Kenyan girl beats world in English examination

Friday July 15 2011

PHOEBE OKALL | Nation
Shiro Keziah Wachira

PHOEBE OKALL | Nation Shiro Keziah Wachira during an interview at St Austin’s Academy in Nairobi on Thursday. 

By CHRISTINE MUNGAI, [email protected]

Shiro Keziah Wachira is extremely articulate, almost disarmingly so. She is only 16, but speaks like a person twice her age.

The first time one meets her, one is taken aback by her eloquent and coherent speech, devoid of redundancies like “umm”, “as in”, “like” and “yaani” that characterise a typical Kenyan teenager’s speech.

“We only speak English at home. I read everything, and that’s mostly due to the influence of my mum and dad. We have a big library in our house. I can’t really say I have a favourite genre of literature, I give anything a shot,” says Shiro.

Her parents’ influence has certainly paid off. The former student of St Austin’s Academy, Nairobi, scored the highest marks in the world in English Language when she sat for her Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) O-level examinations in June 2010.

She beat more than 420,000 students from all over the world.

“The news was unexpected, but I was very proud of myself,” she says.

Her English teacher at St Austin’s, Mr Frank Atuti, says she is an exceptional student and that her command of the English language is far beyond that of her peers.

“I taught her for five years, from Year 7 (equivalent of Standard 7). She is very bright,” says Mr Atuti. “By Year 9 (equivalent of Form 1), she easily got bored during English lessons, so I ended up setting special work for her at a level higher than her classmates. She would help me teach some of the lessons, and sometimes even mark work from the lower classes.”

Her teacher attributes her skill to her voracious appetite for books, saying that he shared all kinds of literature with her. They included Shakespeare’s works, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child, newspapers and magazines.
“She reads very widely, regardless of genre, but her forte is in analytical skills. She is able to think abstractly, and is very clear in the way she puts things across,” Mr Atuti says.

He says that Shiro’s writing is marked by expert word play and rich expressions.

“At O-level, we expect fairly plain language from teenagers. I was always impressed by the way she used figurative expressions and descriptive language. I don’t remember her misspelling a word.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is one of Shiro’s favourite books as she “enjoys fiction that is linked to historical events”. The work is a fictional account of the 1967-70 Biafra War in Nigeria.

The Cambridge IGCSE examinations are taken in 135 countries. Students at more than 2,500 schools around the world do the course.
First Language English, in which Shiro excelled, is the third most popular IGCSE subject worldwide. But her talent is not restricted to English alone. She obtained two As and seven A*s in the IGCSE examinations. The A* grade is a score of 90 per cent or more.

Would get very bored

As a first language speaker, English is not that fascinating in class. In my French class, I had a classmate who was French, and he would get very bored. That’s how I would feel sometimes during English lessons,” Shiro says.

Her father is a constitutional lawyer and her mother is an accountant. Her 14-year-old brother is in Year 10 (equivalent of Form 2) at St Austin’s.

Mr Mumo Mwendwa, the head of Academic Services Limited that manages St Austin’s and Coast Academy, says that Maina Wachira is also an A-star student following in his sister’s footsteps.
“Admittedly, he has big shoes to fill, but we are definitely expecting big things from him,” Mr Mwendwa says.

Shiro has no ambitions of becoming a writer though. She is currently doing her International Baccalaureate at Aga Khan Academy. She wants to study economics for her undergraduate degree.

“I haven’t yet figured out what I want to do for my post-graduate course, but I definitely want to do economics at undergraduate level,” the girl says.