By: NJOKI CHEGE
From a janitor to a police assistant, it may seem that Dorothy Ouma has travelled a just a few miles as the crow flies. She has achieved much and has a long list of accolades during her career spanning three decades most recently, a long service award from the Arlington Police Department of Texas State.
Before her retirement in April this year, Ouma’s 30 years’ service as a police assistant in the police department earned her a reputation as a great crime scene investigator whose skills at lifting prints led to many convictions.
Life in the diaspora has been full of lessons for the single mother of three. Trained at Asumbi Teachers’ Training College, When she first arrived in the US from Kenya she had hoped to become an accountant and probably attend divinity school, but life had other plans for her.
She attended Mountain View College and The University of Texas at Arlington.
In her retirement, Dorothy looks back at the long journey of tears, toil and sweat that led to this moment and counts her blessings as she relives the fruition of her American dream.
Congratulations for your 30 years in the US police service! How does it feel to have spent such a long time in such a structured, disciplined and demanding profession?
I feel very blessed to have worked for the City of Arlington Police department. The job helped shape me as a person so I can be a productive and disciplined member of society. I learnt how to handle a lot of personal demands in my life at the same time, such as raising my kids, taking them to church and to various activities, keeping up with the house work, working hard at college and keeping order in every aspect of my life.
When you arrived in the US in 1982, what were your expectations of the kind of life that the US would offer you that Kenya could not, and were those expectations met?
I expected to go to university, obtain a master’s degree and then go to ministry school and then return home. While it was a lot easier to get into university as a non-resident at the time, it was very expensive for me, but I had a plan.
I was fortunate to qualify for a few academic scholarships which took care of my tuition but I had to work hard for long hours to make ends meet. I was often sleep-deprived but my faith and discipline saw me through. I could only afford to study part time but I made up for lost time by attending summer school – an optional holiday semester for those willing to sacrifice their vacation for studies and complete their degrees in a shorter time.
As a young mother in the US, working a night job and having school during the day, how did you manage it all and still raise your children?
After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I was accepted to graduate school, but I passed up on the offer. I knew it was time for me to stop and focus on the care of my three daughters who were teenagers at the time. I did not want to concentrate so much on my career and lose my children in the process.
I would proudly say that my kids did not miss out on any activities they wanted to engage in. They ran track, played basketball, were in dance class, acting class, played piano, sang and danced at church. They had friends over often. At one point or another I felt like their driver, always taking them some place or picking them up. I was also the ride for their friends. I mostly slept for four hours when I was going to school and raising my kids as a single parent.
My schedule would begin long before 4:00 AM when I had to be at work, and I would be done with work by 2:00 PM and ready to pick up my children from school. I would prepare dinner while they did their homework and took their baths. At times I took them with me to college where they stayed in day care while I was in class. Other times, I paid a baby sitter to stay home with them while I was in class.
I would do everything before going to school and all she had to do was make sure they were in bed by 8 PM. Bed time was very strict because kids go to school early and I wanted them to be awake and alert and do well in school. All in all, it was worth it as they were mostly straight A students.
My first job in the US was cleaning tables at a restaurant before I got a janitorial job. I did an exemplary job as a janitor that it did not take long before I got promoted to be a senior janitor. I spent every spare time studying. I would leave class and go to the library and do my homework. During lunch I was studying or working on my typing to gain speed. I was lucky to get a janitorial job at fire department and they had an old typewriter on which they let me practice.
I realized that when you come to the USA, you cannot be picky, you have to get on your feet very quickly as nobody wants to support you fulltime, not even your relative. They can only support you for a very short time but you have to work fast on being independent.
America is viewed as the land of opportunity, and even though the opportunities are there, you still have to pave your way and build your own dreams. Nothing here is given to you for free as may be the perception of some back at home. You have to work hard and be determined to make your dreams come true. The moment you stop working everything stops, your car payment, rent and utilities are still due or they will be, repossessed or you will be evicted or utilities cut off.
Why did you choose to work with the police? Is it something you had always wanted to do or did the opportunity present itself and you went for it?
I was going to school to be an accountant, and I had no plans to work for the police department. But an opportunity presented itself at a jail and I applied and was hired as a detention officer.
