Kendi Kamanja Oketch, in her late 30s, had it rough all through school since she had trouble communicating. She knew that something was wrong with her but couldn’t tell what is was, until early this year. Here is her story as told to Millicent Mwololo.
"My name is Kendi Kamanja Oketch. I grew up in Maua in Meru County, deep in the village, with my parents and nine siblings. I attended nursery school in the village, where I learnt to read in Kimeru and wrote on the floor using a stick before graduating to paper and pencil. Later, I was introduced to learning in Kiswahili and English. By the time I was in Standard Four, I was already struggling with reading and comprehension. Luckily, there were multiple choice questions, so I could guess the answers from the first to the last.
Because of my struggle with learning, my parents thought I would do better in boarding school, so they transferred me to one when I was in Standard Four. But I did not improve. I always came last whenever we sat an exam. I got very frustrated and ran away from school in the third term.
I lied to my mother that I had a toothache, and that the school was not good. I was taken to a dentist, who removed a perfectly good tooth.
My mother was very passionate about education, not having had an opportunity to go to school herself, so she suggested that I be transferred to another boarding school in Standard Five. But my problem persisted.
This shattered my self-esteem, making it difficult to socialise with my friends. My friends were members of the Christian Union, so I joined the club. But my greatest challenge was that every member was required to read a Bible verse and explain it. Whenever my turn came, I would always find an excuse. But time caught up with me, and I mumbled words that didn’t make sense. I sweated with embarrassment and felt completely humiliated.
Finally, I sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), but I did not pass well. I joined a private secondary school in Meru. In the first term exams, I scored eight out of 30 marks in English composition. I still vividly recall the English teacher reading my composition out loud to the class and she wrote my grammatical mistakes on the blackboard. Her action crushed whatever self-esteem I had regained after joining a new school.
Remarkably, I scored 88 per cent in chemistry. This confused the teachers, leaving them wondering whether I had cheated, or was just lazy. But I knew I had worked very hard for that mark. Then, in Form Two, I was transferred to Kaaga Girls High School, a provincial school in Meru.
ALLOWED TO REPEAT
Learning was still a problem, but I put in a lot of effort. At the end of the year, I confided in my mother that I could not proceed to Form Three because I was academically weak. She understood and spoke to the principal, who allowed me to repeat Form Two.
By then I had found new strength in mathematics and the sciences, in which I invested a lot of time, since in class I would get “lost” during the 45- or 90-minute lessons. I would read a chapter even five times to be able to absorb anything. But I was very good with figures and in science subjects, but because of focusing too much on them, I suffered frequent headaches.
In forms three and four, I was the top student in mathematics and science subjects. I could solve problems that my classmates could not. This boosted my self-esteem. I sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations and though I did not pass well, I was satisfied with the mean-grade I earned. I knew it was the result of self-sacrifice and determination.
In 1999, I joined the Kenya School of Monetary Studies to pursue a diploma in banking. I later joined the University of Nairobi and graduated with an upper-second class honours Bachelor of commerce in finance after a lot of reading.
But although I felt ready for the job market, I was also apprehensive of a situation where a boss might give me instructions and I forget them. So I started off as a cashier at a supermarket. At times a customer would talk to me and I would forget what they had said.
In driving school, my grasp of directions was so bad that at some point I couldn’t understand myself. After working in a supermarket, I joined a bank where I worked hard and moved up three levels.
I acted at the fourth level, a senior management position, but never got the position. Because of my anxiety, I did poorly in the oral interview, on which the management placed great emphasis. I got tongue-tied, even when I knew the right answers, simply because I lacked the words to express them.
Although I had proved my competence acting in the position, unfortunately, as a dyslexic, I could not strongly do this verbally, or in writing.
After that, I lost interest in work and became a totally different person. Depressed, I would go to work late. For two years I endured going to work only because I had a Sh14 million mortgage. But it got to a point where I could not take it any longer.
I started a cleaning service business on the side in preparation for my resignation. I also provided maintenance services to companies.
I got a few regular clients, and also noticed that I had a natural flair for interior design and landscaping. This creativity had been buried in me for so many years that the only time I got to leverage on it was when designing my house.
