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Potential unleashed: Even in their lowest, they never lost hope

Sunday November 25 2018
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Dr Ngina feels that the government should not narrow the choices for teens who would want to pursue different things in life with its proposal in 100 per cent transition to high school. PHOTO| FOTOSEARCH

By MILLICENT MWOLOLO

The Kenya Primary National Examination (KCPE) results are out and half of the country is not very excited with the grades their children brought home.

We have read in various media of parents who have killed their children because of low marks, yet life does not really depend on what you have at hand, but what you choose to with it.

From a security guard to a PhD student: Juma Nyongesa

In the sleepy village of Mururi, Matunda in Kakamega County, a child was born. Juma Nyongesa is the first born child of 11, in a family that has known nothing but poverty.

His parents were peasant farmers who barely made ends meet.

“I remember my mother working as a casual labourer in farms to supplement what my father got from his meagre seasonal construction work. While in primary school, on weekends and holidays, I joined my mother in farms so that I could be able to raise money for uniform and books,” says Juma.

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In 1998, Juma sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). With great results, he was called to join Musingu High school, but this news was received with a mixture of excitement and sadness.

“I had passed so well, but the challenge was that my family could not afford to send me to that school, because of the money needed for my school fees,” he recollects.

A few weeks to closing of form one selection, his father sat him down and floated the idea that he joins Eshikulu Day secondary school, which he could afford.

“He promised that he would make sure I completed high school. That marked my 35 kilometre daily trek in search of secondary education for the next four years,” says Juma.

Determined, his father sold a piece of his ancestral land to pay for his school fees. In 2002, Juma sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) and earned a B mean grade. “I had missed direct university admission with a few points,” he notes.

EMPLOYMENT

After staying at home for a few months, Juma decided to look for employment. In 2003 he tried out several disciplined forces recruitment exercises- Kenya police, Kenya Prisons, Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Defence Forces without success.

“In 2004, I attempted the same recruitment and luckily, Kenya Army recruited me. This was great news that lifted my spirit,” he adds.

However, 38 days after reporting at Recruit Training School in Eldoret, a parade was assembled, six names were called out and were asked to pack their belongings and leave the school within 15 minutes.

“My name was among the six. We were only told that there was an error in the process of recruitment. Later, I learnt that a powerful politician had his people and we were ejected to create space. This was very devastating,” says Juma.

Not the one to give up, in 2005 Juma travelled to Limuru to stay with his aunt who worked in a tea plantation. He worked as casual tea picker for a few months but he was not getting the fulfilment he yearned for. He then travelled to Nairobi to stay with his cousin in Kawangware.

This cousin worked in a private security company and when Juma told him that he needed a job, that was the only place he could think of.

“Within a few months, I had secured a job as a security guard in a company called Cornerstone Security Company, with a Sh3,600 monthly salary. I was posted in Westlands Mvuli road at Mvuli apartments as the gateman,” he recollects.

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Juma Nyongesa a former security guard is now the Principal at the Kenya Institute of Development Studies. PHOTO| COURTESY


It is at this gate that the thought of one day going back to school was birthed.

“Together with other four young men, whom I knew from the village, we rented a small room in Kangemi. Our monthly rent was Sh2,500 which we shared among the five of us; hence my monthly rent bill was Sh500. To save on transport, I could run to and from work every day. I did this for nine months,” he shares.

Juma later moved to G4S Kenya, with a triple the pay, better uniform and payment in time. His first assignment with G4S Kenya was at Kenyatta University, Nyayo hostels as a guard.

“I met some students who knew me from the village, while in high school. That I was better than them in class yet they were students made me feel so uncomfortable. Word quickly spread to the village that Nyongesa’s son was a watchman. This brought a lot of sorrow to my father who had hoped for better,” he adds.

When G4S Kenya signed a new contract at Daystar University and were looking for guards who had university experience, Juma was the first one to volunteer. At Daystar University, he was posted at the main entrance as the chief guard.

“I interacted with students and staff, did my best, and worked with my whole heart. Severally, I was named the customer care person of the month in the university students’ magazine, Involvement. This is against the background of how negatively security guards are viewed,” Juma says.

SAVINGS

Within a year, he had saved money that could pay fees for a full semester as parallel student, but then a miracle happened.

A new guard had been posted to Daystar and assigned to guard residential houses for visiting faculty from Canada. Being his first assignment, he had no money to keep him going before receiving his first salary. Juma gladly took him in.

“In one of their conversations, he narrated to them how I had helped him out. The Canadians asked to see me,” Juma narrates and adds: “They were interested in what my future dreams were. I told them of my desire to go back to school and in our second meeting, they said they were willing support my education, plus that of my fellow guard.”

Juma exchanged e-mail addresses with the Canadians, took photos and they travelled back to Canada.

In August 2006, they sent Juma an e-mail asking him and his friend to start looking for admission in a university of their choice. “I had three admission letters from three universities. A friend advised me to also apply in Daystar University, for it will be an interesting and inspiring story to other people,” he shares.

Juma joined Daystar University in January 2007 as an undergraduate in Bachelor of Arts community development and a minor in business management and administration. “I remember my first class with nostalgia — from a guard to a student. It took time for reality to finally sink,” he adds passionately.

MENTOR

One of the lecturers, Dr Kennedy Ongaro, now dean of social sciences, offered to mentor him. He provided all the writing materials and books that Juma needed as a student.

Immediately after graduation, Juma was employed at Barclays bank as a credit officer. “I quit after few months for I felt I was not doing enough,” he adds.

