anybody in the faculty or student body to doubt my credibility as a good student. He seemed to understand my perspective and backed off.
After finishing my degree, I graduated with honours. By this time, we were cordial with each other, sharing our hopes and dreams, and he, of course, supported my dream and affirmed my potential.
I went for my internship and when COVID hit, I managed to stay in the workforce despite my meagre experience and delayed certification. I was living up to the promise of my potential. The distance seemed to dim the friendship and the pursuits but as soon as the health restrictions were lifted, he looked for me. I fell prey and went out with him. I was no longer his student, so I had every right to, or so I thought. The ”thing” became a relationship fast enough. He promised that he did not always go after his students and that I was special. I believed him.
Anyway, dear reader, I was not special. I was just another girl who fell victim to this social discord. The man went home to his wife and kids while dragging me along with the illusion of a future. In the year that I entertained him and his quacks, I learnt more about myself. I learnt that I was not immune to manipulation, and that grooming was not only done to children. I learnt how socially acceptable it is to be the other woman, and how you can look in the mirror and hate the person you have become.
The rule follower, the promising beacon of light that I was to myself and what I thought I represented had faded out. It took courage and a lot of unlearning to finally walk away from the relationship and pursue what I regarded as a noble dignified life. It took more courage to defer the norm in a generation that venerates cross-generation relationships that come with access to financial support and opportunities that would open major doors for you. And in all, it took courage to finally write about this, so that all those girls who have a fire in them and a knack for knowledge can learn to be careful and faithful in doing the right thing. Follow the long path. I promise you, you can bet on yourself to still make it there. No matter how hard it seems.
Veronica Kirigo is a clinical physical therapist in Machakos. She spends her time exercising clinical knowledge to help patients through rehabilitation. She enjoys reading and tackling social issues, identifying gaps in stories and learning how to tell narratives that change the world. She is a firm believer in cultivating shame resilience, cultivating worth and using words to create better stories. She believes in doing good work, elevating others and creating spaces that allow for people to feel safe and worthy of belonging.