I was later hired as a Police Service assistant to work more closely with officers in the field.
Some of the special things I did was to deploy police equipment such as Sky watch towers, message boards, camera towers, etc. I also helped train other officers on how to deploy them and take them down. I also did monthly inventory of all police equipment on West police department where I worked. I made sure that all vehicles were serviced on a timely manner.
Since I drove a truck, I helped with transporting large or heavy items that needed to be moved or booked into evidence. My favourite thing to do was working burglary crime scenes. I however detested going to court to testify, but it was part of the job.
I also never wrote a ticket for traffic offences unless I had evidence that a person was on the wrong and had been given an opportunity to fix the problem. I was always guided by the saying, “treat others as you would love them to treat you”.
What was that defining moment of your career? The one moment you will never forget in your 30 years of working at Arlington PD?
One of the most defining moments of my career is when I was going through the police academy and we were given daily chores. We had to clean the building every day; take out the trash, scrub and clean the toilets, the bathrooms and the kitchen.
I wondered why we were made to do menial tasks best suited to less skilled people and then it dawned on me, to be a police officer is to be a public servant. You have to be broken down to learn serve and learn humility instead of lording it over others.
This is something that guided me throughout, my career. My job was a call to serve the people at their most vulnerable time.
Obviously you read local news and you are privy to the challenges in the Kenya Police System. Using your experience, what do you think can be done to improve the Kenya Police’s current situation?
Kenya police can be improved by developing trust and integrity. One of the greatest things I learned from the Arlington Police Department is that you never tell a lie. To plan to tell a lie was putting your job on the line. It was better to tell the truth and get disciplined for whatever the case was than to be found telling a lies and forever lose your job.
My actions were always guided by integrity. I knew that everything I did and said, did not only reflect me, but reflected the department that I worked for. All my decisions and actions determined whether I could keep working for the department or not.
Kenya Police can be improved by hiring more police and developing a more localized structure with close supervision.
They should also be professional and get rid of corruption. They should also have more accountability for their actions. They should have training programs and certifications and re-certifications on an ongoing basis. They also need to be paid well and held more accountable. They should not be linked with committing the same crimes that they are hired to prevent.
There should be clear levels of disciplinary actions for infractions committed by officers. There should also be in place recognition and award program where officers who have done exemplary work can be recognized and awarded for their outstanding service.
Many Kenyans who leave the country for abroad (especially US) have a lot of hopes and dreams and want to live the Kenyan-American dream. But that’s not always the case and many end up disappointed. Are you living the dream and if so, tell us, how does a Kenyan in diaspora make it in the US?
I can say that I have partly realized my American dream. I worked hard, got my degree, got a professional job and have retired. I am still pursuing part of my dream which is having a successful business.
My oldest daughter graduated top of her class as a nurse, but has since then, decided to do other things. My second daughter who also graduated with honours is an ultrasound technician. My last born is still in university studying to be an accountant and hopefully will be done with school next year.
She is also currently engaged and we may have a wedding next year.
Many Kenyans come here thinking that life is easy, but truly life in the US presents you with opportunities, but also challenges. You still have to work hard to realize those dreams. Some went to school in fields that had very little opportunities for them and ended up not getting jobs when they were done with school.
You need to study the market and try to go to school in fields that have demands for your degree. After your get a job, you still have to have to be discipline to show up to work on time and work hard. Some of the people who have been disappointed with life in the US may not have had the necessary papers to help them secure jobs or go to school or become green card holders or citizens.
When you do not have the necessary papers, life becomes very difficult, challenging and disappointing.
Some people who have had papers have also found life here very demanding and challenging. You are mostly on your own trying to figure out your own path and life. There are many who have been successful, many are coping and some have not managed to adapt to the lifestyle here and have gone back home. Some who are here would love to come back home, but do not know how to come back and re-establish their lives back at home.
What plans do you have for retirement years?
I plan to spend my retirement running my business, helping raise my grandchildren, going to the gym, doing ministry work as I am a woman of faith. Lastly, I plan to engage myself in events with the Kenyan women in the US.
I also plan to give back by working with orphanages in Kenya in due time
SOURCE: DAILY NATION