Settling in at MIT

A view of the Ray and Maria Stata Center, one of the memorable buildings at MIT

It is 4:35am in Cambridge. A searing thought in my brain has shaken me into wakefulness. A mental soliloquy runs like this: should I lie in bed and listen to my breathing till the morning light breaks through the blinds? Should I turn on the TV and gag on comedy or should I write and decide that I still have what it takes? Writing has been an indulgence I have not had the luxury of engaging in much of these last couple of years. My writings last graced the pages of the Sunday Vision, back in 2008, when I shared my experiences about running a writing class in a men’s prison in Lancaster, visiting St Petersburg etc.

At the time of writing, it is a couple of hours since the Entrepreneurs Walk of Fame has been inaugurated at the Kendall Square at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute for Science and Technology (MIT) where I am currently the IWMF 2011-2012 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow. So like the Hollywood walk of Fame, where celebrities have stars of their names embedded in the ground, the Entrepreneurs’ Walk of Fame following the same concept celebrates people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bob Swanson, Thomas Edison, and Mitch Kapor among others for their contribution to the world. So later, when tourists start flocking to this Walk of Fame, I will say I was there the day it was inaugurated.

I have been in Cambridge two weeks now, as a research scholar at the Center for International Studies at MIT. Each morning as I walk past the Technology Square, called so because Kendall, where MIT is located is considered the hub of innovation, with companies like Google and Microsoft having offices here. A Cambridge city councilor quoted in the Boston Globe (Friday 16, September) refers to the square as, “the most innovative square mile on the planet.” So each time I walk to and fro my offices I wonder who will be the next generation’s leader in innovation. Best known for its technology, MIT students have also been known for ingenious pranks. They refer to them as hacks meant to demonstrate technical aptitude and cleverness, or to commemorate popular culture and historical topics, and are carried out at in the night. An impromptu orientation walk with Professor Kenneth Oye, gives me an insight on the hacks. We pass the dome, the hallmark of MIT and he narrates a story of how, in the 1990s, Cambridge woke up to a site of a police car dangling dangerously on the dome. A Wikipedia search reveals an explanation of the hacks,  “Famous hacks include a weather balloon labeled “MIT” appearing at the 50-yard line at the Harvard/Yale football game in 1982, the placing of a campus police cruiser on the roof of the Great Dome,  converting the Great Dome into R2-D2 or a large yellow ring to acknowledge the release of Star Wars Episode I and Lord of the Rings respectively or placing full-sized replicas of the Wright Flyer and a fire truck to acknowledge the anniversaries of first powered controlled flight and the September 11th attacks respectively.” The hacks go on to reveal that MIT is not only about studies but about lots of fun as well for the tech savvy students.

The Alchemist, a white numeric metallic sculpture welcomes you to the student center

As a fellow, I get to audit classes at different universities in the Boston area. At one point in our lives we all nurse the idea of being a great photographer, taking those timeless pictures that will forever enshrine our names in the books as the best photographers ever. So in that moment of creative inspiration, I enrolled in a documentary photojournalism class at Boston University. A request to the College of Communication to audit the class in the fall is granted, and I commence life as student for a semester. The difference is now I feel like the ‘matures’, in Ugandan speak. We all remember when we were bubbling at the entrance of our twenties, smart sharp undergrads who looked at the older students, and wondered why they could not grasp concepts the first time the professor explained. Well, now I am that older student, who cannot comprehend the professor’s explanation the first time round, and the kick is that I actually get to write about it. Professor Peter Smith insists we have to purchase cameras. You cannot take photography classes without a professional digital camera. Those who cannot afford the camera walk out. The photography lab is air conditioned and each work desk is stationed with a Mac desktop. I smile the first day I walk into class thinking these kids have no idea how lucky and blessed they are. I try to picture what a photography lab in Uganda would look like and I can only see overly ancient computers being used. I have only recently procured my camera and have not figured out how to operate it. One of the students, a Canon expert, offers to help me out. The first assignment is to take a portrait which is due next week.

The College of Communication at Boston University

I am also taking time to take an actual workshop in advanced fiction writing. The class is led by Professor Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. The prize is a holy grail for American authors. It is no wonder his class is over subscribed. He has to make the hard decision to cut out students. I am determined to stay in it. I have not traveled over oceans to get kicked out. The thing about studying in the Ivy League universities means that you get to be tutored by the best there is. The reason I am attending the class is to actually learn the techniques of telling a good story. Being a self-taught writer like most of us on the continent where you feel you have a story to tell and just get on with it, and with luck hit the jackpot and get published by a reputable publisher, in the US, you actually get to learn how to write compelling stuff that gets the attention of the publishers.

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