A Public Service Calling
by Jean Kachiga
Growing up, the nature and quality of relations of a child to his/her immediate family, social, cultural, geographic environments, and sometime political paradigms of the moment usually are determining in forging the first impressions on the mind, and in the heart of a growing child. If we concur with the finding of developmental psychologists who say that early impressions mold substantially what the character and values of a person will become, then we ought to start there in the quest for understanding what makes us tick.
Here is how those environmental elements have imprinted and impacted my heart and mind with respect to a public service inclination.
The Molding of a Young Mind
I was born into a Christian family whose father was one of the first children taken from villages to attend schooling opened by a Belgian missionary in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eventually my father grew up to become a teacher. He coincidentally married a young woman, my Mother, who also became an elementary school teacher in Bukavu, a town in the eastern part of the country.
As a child, I remember this section in the living room of my house where my father kept his books, most of which on African colonial history, the political struggle for independence, and early African political leaders. There was one particular book, whose references I failed to memorize or to have written down. That book has not in the meantime survived the moving and the usage of the time. I regret not to be able to render homage and due honor to the author and publisher today. First I browsed that book, looking at pictures of figures of the early African modern political life such as Hamilcar Cabral, Patrice Emery Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Houari Bourimediene, Bourguiba, Houphouet Boingy...
As I grew older, I browsed the same book looking at more than just pictures. I started reading the condensed biographies of these leaders and their struggle to confront European colonialism in Africa and free the African masses from colonial bpndage. Browsing the same book a few years later, I started asking questions, wondering about things, and realizing that I have there, a field of inquiry. I also discovered that there is a field, Political Science that deals with inquiries of that sort. There was not much a school boy could have done then with the information.
It came the time to go to High School still in Bukavu, after I graduated from primary school. My High school phase turned out to be even more determining in what was going to be my interest in public service. During High School, I attend schools run by either local or missionaries and Jesuit priests. They have all emphasized the notion of servant leadership, exhorting young pre-adolescents and adolescents to aspire to become productive members of the society entering professional fields that have an altruistic dimension. And so they have reconciled their duties as educators and the ideal of a Christian moral code. In my senior High School year most precisely, my teachers, most of them Jesuits priests from Belgium, have explicitly articulated encouragement to see us venture into offices in liberal art professions to become law makers, teachers, priests, medical doctors, etc.
As for their capacity to teach and convey knowledge, I have been blessed to have encountered inspiring teachers. These teachers, most of them with highest degrees in Philosophy, Canonic law, Theology, and Humanities from universities in Italy, France and Belgium, were certainly over qualified to teach high school. Their overwhelming mastery of subjects at hand was met by great admiration on my part.
They seemed to have had encyclopedic knowledge. They navigated through periods of history, school of thoughts in philosophy, discussed great questions of Theology, and some like true renaissance personages were at ease with Physics, Biology, Esthetics, and Mathematics.
Father Roger Devloo for instance navigated through medicine, spoke a variety of languages, was a cinematographer, taught physics etc...and gave himself without reserve. Every day of his class he resurrected Latin with his knowledge, reciting the poetry of Titus Livius, Juvenal and feeding us the wisdom of Seneca. Father Ferrier made me wish Cicero was alive! We then went out of the class intimidating our fellow students who never took Latin.
I think of Father Bilembo who has demystified Philosophy. I recall fondly the teaching humor of father Maheshe, and the practice of Socratic methods to incite and stimulate our critical thinking by father Birindwa. As if that was not enough to impress me, young graduates from a local teachers' college came to teach in our high school with an eruditeness and enthusiasm, I have come to associate teaching and scholarship with. Semi-consciously, I must have known then that I had to become like them
My blessing therefore consisted of not having as William Arthur Wade said, mediocre teachers who just tell, or good teachers who explain, or excellent teachers who just demonstrate but rather great teachers who inspired. They have inspired me to become a teacher.
The Choice of a Public Service Field: Teaching
Heeding the exhortation to public service by my high school Jesuits teachers, I knew I would venture into such a career path. Realizing my love for the cognitive process of knowledge acquisition, I knew that that career path had to be in teaching. Teaching therefore, as I understand, it is both a medium of expression of that love for the cognitive process and a calling. The choice of teaching as a response to the exhortation to enter public service coincided with my parents both being teachers. So my choice to venture in a career in academia has two "parents". The first being my admiration for a series of inspiring high school teachers and the second being my biological parents who have metaphorically planted the seed for teaching in me.
Growing up in a strong family that emphasized education, the consequential path to embark upon after graduating in high school was college. And so to college I went. There were, however, not many colleges and universities to accommodate the many high school graduates in the Democratic Republic of Congo, both because of Belgian paternalistic policies and the mistrust of the post-colonial dictatorial regime of Mobutu for intellectuals.
Furthermore, in the 80s, the political and economic situations of many African nations were deteriorating, leading to precarious conditions. It became hazardous to enter Congolese universities. Those parents who could afford it, sent their kids to universities outside the country. I belonged to those children who were fortunate enough to leave the town of Bukavu and flew to Brussels, in Belgium to pursuit higher education. In my pocket was an admission letter of the State University of New York at Buffalo, which did not eventuate in my actually studying there due to high interest rates of the dollar in the Reagan years, making it difficult to afford a U.S. education. The University of Frankfurt (Wolfgang Goethe University) in Germany admitted me after I had decided to remain in Europe.
