Wednesday, December 12, 2012

You can’t take this man out of the village

SLIDESHOW: Celebrating the holidays without overindulging
Helping other people to succeed is what drives Boniface. In his words, “success is not a competition.
Helping other people to succeed is what drives Boniface. In his words, “success is not a competition. Photo/KINUTHIA MBURU
By KINUTHIA MBURU [email protected]

How many people would put aside their hard-earned degrees and turn down lucrative jobs to work in the village as voluntary teachers? To many of us, it does not make sense. However, Boniface Kinoti Gatobu did just that and says does not regret his choices.

When he was just 23 and fresh out of the university, Boniface rejected three job offers, and the six-figure salaries that went with them) to work in his Kibirichia Village as a primary school teacher on voluntary basis.

What looked like the beginning of his end has actually paid off though. Bonny, as he is popularly known, may be slight in stature but he is tall in talent and determination. His passion for a better Kenya will hit you as soon as he engages you in conversation.

“I am determined to prove that by helping others, we can be genuinely successful,” he says.

Bonny’s parents were both teachers and firmly believed that education was the only key to a stable and secure life. Their children, Bonny and his sister, Doreen Karimi, were therefore constantly under their eagle eye.
“I had to be disciplined and lead by example,” he recalls.

His discipline and hard work paid off in 2000 when he sat for his final primary school exams: “I scored 552 points out of the possible 700 and was the top pupil in Kibirichia Division.”

His performance reinforced his parents’ conviction that he was destined for big things.

“We were sure that he would go far. He was a bright boy and we hoped that someday he would be a big man in the corporate world,” his father, Moses Gatobu told Living. “He would surely live up to his name – kinoti, a big money note, not kinoti, a big zero!”

In 2001, Bonny was admitted to Nkubu High School where his academic star continued to shine. “I won virtually every academic contest in our area,” he says.

In 2004, he sat for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams and was ranked 31 provincially. His career plans were different from those of other top performers though; he wanted to work in the villages!

“I knew that it would be a shocker for my parents and I did not let them in on it at first,” he admits.

While waiting to join university, Bonny worked as an untrained teacher at Kibirichia Secondary School. All along, his parents thought that he was just keeping himself busy.

“I would have wished to continue working but I also knew that pursuing a degree course would help me in the future,” he says. “In addition, I was not ready to handle my parents’ reaction to my idea.”

His teaching stint at Kibirichia Secondary School was not in vain. He helped the school to get its first ever ‘A’ in the KCSE exams.

In 2006, Bonny joined the University of Nairobi for a degree in commerce. He was also a prolific writer and by the time he graduated in 2010, he had been featured in publications of the Nairobi Stock Exchange, Marketing Africa, Institute of Management and Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ magazines.

However, his big break came in 2010 when he scooped the Safaricom award for designing the best marketing plan for Safaricom Live.

A few months later, he hit the headlines again, this time for being among the finalists for a worldwide business award sponsored by World Bank.

“I was among the top five,” he says with pride.

Upon graduation, Bonny received one job offer after another but while his parents delighted in the success that their son had attained, Bonny did not respond to any of the job offers that came his way.

“I got some big offers from Mastermind, Safaricom, and KPMG but I was not ready to accept them,” he says. “I still dreamt of going back to the village and working as a volunteer teacher but I did not know how to tell my parents. They had sacrificed a lot to see me through school and would inevitably oppose my decision.”

He says that he had developed a passion to work for his community.

“I was convinced that if I had managed to help a school get its first ‘A’ without a degree, then now I was more equipped to produce more ‘A’s and change lives for the better.”

His parents kept wondering what was taking him so long to leave home and report to his new work station. They had no idea that Bonny had been harbouring some “unorthodox” ideas. Eventually, he decided to disclose his decision to them, and their disappointment was immediately evident.

“They were shocked,” he recalls. “My dad was particularly angry. He could not understand how after all that academic effort, I could opt to work as a volunteer teacher.”

It was also not easy to convince his fiancée, Carol Nkirote, to support him either.

Gatobu says he felt as though all his dreams for his son had come crashing down: “It was a shocker that I found difficult to absorb. All along, I’d believed that he would go far in life, probably work for a big company and attain financial independence. But now, all those dreams seemed to be unravelling.”

For the next few months, he tried to shake his son’s resolve in the belief that the young man did not fully grasp the reality of what he had opted to do. But Bonny did not budge and in the end, his parents gave in.

“All I wanted was success and happiness for my children. My daughter, Doreen, was doing well in employment and I had hoped that Bonny would follow suit. But then I realised that I should not constrain his passion and potential or dictate what path he takes in life. I decided to give him my full support.”

In mid-2011, Bonny joined Mburuguti Primary School as a volunteer teacher, earning only Sh200 for upkeep each day.

“It wasn’t easy,” he admits. “There were days when I sat and thought ‘hmm, maybe I made the wrong decision’.”

Sometimes, he also felt inferior to Carol, who was working as an accountant, “but I struck to my guns and Carol supported me all through. Failure wasn’t an option.”

Seeing the school’s mean score rise from 280 to 350 in the national exams was the impetus that he needed. It assured him that he was doing something useful.

Towards the end of 2011, Bonny founded the Kibirichia Education Welfare, mostly comprised of teachers and parents, to solicit for textbooks and donate them to poor children. Although they initially worked with 22 schools, his target has risen to 55 schools.

High targets

Early this year, Bonny started the first computer training college in Buuri, Meru, at Kibirichia Primary School.

“We are just starting the second one,” he says with pride.

Looking back at what he has done and the sacrifices he made, Bonny says that he does not bear even a tinge of regret.

“There were friends, villagers and neighbours who felt that perhaps I was losing control of my mental faculties, and I admit that my decision did look foolish at the beginning, but I am glad that I hang on.

“There is no greater joy than giving someone a hand and seeing them stand on their own feet and go on to succeed in life.”

Bonny earns a “decent” salary as the director of the welfare project, but just like before, his dreams are mostly about what he can do for other people.

“I believe that positive change in my village and the whole of Kenya is possible,” he says. “If we all joined hands and came together, we would do much more for our communities and ultimately for our nation. I have learnt that it is the little things we do that really matter. For me, helping poor children attain academic and technological success is my little thing.”

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Seeking textbooks for every learner

In 2011, Bonny Kinoti established an educational welfare to assist poor school-going children access textbooks for free. The organisation, Kibirichia Educational Welfare, works in collaboration with corporate sponsors.

“I realised that I could not achieve my dream of helping others on my own. I had to reach out to others; I had to stand with other people,” Bonny says.

Apart from head teachers and parents, Bonny gets support from firms such as Target Publications and the Safaricom Foundation.

Although he started out with Standard Eight pupils in 22 schools, Bonny says he has been able to enlist 4,400 pupils in his textbook programme, while another 8,000 pupils benefit partially.

“Each school requires a minimum of Sh80,000 worth of textbooks, depending on the number of children in class,” he says.

Always an optimistic young man, Bonny adds that in future he would wish to spread his programme into other areas: “I always feel that there’s still something out there that I can do to make life in my village better. I would want to try something in health or water perhaps. Maybe one day, with the help of others, I will be in a position to roll out such projects.”

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