On the streets of Cologne, Strasbourg and Rome, passers-by were in awe of this unique group. They asked the students in total disbelief, “What is this? Who are you people? So smartly dressed and elegant?” The answer was equally strange, ''Yes, we are law students, on an academic trip. We have an important meeting to attend.''
Since its inception, Strathmore Law School put in place a crazy plan. It seemed impossible, unrealistic; no one had done it before and it could fail… It seemed economic suicide.
The Law School has a population of 140 LL.B. students in each year. These students are divided into two classes or streams of 70 students. Each class has a fancy name: counsels and prosecutors, advocates and attorneys, judges and jurists, barristers and solicitors.
The administrator came up with these random names to avoid any feeling of superiority; we did not want to have a class A and a class B. We also wanted to create a sense of belonging, and each class keeps their name forever, for example, attorneys 2017, jurists 2018, etc. Many of the students are on scholarship or student loans. Most of their families make heroic sacrifices to give their children a good education.
The key of the kitty
With amazing support and foresight from the university administration, we decided to include Sh30,000 per year in a special kitty for an academic trip. It would be a pilot project that could be replicated by other schools, and why not, by other universities as well.
In four years, the Sh30,000 would have become more than Sh120,000 (plus interest earned over time). This money would be enough for entitle each and every student, whether rich, poor or middle class, on scholarship or not, to an academic trip abroad. All expenses were already covered; parents would need to give them zero euros, apart from whatever they may carry as pocket money.
How to make our students game changers? How could we widen their horizons and make them feel the responsibility of changing not just Kenya, but Africa…and the world? How were we to push them out of their comfort zones, to make them question their standards, their ways of doing things and move beyond today’s contagious mediocrity?
Traveling is not essential
We felt this was a necessary part of our educational task and we asked ourselves these questions again and again. We also knew that most of our students had never been abroad and Nairobi was perhaps the biggest and most organised city that they had ever seen.
Traveling is not essential for a good education. In fact, we knew that traveling is not what makes a school tick. But we also knew that young minds, like soccer teams, improve when challenged, when the bar is raised, when they rub shoulders with world champions. So, we went for it!
A receptionist who spoke seven languages
The first shock for the students was to meet a hotel receptionist who spoke seven languages, and she is doing a master’s degree. They also met a taxi driver who has been to Kenya with his whole family for holidays, and an Uber driver who is the current CEO in an important multinational. These are success stories; people who have made it through hard work, dirtying their hands, being punctual, responsible, accountable…
These trips were part of a subject, Public International Law. It even included an exam, which students sat during the trip, in a European university. From the outside, this trip seemed academic but we had a bigger agenda. It was also intensely human and cultural. It was a vivid challenge.
Our traditional destination was The Netherlands, Germany and France. In the Netherlands, we would visit the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the UN Residual Mechanism for International Tribunals, that now looks after pending cases from the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, the University of Leiden, the Mayor of The Hague and, of course, the Kenyan Embassy in The Hague.
In Germany, we participated at a very intense seminar and exchange with doctoral students at the University of Cologne; then proceeded to Strasbourg, in France, to visit the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament. On some occasions, we also made stop overs at Brussels and Luxembourg, and visited European institutions, learning from their experiences, challenges and failures.
Edward and 'his' cows
Many amusing stories were recounted at the end of each trip. Today, we still laugh when we remember Edward’s incident. He was in the third year of law when the bus left him behind, at a petrol station on the highway between Brussels and Luxembourg. He comes from deep inside Maasai land. He had never been abroad and had never seen those amazing Holstein Friesians cows, which are so common in Luxembourg.
He started to walk on the highway (something nobody ever does in Europe) and some good soul had mercy on him and gave him a lift to Luxembourg, where he caught up with the group. Edward is now finishing his LL.M. at Harvard Law School. Or when Cristina, who recently finished her LL.M. at Leiden, got lost in Dordrecht, or when Chris, who is now an associate at Anjarwalla & Khanna, was left by the bus in Cologne.
This year’s trip had a different touch. Several factors diverted us from Germany and France to Italy and the United Arab Emirates. After a fruitful and packed schedule in The Hague, we flew to Rome.
In Rome, we were to be hosted for lectures and seminars at UNIDROIT, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). At UNIDROIT, Prof Ignacio Tirado, Secretary General and his team put together one of the most amazing and engaging seminars we have ever had.
That same day, after a well-deserved Italian lunch, we had two lectures on media, faith and law by renowned international press correspondents based in Rome. After that, the students sat their last Public International Law exam at a modern and beautifully furnished classroom of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. After the exam, two famous press agencies turned up to interview some students.
Saturday and Sunday were full of cultural visits. The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, St Peter’s Basilica, Vittorio Emmanuelle, the Pantheon…and of course a gelato here and there.
Monday was equally packed. Great lectures and presentations at the World Food Programme, and a lunch reception by the Executive Director, Governor David Beasley; and in the afternoon, a visit to the F.A.O., which ended just on time to leave for the airport and catch the plane that would take us to the amazing DIFC Courts, in Dubai.
The most exciting chapter
The trip was packed; intense. But the most exciting part of the academic trip was not what we saw…it was what we felt, those genuine reactions from student to student, their conversations and questions; their mixed sense of awe, joy, annoyance and frustration. What has happened to Kenya? Why are we so behind after almost 60 years of independence? What can I personally do? They challenged themselves.
We were late for our flight. It did not matter. As we stood still in deep wonder, contemplating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. We had just heard the news. Lucy came close to me, and said, ''If I had not been here, I wouldn’t have felt the pain of losing Notre Dame.''
I did not grasp the depth of her comment until later, when we had a conversation with several other students on our way to the airport to catch our Emirates flight to Dubai. But this must be narrated in detail next week.
Dr Luis Franceschi, Dean – Strathmore Law School, [email protected]