“Success is not for the chosen few” (signpost at Utumishi Academy, Gilgil)
This aphorism, and over twenty others, have been hand-painted in block letters and posted on individual 3-foot-high posts around the secondary school we are staying at a few hours from Nairobi. The signs are unique, eye-catching, and often humourous.
It is ironic that this sign is posted at an elite boys' boarding school, open only to male students who score in the top 5% nationally on a cumulative grade 8 national exam. As a mzungu (non-Kenyan) who is privileged to fly half-way around the world to visit a developing country for a month, I know that I am one of a 'chosen few' to be born in Canada, to attend primary and secondary school for free, to access student loans regardless of my grades or political affiliations.
The teachers and educators we work with in Kenya are also a chosen few. They have the internal resolve to succeed – on their own terms – against all odds. Patrick, the education officer for a Kenyan wildlife reserve that supports local schools, grew up in a small village. As young as standard 7, with the encouragement of his mother, he woke up at 5am to study hard and review for his life-determining national exam. He entered high school, sponsored by a local well-wisher, and qualified for government loans and university entrance – a feat achieved by only the top 3.6% of Kenyan high school graduates. After years of determination, he beat the bureaucracy, entered university, completed a degree, and obtained a good job working for an internationally connected non-profit. He was ambitious, and he is successful.
Patrick's determination is amazing and impressive; he is an intelligent, passionate young man with an internal drive to succeed. However, his story is a story of success within the current system; as such, it reaffirms and legitimizes the current system. Patrick's story is the Kenyan version of the 'American Dream'. Such instances do happen, in exceptional cases, every once in a while. But I wonder, what about the students who are not exceptionally skilled at memorizing answers to national exams? What about the thousands of Kenyans whose families ask them to assist with family chores before, after, and even instead of school? What about students who do not find a local sponsor, and whose families cannot pay for secondary school education? What about the 57,000 students per year who qualify for university entrance but for financial reasons cannot attend?
I often think to myself that these valuable, intelligent young people are the people we interact with every day here in Kenya. A grade 9 drop-out – selling greeting cards, beads, or sweeties. An especially persistent card seller, saying 'my name is Joseph – look in the corner, this is the greeting card I drew'. A thrifty caterer, cutting corners on food orders to save small change for further education. A shrewd driver, asking a bit more for the taxi ride to help fund his child's future. These are ambitious individuals, doing the best they can in the role that society has given them.
Each time I come to Kenya, I come to appreciate and respect the experience and expertise of our many Kenyan colleagues – teachers, car owners, booksellers, and hosts. I hope we can learn to respect the ambition of our many partners, whatever direction that ambition takes.
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