Every kid worth his bitten pencil dreams of getting to the university. To get there means the young pupil have to pass through eighteen years of the robust Kenyan system.
I shouldn’t call the system tight but challenging. Yes, challenging.
In primary school, that’s the first to the eighth grades in Kenya it was common to find only one textbook in class. And most times it was the teacher’s copy. Most of the country’s population earn less than a dollar per day. My mother and other mom’s with school going kids worried about food, not books and bags. Tuition fees were hard enough, and it was common to find myself sent home from school. The upside was finding a whole gang of my friends also sent back. We even had a name for this regular sent offs; the ‘home tours’.
The first real test for us was in eighth grade. This is where the final primary school exam is done. Over a quarter of young people have less than a lower secondary education according to the UN. I remember being awed by the big exam and putting my feet in a bucket of water to prevent me from falling asleep so that I could study late into the night.
Everything went according to plan, and I passed with flying colors. High school selection in my country is made according to merit. The kids with the highest points in the primary school main exam are called to the top national schools. The second tier schools are the rural high schools. I got my letter of admission to a top provincial school. Unfortunately, since my family with very modest resources couldn’t afford that school’s fees, I couldn’t go. My scholarly heart was broken. The local public schools were also a no-no for the same financial reason. It looked like I was going to be a ‘drop off ‘statistic.
Luckily for me, our church’s pastor had heard of a new school. A new private high school that was not asking for too much. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the school was comprised of only two buildings that housed the classrooms. The boarding areas were in a significant structure on the edge of the school. The house-like structure was divided into two. One side for the boys and the other for the girls. Upon my joining the total number of the students was a hundred and two. A modest number even by small cheap privates standard.
I quickly adapted to the high school life or as we call it ‘secondary’ school life. The holidays were a little sad as I listened to my friend’s new schools. They could afford to go to schools with basketball courts, laboratories for all the sciences, hot meals and lots of school trips. My sadness always turned to gladness when I saw my other friends who hadn’t made it. Either due to lack of school fees or because they had to take up jobs to support their parents. My parents had struggled until I had got myself a school. With the grades, I was making my teachers assured me I’ll make it to the university. I was a real ‘university material’, but the future held different plans.
My first year in High school was excellent. Coming from a remote region anything new brought great fascination to my young mind. From the magical electricity that filled our big hall-like bedroom (in my area there was no electricity, we depended on lamps and fireplaces) to the shiny uniform that we wore every day, I was a happy student. The second year also breezed by and my grades stayed level. I wasn’t the top in class as I had a real problem with biology and physics but I was always among the top 5.
My troubles started in the third year. More books were needed, congresses had to be attended, and more money was required for the school expenses. My Father, who had struggled to put me through the first years, was pressed to the limit. A couple of students in my class decided they’d had enough of being sent home for school fees and the bad school conditions and called it quits. I don’t think their families mourned the decision.
The school year in my country is divided into three terms. In every time I was sent home from school, a ‘home tour’. For the first two years, i didn’t mind the breaks but come the third year, and the studies became more complex the breaks became a big distraction. My biggest challenge was still to come. The third year ended, my grades were still good, University was just one more year away.
It came while we were in class. The boys sitting near the classroom windows excitedly reported that police were in our school. What could be the problem? The time for taking a break came and we saw the cops. Only they were not the police but health inspectors along with the ministry of education guys. Our school was up for inspection. In the next week, they came frequently and all the time was bringing more suit wearing people. That Friday during the school assembly the headmistress announced it.
“The school is getting closed. Your parents have all been informed to come and collect you.”
No more explanations were given. We added one and one and realized our cheap school didn’t meet the requirements set by the relevant authorities. In no time, I was back home without a school. The principal national exam was only eight months away. Things didn’t look good. My dear father went to almost all of the boarding schools he knew. Always looking for somewhere I could finish my last year. The answer was always the same; you have to pay the hefty joining fee. There were no day schools in our remote area. I was stuck. My fellow students whose families had some money paid the joining and the boarding fees and went to other schools. Most of the others who had been at my school as they couldn’t afford other schools had no option but to drop off. One of my colleagues, a bright girl even tried to commit suicide. Luckily she was saved. Today she is a mother of five.
When I heard about the suicide attempt, I made up my mind. I went to the local district office which also housed the regional educational office and booked the main exam as a private candidate. When the exam date arrived, I would sit for my exam there. It is a program designed mostly for adult students who missed out on an education and now want to get their high school certificate. Getting into university as a private candidate was rarely done. The last year of high school is designed in the system to be a practical one, one on one with experienced teachers, exam clinics and practical science and engineering experiments what was supposed to happen. I went home and had a talk with my parents. They would not look for another school; I was going to study at home.
This was easier said than done. Surrounded by distractions, it would take a disciplined mind. I woke up at four in the morning. Did my chores which included milking our two cows and cleaning their shed, Fetching water for the family use from the river down the hill, about a kilometer away and finally feeding the chickens. It might not sound like a lot of work but to a sixteen-year-old it was. After the chores had been done and a humble breakfast finished I would hit the books. I made my own mini timetable organize myself better. The tough subjects in the morning like arithmetic and the others which came more naturally to me in the afternoon. Of course, sometimes my mom would need help with something, and I had to drop everything and help. With time, I started to get used to it.
One Sunday we went to church, and I used the church’s land line to call my former teacher. The pastor didn’t seem to mind as I talked to the helpful Mrs. Josselyn, who had been my English teacher. She became my advisor on setting good study times, and I would call her on most Sundays. The toughest subject to prepare for was biology. My father took me to the local dispensary where a superior clinical officer brushed my human body knowledge with well-illustrated charts (some which he allowed me to take home). Soon some other nurses heard of me and chemistry lessons at least one in a month were in order. I was ecstatic. I used past exam papers to test myself, and the results were always encouraging.
When it was time for me to sit for the exam a problem materialized. The exam ran for three days. The examination center was many miles from our home. Once again our church came to the rescue when one member talked to her sister who lived near the center. After the exam, there was a four-month waiting period. Many jokes were made about the kid who studied alone. Did I think I’ll get to the exam university? I wondered the same too.
My pastor came running to our home when the results were reported. He had received a call from the center as it was his number I’d given in the contact form. I had a B+. It was not a distinction, but I was safely tucked in the university admittance list. My family was so happy. I write this story to encourage someone who has a goal that seems unattainable. Many were the times I wanted to give up. With a little determination and planning, you can do anything. I was not the best but my modest success getting to university is a small inspirational story for you not ever to give up. Ever…