While hundreds of thousands of students graduate every year from American universities, millions of other students around the world do not have the privilege making it through high school, much less getting into a college like UMKC.
Growing up in rural Kenya, I saw highly talented girls and boys, including myself, whose academic success went into the drain, because of grinding poverty and no room for upward mobility.
We walked to school barefoot and with torn clothes, worked hard to make the best out of our efforts. But in the end, our fates were sealed at eighth grade irrespective how promising one was. That is still the scenario that you’d find in most rural communities in Africa.
Africa is no doubt a very rich continent endowed with rich minerals, oil, wildlife and arable soils for agriculture. But avaricious politicians have driven the people into abject squalor by pillaging these national resources.
No one chooses to be born in poverty. But my unpleasant background was a blessing in disguise because it made me appreciate the virtues of never taking anything for granted, the virtues of hard-work and a love of the unprivileged.
On May 17, I’ll join a group of 60 students at UMKC to graduate with a B.A in Communication Studies, Journalism and Mass Communication. This will be a lifetime dream that I fought so hard to realize. I can hardly believe how far I have come.
The government policy in America that guarantees public education from kindergarten through high school makes learning a fundamental human right. That is only a pipe dream among children from poverty-stricken families in developing societies.
My life has been a tale of tragedies blessings. They have combined to make me the person I am today.
Growing up in the mountainous rugged village Kisii County in western Kenya, I was always concerned about my future. I knew from the beginning that I was not expected to go beyond grade school.
My older brothers had dropped at eighth grade, one after the other and I I was probably the next. To break out this cycle of semi-literacy, which was responsible for the family’s crushing poverty and hopelessness, I had to do something.
One older brother was academically talented. He was ahead of me by four classes and every evening, he could come home and recite everything he had learned in class. At the end of every semester, he was among the top three in his class.
When I enrolled in “standard one” in the early 1980s, I kept an impressive performance, remaining at the top of my class up to eighth grade.
Yet, we sometimes slept hungry and no single day I can remember taking breakfast before going to school. There was nothing for lunch. We lived only on a single meal a day, if at all we had some.
Despite my impressive performance, I knew that I could not make it beyond grade school. My oldest brother, an exceptionally talented artist, had to drop in fifth grade, due to the harsh living conditions. My next-oldest brother dropped at seventh grade in 1978.
Two more brothers fell by the wayside. Although we slept hungry almost every day, the hopelessness and despair in the family did not dampen my resolve and conviction that one day I’d go to high school. However, I just had no idea how to achieve that dream.
There are fewer than 15 from my village of about 10,000 who started high school. While I was in grade school, only three from my village had made it to a university. One went through the support of a Lutheran church while the other two had parents who were prosperous from growing tea leaves. Most who started high school dropped out in 10th grade and came home without jobs.
After completing eighth grade, I was accepted at two provincial high schools. But I had no money to pay for tuition. So I wandered aimlessly, hoping to somehow find help to pay for my high school education.
Instead of attending ninth grade, I slept in the cold, without food, or in train stations hundreds of miles away from home. Sometimes, I returned home, staying with neighbors. I connected with a few of my friends from well-to-do-families who had made it to high school and borrowed their notes to enable me study independently. So if I could get in school, I would not be far off in catching up with my classmates.
One day I approached a one-time member of Kenya’s parliament and told him I needed help to pursue my high school education.
He agreed to pay for my tuition but not my room and board. To ensure I did not lose this chance, I told him I was determined to walk from my rural home – 8.4 miles each way — to and from school. After doing this for two semesters, my sponsor said he could no longer help me.
I found myself back where I started. I tried to seek scholarships but none was available. I approached the principal of the only low-cost high school in the area, and convinced him to allow me take classes because I was expecting some government aid. I showed him a letter from the local district commissioner who was appealing for school fees on my behalf.
At first, the principal was surprised by my audacity. He allowed me to take classes for a few weeks. In a constituency of close to 50,000 people, only three high schools served the large number of students from local primary schools.
After about three weeks, I was sent away from school because no fees of about $25 a year, had been paid yet. I sought help from the local administrator whose letters to the school allowed me in class in the first place. But no aid was forthcoming.
After spending a month in this school without paying any fees, I was one day summoned to the principal’s office and given a thorough beating. The principal accused me of making his life hard by asking government officials to pressure him to admit me in his school without paying fees.
I went home crestfallen. But I went back to school and sneaked into class. This time, the principal attacked me with blows and kicks until I fell. He then whipped me many times and told me never to come back to that school, even if I had the money for fees. Yet, this experience did not dampen my resolve to get an education.
My friends agreed to bring me their lecture notes each week. Every Friday evening, I could get the notes covering, history, geography, business studies, Social education, ethics, CRE, biology, chemistry, physics and agriculture. I would spend sleepless weekends copying those notes so I could return them to my friends by Monday at 6 a.m. This is how I learned the course work for 10th, 11th and 12th grades.
I did not officially get admitted into high school until my final semester. Meanwhile, I had started writing for one of Kenya’s oldest newspapers, The Standard.
My first story, ‘Pluralism Explosive – Ongeri’ was prominently published on page three with my full byline as I was waiting to take my 12th grade exams. The headline quoted a cabinet minister in Kenya’s then-dictatorial regime warning citizens against embracing multi-party democracy which was gaining ground across Africa.
People were puzzled. They did not understand how a youngster had bounced in and out of school could be writing for a national newspaper. The second story, “Cash Embezzled, Claims Minister,” was published as I was waiting for my national examination results.
I then applied and was accepted to two prestigious journalism colleges in Africa – Nyegezi Social Institute in Tanzania and African Literature Center in Zambia. I went to Nyegezi but after failing to pay the required fees, I was, once again, sent home.
If someone asked my mother how I got my education, she would reply, “I have no idea. Ask him.”
My fellow graduates and I should give ourselves a hand for taking advantage of our opportunities. But we should never take those opportunities for granted. I know that I haven’t.