He was later employed as a project officer at Feed the Children. “During this time, I remembered what one of my lecturers had asked me while I was doing a class presentation--have ever thought of being a lecturer one day? That is how I applied for a tutoring job at the Kenya Institute of Development Studies (K.I.D.S) technical college,” he recollects.

January 2011, Juma was employed as a tutor for diploma and certificates. “Within six months, our department was the best in performance and numbers. I was promoted to be the academics administrator, a position I held for six months. I was later promoted to be the principal of the Naivasha campus." Three years down the line, he heads all campuses at the Kenya Institute of Development Studies.

Juma is now giving back to society. “We are offering sponsorship to students from needy backgrounds. So far we support a total of 26 and next year we intend to support 20 more,” he says.

A lot of expectations that comes with being a first born. Juma has paid school fees for his 10 siblings, some of who are now in university and college. “There is nothing impossible with our God,” he says.

In addition to this, Juma is a part-time lecturer at the Africa International University for undergraduate students. My desire is to one day to go back to Daystar University as a lecturer, he adds.

In pursuit of academic excellence, Juma enrolled for Masters in Project Planning and Management at the University of Nairobi and graduated in 2014. He is now a PhD student at St. Paul’s University where he is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Development Studies.

Kenya’s youngest PhD holder, Purity Ngina

Born in Mbiriri village in Nyeri County, Purity Ngina grew up with her elder brother and their single mother, a hardworking woman who was determined to see that they got an education.

She attended the local primary school, where she sat for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 2002.

“I scored 235 marks out of 500 in my first attempt at the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). I repeated, re-sat the exam and scored I managed 369 marks,” she shares.

This saw her join TumuTumu Girls’ High School in 2004. After sitting for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) in 2007, she scored B+ mean grade. She joined Egerton University in 2009 for a Bachelor of Education degree in Science.

At university, life threw challenges her way. Her mother was sickly and finances were not enough.

“But I worked very hard. In the first year I was the first lady in my faculty and the university gave me a partial scholarship. It was Sh16,000, but it meant so much to me and my family."

In the second year, she was recognised for her outstanding performance. “The University published my profile and picture in the Daily Nation during the Founder’s Day. My mother guarded the newspaper cutting as it was very dear to her,” she comments, drifting to her late mother.

She graduated with First Class Honours in 2012 and Egerton University gave her a full scholarship to pursue a Master of Science in Applied Mathematics 2013.

“The scholarship took care of all my daily needs. I had to really work hard for it,” she discloses. In December 2015, she graduated with 78 points. “The band was told to play for me. I felt so honoured,” recounts the calculus lecturer.

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Scholar and lecturer Purity Ngina holding her research project in Mathematical modelling of HIV optimal therapy management at her home in Utawala, Nairobi. November 22, 2018. PHOTO| KANYIRI WAHITO


In January 18, 2016, Dr Ngina came to Nairobi for the first time. She was following on a call for applications for PhD scholarships by the German government which was collaborating with Strathmore University.

“I wrote my proposal, a tedious process getting all the legal approvals before I finally sent it to Germany. To my surprise, it was accepted,” she shares. So many Kenyans had applied but her proposal stood out as she sought to apply Mathematics to so many things that affect our daily lives.

The scholarship paid her school fees and gave her a survival stipend. She visited Germany to present her papers and was given a research grant.

“I worked with professors in Germany and liked what I saw in the delivery of content in class. They do not just duplicate content, but rather show their students how to apply the knowledge that they have learnt in class, she notes. Our local academia has to be more conscious of prevailing market needs and align their teaching objectives to these needs,” says Dr Ngina.

Her thesis, Mathematical modelling of In-vivo HIV Optimal Therapy Management was taken through rigorous processes of approval and marking and in April 18, 2018 she passed.

“With in-vivo modelling we try to model cells. We want to see the interaction and the relationship between body cells, the virus coming in and what we can do to solve it,” she explains.

Purity is optimistic about the future in terms of demographic tailor-made administering of HIV control measures. She hopes that the results from like-minded peers will provide more home-grown research findings, knowledge that the government can utilise to make impactful policies.

Having overcome her challenges to become Kenya’s youngest PhD holder, Dr Ngina now advises parents and children that there is so much than grades in life. “As a parent, it is your responsibility to stand with your child. Every child has their potential,” she says.

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Purity Ngina holding the book, Women Changing how the world works, that featured her story during the interview at her home in Utawala, Nairobi. November 22, 2018. PHOTO| KANYIRI WAHITO


However, she adds, this is not to underscore the importance of education. “I actually feel nice when I see a girl leading in national examinations,” says Dr Ngina, who teaches students pursuing Actuarial Science, Financial Engineering, and Financial Economics at Strathmore University.

She feels that the government should not narrow the choices for teens who would want to pursue different things in life with its proposal in 100 per cent transition to high school. “There is a lot that the KCPE graduates can do under the Technical Vocational Education and Training Institutions (TVET),” she advises.

In curbing teenage pregnancies, Dr Ngina says everyone in the society has a role to play. “Adults have forgotten their role in correcting children. Times have gone when you would find a neighbour’s child misbehaving and you correct them. We have adopted an “I don’t care” attitude, we just watch as children misbehave,” she raises her valid concern.

A week ago, Dr Ngina was among 23 women leaders who were honoured by the Democracy Trust Fund (DTF) for their contribution to society. She joined the list of trailblazers which included women political leaders and human rights activists for her outstanding performance in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematic (STEM).

Her story has also been captured in the book, Women Changing the Way the World Works, which profiles the stories of outstanding women who have made great accomplishments, albeit their challenges.

“The fact that I was recognised among distinguished political leaders in this country, yet I am a young woman in Science is a good thing to me,” says Dr Ngina.

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