As the young boys and girls dug trenches and cleared bushes to help build a brick house for a lucky villager, none of those present had a clue that the labourers were some of the brightest primary school leavers. They all came from poor backgrounds and despite scoring highly in KCPE examinations their high school education could not be guaranteed until a helping hand came knocking.
Today, these students consider themselves as members of one big rainbow family brought together by a young US Iraqi marine Peter Kingston, who saw action in Iraq. Mr Kingston, 29, runs Starfish Africa, an organisation that has managed to secure uninterrupted secondary and university education for students under its guidance.
The students in turn give back to the community. Every holiday they dedicate a week of community work in rural areas.
They serve the community in environmental conservation, building houses and cleaning public hospitals. For the first time since he started Starfish Africa about five years ago Mr Kingston recently found time out to be with the students as they took part in a week long community work in Narok district. The US Marine had just returned from war torn Iraq where he served his country for two years.
In Narok he was not armed with weapons, but a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a broom as he led his troops in painting and cleaning up Naroosura area. Joy Muthoni, a beneficiary the programme, is a student at Starehe Girls Centre. The scholarship and community activities have helped to open up her mind to the realities facing the country.
“When we visited the Ereteti community in Kajiado, I learned new skills which I can apply in my daily life. We were able to interact freely with the Maasai community which lives there. I was able to learn their culture which was very interesting. They were very nice and very caring to us,” said Muthoni.
Mr Kingston founded Starfish Africa in 2004, a year before he joined the US marine corps. He left the army last year after realising the dreams that made him enlist. “I wanted to join history books as having played a role in helping my country restore peace in Iraq. I was officially released in October. Now I want to dedicate my efforts in fulfilling my other dream of helping Kenyan students from poor backgrounds to secure uninterrupted education,” he said.
Two weeks ago Peter, his wife Kerry and Starfish Field Officer David Omondi were in Naroosura division—the home area of Loreto Girls form one student Jane Soit. They cleaned the compound and gave the local dispensary a new coat of paint. All the 40 Starfish students took part in the week long camp.
Starfish Africa recently started a mentorship programme which hopes to keep students in touch with Kenyan professionals. Kingston, the fourth born son of US High school teachers William and Beth Kingston first came to Kenya in 2000 as a 19-year-old Princeton University student.
As part of his university project he worked as a volunteer teacher, handling class seven and eight pupils at the Bethlehem Community Centre in Nairobi’s Soweto slum. “During the time I saw young school children struggle with their education. You could tell that they were learning on empty stomachs. After sitting their KCPE exams many, despite passing well, had no hopes of advancing their high school dreams,” he recalled.
In the US, he says, he knew of a few friends of his family who could assist. He came back to Kenya after his graduation three years later, this time with Kerry, his fiancee, to do volunteer work at Ongata Rongai Beacon of Hope centre.
After a short stint they went back to the US and set up the Starfish Africa, with his six best friends on the board. The first funds they raised managed to secure sponsorship for at least ten students who are today in form four.
Top KCPE candidate
Eastern Province’s top KCPE candidate in 2005 Alfonce Nzioka, who is in Form 4 at Starehe Boys Centre, was among the first beneficiaries. Peter and Kerry were delighted to note that two of their pioneer students, John Nzioka and Collins Ochieng, had secured admission to local universities.
John Nzioka’s case was particularly fulfilling as he was thrown out of a Nairobi school while in form three for lack of fees. He was taken in by chance as Starfish had identified his younger brother. “When we went to visit Alfonce at his rural home in Kilome constituency to finish up plans of our sponsorship deal we were shocked to discover that John was languishing at home. We were forced to bend our rules to take him in,” said Mr Omondi.
And John did not disappoint Starfish Africa as he earned admission to the University of Nairobi’s Medical School with Collins being offered a place at Kenyatta University.