Last month, we celebrated with four of our secondary scholars as they graduated from university! Oguna, Chrisborn, Meshack, and Samwel were our first graduates to score high enough on the national secondary exam to receive direct admittance to the university, and they are now all hold four-year degrees.
Oguna now has a degree from the University of Nairobi in Agricultural Education. Chrisborn now has a degree from Bondo University in Business Adminstration and Information Technology. Meshack and Samwel both graduated from Maseno University, Meshack in Computer Science and Technology, and Samwel in Business Administration and Information Technology. These degrees will enable these four to obtain paying jobs and establish stable careers that will lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Recently, Oguna reflected on his life since he became an Umoja scholar and who he hopes to become. He wrote:
“You see when we sit down and remember where we were, maybe eight years back, and where we are now, at least you can see progress. And when you reflect back on your life, you focus not on the negativities, but when you focus on the positives, you see there’s joy. Actually there is something great that is happening.
Indeed you don’t have to have money, you don’t have to have that resource, but you can utilize this little that you have, the time, the resource, however little it is, to impact on life of individuals. Actually I’ll be impressed when I have become a blessing to others.”
We are so proud of these students, and so excited to see what their futures hold.
A former pupil of Ogada Primary and Bar Union secondary school, Jack completed his KCSE this past year and is now working as a Project Assistant for Umoja as he waits to join university. When asked about the impact the Umoja Project has had on him, Jack spoke not only of himself, but also of his fellow pupils and the bonds that Umoja has fostered.
You will find that the Umoja students often get together; we form bonds. We say ‘Umoja is our mother’, because she is the one who has brought us up – the one who has brought us here.
The way that Jack speaks of his Umoja family is evident in the way that he works within the project as well. Always smiling and full of life, Jack walks alongside his Umoja colleagues with compassion and joy – and his presence is as bright as his favorite pair of highlighter-yellow trousers! Of course, his vivaciousness in the present and anticipation for the future in no way bury his depth of gratitude for the project’s impact on his life thus far.
You will also notice that the most successful students in schools are often Umoja – that is because we are so grateful for the opportunity we have been given – and we know it would be a shame to waste it. We work hard because we know that there are so many people who have worked hard to give us that chance.
It is through your generous support that such chances are given. On behalf of Jack and all other project assistants, we thank you for securing futures worth smiling for!
A few months ago, I went over to Moses’ house for tea. I’d known Moses for some time, and knew bits and pieces of his story. I knew that he was a total orphan, living with an uncle, and that he was very bright. I knew he was one of our top-performing graduates, and that he was now in university. But that day, over tea, I came to learn just how incredible Moses is.
Moses was born in a town just north of our project area, which sits along the border of three ethnic groups, which have been in conflict for many years. Both of his parents died when he was young, leaving he and his older brother to fend for themselves in an often-hostile, insecure environment. Neither went to school. Moses, curious and smart, tells me he used to sit with his neighborhood friends in the evening, teaching himself math, science, and literacy by following along as they did their homework. His brother, who worked odd jobs around the town, had saved enough money to pay a mechanic to teach Moses his trade and was planning to send Moses, around thirteen years, into this work when the Kenyan presidential election occurred in 2007, and violence erupted in the country.
As a multi-ethnic, unstable town, Moses’s home was hard-hit by the conflict, sending him fleeing to an aunt’s house in Chulaimbo, where the Umoja Project works. Upon learning he had never been in school, but seeing his capability, Moses’s aunt and uncle had him take a practice exam for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, an extremely difficult test that covers material from eight years of education and determines a student’s ability to continue on to secondary school. It’s scored out of 500 marks, and it is very rare for a student to achieve 400 or above. Moses, in his first exposure to education, scored 395 marks – the highest score in the school.
Moses continued on to secondary school, with the support of the Umoja Project, again performing well enough to go on to university. He’s now in his third year at Embu University, where he studies commerce, and was just elected to be president of the 5,000-student school.
Of his constant-smile and courage, Moses tells me: “Ever since I lost my parents…their absence in my life, and then the kind of bracket life had placed me into, giving me a life that is so unrealistic, a kind of life that you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, living in a hostile environment, with hostile people, nobody is giving you that positive information about life, everybody is discouraging, nobody wants to tell me that you can make it. So I gained my courage out of what I used to see in the community. And I also gained my courage out of the fact that I was an orphan. I always used to tell myself that being an orphan does not mean that’s where life will end. But it’s just an eye opener so that you may know that tomorrow, there’s a positive life. So it’s from that I gained my determination.”
An investment in education is truly an investment in a future.
Watch Moses tell his story HERE.
To get to Fabian’s home, we wandered up and through and around a green and growing hillside. Fabian came out the door of his home, which is made of red mud and surrounded by fields of maize, and squinted at us. His handshake was powerful, as was his presence.