Half way into my college years or rather my university years, I realized that I was to become a college professor, which suited even better my aspirations. I consequently aimed at working toward a doctorate degree. This realization only was confirmed as I found increasing pleasure sitting in quiet libraries, reading books to prepare for my exams or just reading assigned chapters for courses I was taking. This pleasure increased when I found myself writing papers for various presentations after I earned my Masters. The pleasure occasionally turned, and still does turn from time to time, into a quasi erotic experience whenever I successfully, with the help of Aristotle or Karl Popper, break through the intricacies of a purely academic reasoning nut.
The Choice of the Discipline in Higher Education: The Influence of the Father
I had the choice of majoring either in Economics, International Law or Political Science. Should I have chosen International Law, I would have had to study German law first. That did not attract me, a young man from Africa. I thought about majoring in Economics, but Political Science had a strong hold on me. I understood then what explained the attraction to Political Science. It was the early impressions that my father's books on politics had left in my childhood's mind. All the questions I had then, I had the opportunity to go find answers to. I set out then to study Political Science at the University of Frankfurt.
Here, once again, I was fortunate to have a series of great professors. The University of Frankfurt, where the Social Sciences Department still takes pride in the great social critical thinkers, the spirits of Max Horkheimer, Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, still circulate. The lectures of the great philosopher Habermas kept that spirit alive. In international relations and comparative politics professors 0. Czempiel, U. Menzel and L. Brock have helped me carve a cartography of academic research interest that bridges both international and regional politics. I went on to graduate with my Masters, and later earned a doctorate in Political Science.
I have ever since embarked on a career in the academia, teaching so far at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, and currently at Simpson University in Redding, California.
To Pay the Bills or to Pay the Soul
Coming into the professional life, different people have different motivations: making money, lots of it, having a meaningful job that pays bills or a career that primarily pays more than just bills. Those interested in the last category of careers are in most cases driven by a calling or vocation, which arguably is about an ideal higher and bigger than their own lives, and individual leanings.
Careers associated with a calling are public service related. They deal for the most part with humanitarian causes, such as the quest to lessen or eradicate the effects of poverty, public health issues such as when a researcher dedicates their life to finding a cure for a devastating illness, or humanistic causes, such as the quest to elevate the human spirit to its godly highest aspiration through education, or ethical goals, such as dedicating one's life to fight injustice, inequality or seeking a more just society.
These types of careers are sought by those who heed the call regardless of pay, hardship, sacrifice etc... These careers, however, procure a special kind of satisfaction that is in most cases difficult to verbalize. I am referring to that state of satisfaction you feel deep inside as you walk toward your car after a days work, and feel it through your legs in every step you take. In that moment where it is just you and nobody else, a moment that feels quasi spiritual is the feeling I think, that pays your soul. That feeling does not pay the bills of the public servant but rather his/her soul.
Personally, I had the opportunity of experiencing the difference between the kind of joy described above and the joy that comes out of a pay check in a regular, any kind of job. After earning my Masters at the University of Frankfurt, and while considering my doctorate project and reflecting on what my dissertation should be about, I was given a job in a bank called Societe Generale SA, a French bank operating in Frankfurt, as a back office clerk in 1994. The conditions, the contract, the money and the people were great. Some of the people I met there, still are my acquaintances today.
I pushed papers and made sure transactions deals made in the front office were done according to the regulations and laws. The bank made money and so did I in a very modest way, but enough to settle and make it my career. I could not, however, shake off the constant feeling of a lack of fulfillment. There was a void I could not ignore, making me wonder whether it was fulfilling to spend time after time helping people make money, wondering whether we were helping a good kind of people to make money, or whether we were equally contributing, as we generated profit, to bettering the human condition. I kept remembering the quote of an anonymous French farmer who said: II faut que le monde soit meilleur parce que nous aurons vecu" (own translation: The world ought to be better because we will have lived in it").
These questions, I am well aware, are not self-evident, and they may even be displaced in a financial institution, which is there not for moral purposes or otherwise, other than maximizing the return of investors. Because of the illegitimacy of such questions in a financial setting on one side and the legitimacy of those questions in my soul on the other, I consequentially had to divorce from the business.
I went forth to concentrate on my dissertation project. In the meantime, I joined a non-profit organization called Africa Foundation based in Frankfurt. This organization, of which I became vice-president, supported financially, technically and by advising developmental projects initiated by Africans to improve concrete deficient conditions in the areas of education, public sanitation and health. We have organized expeditions of German and African doctors, with the support of the German government, to go every other year to Guinea and Togo to perform free surgeries on needy populations. We have assisted with the building of schools in Zambia and Ghana. The documented performances of these trips on videos, and the realization of projects, and being aware of my palpable qualitative and quantitative inputs, gave me that kind of joy that pays the soul.
Eventually, I very successfully defended my doctoral thesis, and started to explore opportunities of working for a peace research institute in Oslo. Subsequently, other opportunities for teaching position at American universities opened, and I consented. I have been teaching since 1999. I understand teaching as a public service, wherein through the process itself and scholarship, I contribute, or so I trust, to better the world, be it in a minuscule way, as the anonymous French farmer had hoped for.
As a teacher, I seek greatness, which if we agree with William A. Ward, consists of inspiring students. I aim at planting a seed worth nurturing, a wisdom worth remembering for years to come. I seek lighting up a fire in the hearts, cracking up an array of light in the nebulous minds of students. I finally aim at empowering them by building trust and faith in themselves through the tools of critical thinking, and hope they will become productive members of societies by making a living that pays their souls.
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