A Quest for Knowledge

How education took me from a village in Tanzania to Basel in Switzerland

(Image: Aaron Burde, CC0)

As a small child, growing up in a low-income family in Tanzania, my parents implanted in me the belief that education was most important. I’ve never forgotten that lesson, and it has guided me through life. This quest for education has also taken me halfway around the globe, from Tanzania to India, to Japan and now to Switzerland. Just a couple of weeks ago, I started my PhD at the University of Basel. Let me tell you my story.

My name is Ashery Mbilinyi, and I’m a PhD student working with the Database and Information Systems (DBIS) group at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Apart from working with a great research group and having access to a world-class education, I also find myself in a truly international environment here in Basel. People from all corners of the world come here to study, teach and research.

It has only been six weeks since I joined the university that I will be calling home for the next four years. However, I’m already enjoying myself.

Tracking infectious diseases

I am working on a project, in which we’re exploring ways to support spatial and temporal search over multimedia medical databases. This project is a big reason why I’m happy to be here because a project like this not only can help track the spread of infectious diseases (something especially important in developing countries like Tanzania) but it can also save lives by giving policymakers the information they need to develop timely preventive measures.

Which is precisely why I chose this particular project — because I’m hoping that through this work, I’ll help to improve the situation back in my home country.

Education for change

As a Tanzanian who was born in a rural area to a low-income family of eight, I have seen many deaths caused by diseases like typhoid and malaria. I suffered from malaria many times. One of the reasons why these diseases can spread is the fact that people are not educated about the risk factors and how to avoid them.

Me (in trousers) with two of my brothers, my father and our cow back in 1995.

I’ve always hated this situation. And I always knew that to change it, I had to get education. Already as a young child, I knew that I would need to get good education to help bring about change in my society. My father, a high school teacher, and my mother, a housewife, always used to tell us:

“We are not rich, education is the only inheritance we can give you, so you better work very hard at school.”

Unfortunately, they couldn’t afford to take us to a private school, so I struggled through public schools that had few books and sometimes not even teachers for some subjects.

Here I’m nine years old and very happy about my new school backpag.

Studying Computer Engineering

Eventually, I succeeded in joining the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) for my undergraduate studies in Computer Engineering. I chose Computer Engineering because I thought it would enable me best to bring the change I want to see in my country.

It turns out; I wasn’t very happy with the education I got at DIT. Things were too theoretical, and learning resources were insufficient. So I decided to turn to the Internet for education, which was difficult because I had very limited internet access.

However, in 2012, when MITx launched their first “6.002x: Circuit and Electronics” prototype course, I was among the students who joined the class. Unfortunately, without reliable internet access it was impossible to complete all the coursework on time, and therefore I was not able to finish the course.

Getting hands-on education

Back at DIT, I graduated in 2013 and was fortunate enough to be able to keep working for the university as a teacher. It was then when I learned that, as a public servant, I was eligible for “short course” competitive scholarship opportunities. I applied, and in August 2013, I joined the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing in Noida, India, for a course on web application development using open source tools.

My class consisted of 29 students from 19 nations, mostly developing countries. It was a great experience, mainly because I finally had hands-on education and the opportunity to learn from my classmates about their experiences with the same problems our countries face.

Afterwards, I went back to Tanzania and continued teaching at DIT, but I soon started thinking about graduate school. It was a difficult decision for me, because as a teacher, for the first time in my life, I finally felt like I was contributing towards making a change in my community. But I also knew that if I continued to graduate school, I could be of much more use since I would be researching fundamental problems my country is facing.

Lost in translation

I started to search for scholarship opportunities in Japan, as I was obviously not in the position to pay for it myself. In my job, I was making less than $200 a month, and my family depended on my support.

I chose Japan because of its reputation as a technologically advanced country and got accepted into the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST) in 2015 for my Master’s in Information Science.

Me in Japan, looking a little lost.

From the time I landed in Tokyo, I couldn’t help but marvel at how advanced this country is. Even though nearly 37 million people live in Tokyo, it is super clean, and the complex public transportation system works perfectly. Finally, at JAIST I had access to every learning resource I could imagine. But all of this came with a big challenge: the language.

As an international student, I had hoped to be able to speak English and to meet many English-speaking people. But nope, that was not the case AT ALL. In Japan, speaking Japanese is very important. Of course, there were international students, but most of them came from Asian countries where they had spent a year learning Japanese.

So, it wasn’t easy for me to keep up and contribute to the class discussion or to find help among my fellow students. But I adapted and managed to complete my Master’s degree.

Next stop — Basel!

Part of the historical center of Basel with one of the iconic green city trams. (Image: VV Nincic CC BY 2.0)

I wanted to gain research experience and knew I had to continue to do a PhD for that. But this time, it was important to me to find a place where I would feel more comfortable as an international student. I started looking at different research groups and finally contacted Professor Heiko Schuldt at the University of Basel.

I was amazed at the work his team has done, especially in Multimedia Information Retrieval. Even better, Prof. Schuldt responded to my emails very kindly, and after I had told him about my particular research interests, he guided me through all the necessary steps of writing my research proposal. From that moment on, I knew that working with him would be an excellent experience for me and would ultimately help me to give back to my country.

So my quest for knowledge and education has now brought me to Basel, and I’m looking forward to the challenges the PhD program will bring. But I’m confident that I will make it through by working hard. After all, hard work was what brought a kid from a village in Tanzania all the way to a prestigious university in Switzerland.

To all of you out there thinking about a doing a PhD or trying to finish one, I hope my story encourages you to keep working. If I was able to overcome the challenges I faced, then you can too.

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