We sat inside. Fabian grinned and told us that we were the first non-Kenyans to visit his home. We asked him about his studies, his future: Fabian just finished high school, and was the top Umoja scholar on his standardized test, scoring an A-. This score is rare, especially for orphans or vulnerable children. We sat with him as he heard the official word that Umoja would continue supporting him through university, which he will start in September. He wants to study engineering.
There are and aren’t words for the story. The images are what most impacted me: Fabian sat on four-legged stool just inside the doorway, with the afternoon sun hitting half his face. We asked him what he had been doing at home, and he said he was tending the maize. Keeping the monkeys away, he laughed. He was the top agricultural student at Chulaimbo high school, and he helps his mother support their family by growing maize.
We asked him what he would do once he graduated and had a job. His first paycheck, he said, he would divide into tenths. One tenth to the church, first—in recognition that everything we have comes from God. And next, a gift to Umoja, because he sees that the education of children is the way to lift up communities. And the rest, he said, will go to helping his mother build a new house. His quiet, confident voice makes him seem much older than he is. Only his huge grin revealed how deeply he was impacted at the news of official continuing support.
I don’t have much to tell besides these moments with Fabian. The strength, courage, and long discipline of so many of these students is overwhelming, and he strikes me as an example of the most dedicated. A few weeks after we met him, we saw Fabian on the day he received his official calling letter for university: he was accepted at Technical University of Kenya to study Spatial Engineering. This means that his future is set, is bright, is at hand. He is on a course to impact his family, his village, and the continuation of Umoja in the lives of other students like him.
Meet Esther, an Umoja Scholar, in this special report, written directly from Kenya by Ashley and Sarah, our 2016 Field Interns:
This is Esther.
When we first met Esther a few weeks ago, she came running around the side of her house to greet us. She is amazing to see: tall, strong, vibrant, with a smile that takes you in immediately. She ushered us in, come in, come in! She had just been working in the shamba, the garden, with her aunt.
Esther’s story is incredible. Esther finished secondary school last year, and scored so highly that she received direct admission to university for this fall. She is a total orphan who has been supported by the Umoja Project since 2008—throughout the end of her primary school at Bar Union and her entire time in secondary. She attended Mowego Girls’ Boarding School under Madame Grace, who is a tower of strength for young girls. Grace identified Esther as a leader among her peers, and now this confidence exudes from Esther as she speaks. During her years in boarding school, Esther attended the GET UP senior retreats—weekends when girls attending boarding school could come together to learn about women’s health, rights, and strategies for coping with the challenges unique to their lives. Now, Esther speaks to younger girls every chance she gets, telling them to be strong, brave, and sure of themselves and their gifts. She says GET UP was a mother to her when she had none, teaching her and giving her support as she grew.
Esther told us that she is looking forward to receiving her calling letter for university, and that she plans to study special education. These people have a unique perspective, she said, and I want to be the one who can listen to them. When we asked what she is excited or nervous about for college, she said she was nervous to make new friends, but excited because her tuition is paid. She feels free to focus on her studies instead of worrying about the fees.
This week, she shared with me that she loves writing. She says it’s how she used to cope with the pain of losing her parents, and now it’s continued as a way of expressing her identity in the world. She wrote this piece about the impact Umoja Project has had on her life:
Dear Umoja Project,
Once I was lost and thought I could not make it. I was down and thought I could not rise up. I was stuck and I thought I could not be freed. I was heavily loaded, but could not imagine at being freed. I lived in darkness and I did not think of living in brightness.
I lived in sorrow and fear. I did not even want to associate with my fellow friends because I thought I was nothing before them.
Good Lord! You gave me a father and a mother too! A sister and a brother and that was Umoja Project! Umoja, you have me education which has graduated me from darkness to brightness.
Umoja, you have given me a mother who is GETUP (Girls Empowerment Team of Umoja Project). I am now better than a person who has a mother because not all mothers share what they have experienced with their daughters.
Do you remember where you found me? When my eyes were ever full of tears? When the only thing in my mind was that I am suffering because I am an orphan?
You have taught me to be strong. You have filled the gap in my mind of being parentless. You have fed me just as birds feed their young ones! This is through your lunch program. You have also ensured that I stay at peace by taking me to a boarding school. You have made me to feel a sense of belonging between people by instituting GETUP programs.
Thank you Umoja for getting me up when I was down, for clothing me when I was naked. For giving me water when I was thirsty. For giving me hope when I had lost hope.
God, I pray that it may continue so that others can also be helped.
Just this week, Esther told a group of Umoja students and local leaders, “GET UP taught me to be strong. I am sure of a bright future.” As always, her confidence was striking. All of us are also sure that her future is bright, and we could not be more proud of her as she goes on to University this fall.
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