Exceptional circumstances lead to the encounter with Erick Otieno Nyambedha, a former fellow at the Danida Fellowship Centre (DFC), who has become Associate Professor and a leading Kenyan expert on the impact of HIV/AIDS on children.
Text and photos: Jan Kjær, Nairobi.
Sometimes reality surpasses imagination. Meeting Erick is an excellent example of that.
I was waiting at the Terminal Hotel in Nairobi for an interview with a former fellowship student in Denmark, now a Kenyan VIP. After an entire day passes without getting in contact with the woman, I am getting desperate.
Opposite in the computer room of the hotel, a man has been working really hard all day. As my impatience grows, I start explaining my unfortunate situation to him.
“I have been studying with this woman in Denmark,” he replies. “Danida Fellowship Centre.”
What a coincidence! Same group, same years.
And he introduces himself as Erick Otieno Nyambedha, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Maseno University.
Erick is right now in Nairobi conducting a private consultancy for the EU on a Kenyan Rural Development Programme and that was why he was extremely busy, but he agreed to have dinner and to be interviewed.
“But only half an hour,” he emphazises.
Deadline is approaching.
Leading Kenyan expert
Danida funded Eric’s Master’s Degree in Anthropology at University of Nairobi and later gave him the chance to pursue a PhD in Copenhagen on the vulnerability of children when it comes to HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Erick finished his PhD at the University of Copenhagen in 2006.
Studying in Denmark has indeed been helpful for Erick’s career in Kenya.
“I owe a lot to DFC and Danida,” Erick says.
“What has propelled me up to where I am is the research I did at Master’s and PhD level. My entire research background and everything I do as a researcher is attributed to that background.”
Erick is Associate Professor and Director of Student Affairs at Maseno University in Kisumu, and a successful private consultant.
“If you talk about children affected by HIV/AIDS, I am the expert in Kenya,” he stresses.
Studying in Denmark a good experience
“It was a very good experience to study in Denmark,” Erick recalls.
At the academic front he found very dedicated people. A study environment with a lot of interaction where PhD students from the universities of Odense, Aarhus and Copenhagen would come together and sharing their work.
The universities would also fly in experts from other learning institutions to conduct PhD courses.
“Once a well known professor from Harvard University came to teach Anthropological theory. His name was Michael Herzfeld. I even bought one of his books when I was still doing my PhD in Copenhagen. It was really enriching in terms of academics,” Erick states.
“You are also publishing in peer review journals. That is very important.”
Erick managed to publish two papers in Social Science and Medicine, one of the leading international journals in medical anthropology. One paper when he was a student and one after completing his PhD.
Privileged at DFC
Erick was also happy about the DFC environment, making it possible for him to study hard.
“Living at DFC is quite open,” he says and continues: “There was a lot of interaction between Danish and African students, so I never felt isolated.”
And compared to other Africans studying abroad he felt privileged. Erick especially likes the way DFC gives students time to organize social activities.
Generally, studying and living in Denmark was a nice experience, but ……
“I think one horrible thing about Denmark is the weather. Especially winter,” Erick says with a big smile.
Returning to Kenya in 2006 was a shock for the young PhD graduate.
“I really had a hard time adjusting to the Kenyan situation. I was not comfortable with people demanding bribes for instances. It is hard to avoid. Otherwise you risk getting extinct.”
Erick had got used to doing things the Danish way. He went straight to Denmark after his Masters and did the PhD there.
“In Denmark there is a high level of transparency, not a lot of bureaucracy, you see the processes moving. In Kenya there are a lot of underhand deals, especially when you are interacting with government.“
At the universities this practice is less common, Erick thinks.
“Us academics are not exposed to that kind of underhand deals, what I could call corruption. You can get kind of shocked when you have to interact with people outside, especially in government ministries. Things can´t move because someone wants money.”
Naïve the Danish way
“For me it looks awkward, strange, that I should give money to someone for what he or she is supposed to do. For the majority of people here in Kenya they look at it as a right. It is a way of life. So if you don´t do it, you will not be able to move. And you can loose a lot of consultancies,” Erick says.
He is sure that he once lost a major consultancy funded by World Bank due to his hesitation to hand out bribes. He was told he was number one and he was acknowledged as the leading expert within his field but still, they did not consider him.
“I am so naïve. That naivety has something to do with the exposure to the Danish system. I lived in Denmark and interacted with people there. This has influenced me and made me a bit naïve in terms of doing things ‘the Kenyan way’. Some friends have even warned me that I cannot work in the Kenyan civil service given the way I look at things.”
Fact box: Erick Otieno Nyambedha
42 years old. Married with 4 children.
Master’s Degree in Anthropology, University of Nairobi 2000.
PhD, University of Copenhagen 2006.
Associate Professor of Anthropology at Maseno University. Director of Student Affairs.
Erick has secured funds for research in his fields HIV/AIDS, children and vulnerability from the former DBL-Centre for Health Research and Development which is now under Faculty of Life Sciences at Copenhagen University.He has continued having contact with the academic field in Denmark and is supervising PhD students working on HIV/AIDS thesis based on the Danish funding, although the project is closing down with the completion of the last PhD candidate who is about to submit his thesis at Maseno University.