Written by: Dr Tasneem Essaji

Dr Tasneem Essaji is a Resident Physician and Nephrologist at The Aga Khan Hospital in Mombasa, Kenya. In this piece she recounts the many challenges she had to face in order to get where she is today.

My story starts in a place called Inglani, in a house that some may call a hut (due to its size). My father, a self-taught forklift mechanic, vowed to educate his children. My mother was a part time French teacher and I was the middle born amongst three daughters.

In school, I was fascinated by the study of law and used to envisage myself donning the robe in future. I got a promising offer for a Bachelor of Law at The University of Nairobi in the public stream. However, I made a life-changing decision to shift to Medicine upon the advice of our then community leader, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. The thought of doing medicine had never crossed my mind and there weren’t many successful regional stories of women opting for this field to serve as inspiration. However, I heeded Syedna’s advice and have never looked back since. Although the decision was initially fraught with challenges, the journey eventually rewarded me with outcomes I had never imagined.

I secured a scholarship to do GCE A levels and my grades got me an entry to study Medicine at St Georges, University of London and Cardiff University in the UK. However, a government policy of an increment in tuition fees became a breaking point to that plan.

The next few days dragged on. My mum was undeterred and kept handing me lists of embassies in Kenya whom we could approach for a scholarship to study medicine.

We tried at Poland’s Mombasa Consulate but were denied on the grounds that too many applications had come in. With a heavy heart, we wrote back to the Embassy where a kind lady rooted for my case and said she would apply for an extra scholarship specifically for me. She asked us to call back on Friday for a reply.

One Friday after the other we kept calling only to hear that no response had been received. I felt like an air of hopelessness had blanketed me until I got the breakthrough call confirming that my application was accepted.

Until then Poland had been like a myth to me, I knew nothing about the country or its people. As dawn broke on 16th September, I boarded a flight to this new country, managing to learn three words on my way there: cześć (hello), Proszę (please) and Dziękuję (thank you).

I always thought French was hard until I had to learn Polish! It took a whole year to grasp the basics of daily use as well as scientific Polish. After passing the language and science exams, I gained entrance to study medicine at the University of Gdansk.

What followed was an uphill task of not only understanding the language but mastering it to pass the exams! The entire course was in Polish including the test. It took me thirty minutes just to read a single page and at the end of it, I could still not remember its contents. The passing mark for tests was getting 60% and I managed to get between 50 to 55%. That first year, I kept questioning myself if I was in the right place.

One day, in a wave of inspiration, I made a drawing depicting a light penetrating the darkness and stuck it on the wall beside my study table and told myself ‘I am the light and I can do this’. With persistence and an exam resit I eventually passed my 1st year. With time, as I became more fluent in Polish, the following years began to fall in line with my ambitions.

Besides the language barrier, the most common point of concern was money. I had a partial scholarship which meant I didn’t pay tuition fees, however I still needed money to cater for accommodation, daily expenses, books and travel. My parents saved all they could, where there were instances when my mum would not even drink a soda just so she could save. I also did my share of odd-jobs to see out the gauntlet. It was a humbling experience to say the least. Of the many things I learnt in Poland, this experience was one of my biggest takeaways and even today no job is too small for me.

After I completed my studies. I was immediately given an opportunity to do an internship in Poland, which would allow me to practice in Europe. However, my heart lay in my homeland and I made a decision to practice in Kenya.

I worked for one year after internship and went back to do my Masters in Internal Medicine. Once qualified, I worked for two years and then applied for an International Society of Nephrology fellowship. This is a competitive post and I was fortunate to gain it. I went on to do my nephrology training in 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. I returned to Kenya amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and got a position as Head of Nephrology at The Aga Khan Hospital Mombasa.

Today, when I reflect back; the struggle, the crossroads, living in a foreign land, I have come to realise that there was a meaning to it all. I know that more than anything else, I love being a doctor. My best days are when I make a difference to my patients and that is when I remember the timely advice of Syedna Burhanuddin telling me to do medicine. Moreover, the mindset and impressions that were carved out from the initial struggles had made me more resilient and optimistic. Hence, when Covid-19 struck and brought along a wave of unprecedented troubles, all that training and experience helped me cope and stay focused on the frontlines. Today, I am thankful that even though the journey was tough, I stuck to the path I chose and managed to traverse through it to get to a smoother plain.