After resigning from the bank in 2014, I introduced interior design, landscaping and events management as new lines of business.
My partner handles the planning side. We have grown considerably and now count multinational companies among our clients.
When we started out, pitching our concepts to clients through presentations weighed me down. My partner would end up doing all the talking. I was so nervous that the points would disappear from my head even before I started talking. I also struggled to understand what my clients were saying, which made me think I was stupid.
The fear that people thought I was stupid made me withdraw into myself. For hours I would sit on my balcony, lost in thought. I would go only to the gym and back. At parents’ meetings in school, I was careful not to be drawn into a conversation by the person sitting next to me, for fear that they might find me stupid.
This fear and loneliness made me very irritable. I became harsh and would spank my kids. I would not even talk to my siblings on phone or the family WhatsApp group.
Then on February 12 this year, I decided to seek help and my first stop was online, where I started looking for information about my condition. I knew that there was an inconsistency about my “stupidity”. I was good with numbers but poor in language and self-expression. I googled my insecurities and dyslexia came up. Finally, I could put a name to what was ailing me.
I read an online article written by a psychologist and it perfectly described my condition. It mentioned that children with dyslexia were victims of sibling rivalry as their sisters or brothers often get jealous that they are getting too much attention; the dyslexic child also gets jealous of their siblings for achieving so much. This was a reflection of my childhood.
I shared this discovery with my husband.
“Wait… What do you mean?” he asked, then went on to say that the one of the major problems he had noted I had was planning, that I did things haphazardly. He also said I had trouble with directions, which is true.
Online resources led me to Dyslexia Africa, an organisation that trains dyslexics on the Davis Dyslexia Correction method — a US programme—found in Westlands, Nairobi. I contacted them and booked for an assessment. They did an oral examination and a standard test on me and found that my dyslexia ranged from mild to moderate.
This awareness of my problem gave me peace of mind. I immediately started using my Facebook page to spread this awareness.
THE POWER OF DYSLEXIA
Dyslexia is a general term for difficulties in learning to read, write and interpret symbols. In their book, The Dyslexic Advantage – Unlocking the hidden potential of the dyslexic brain Dr Brock L. Eide and Dr Fernette F. Eide have group dyslexic strengths into four categories:
Material reasoning: These are people who think in three dimension (3D). They tend to be creative (actors, designers, painters, sculptors), architects and landscapers. They have all they want to achieve in their mind. They can see the whole picture of their ideas. They learn best using diagrams and charts.
Narrative reasoning: They are great story tellers. They can create a story from something that happened in their past. They can relive their experiences and tell where they were, can describe an experience using images as it occurred 60 years ago.
They can do really good stories that relate to the present moment. They make good novelists. These are children who learn best through stories, but are poor in random facts and procedures.
This trait is found among screenwriters, lawyers and public speakers.
Interconnected reasoning: These are people whose idea of the world is a web. They look at very different situations and try to find the main idea that connects them. They are then able to connect an idea from different perspectives. These are people who do well in business. They can tell what decisions to make in order not to suffer in the future.
Dynamic reasoning: These are people who, with information on how the world looked years back, can predict the future with a high degree of certainty. They include economists, market analysts and weather forecasters.
EARLY INTERVENTION MAKES LEARNING A LOT EASIER
I have discovered that there is very little awareness of dyslexia in Kenya, and that most teachers, from preschool to secondary school, are not trained in special needs. I have visited several schools on a fact-finding mission.
In public schools, children with dyslexia are labelled stupid and lazy, and due to the pressure to keep up with the others, they drop out of school. The few teachers who have some awareness label dyslexics slow learners, and do not know how to help them. International private school children are screened and assessed for dyslexia right from pre-school. This ensures that intervention is done as early as possible.
I dedicate an hour every day to online research on dyslexia and post them on the Facebook page, Talk Dyslexia, to create awareness and understanding of dyslexia. I want to stir a national conversation on how dyslexia can be handled in public schools.
The earlier intervention can be made, the better for the dyslexic child since appropriate teaching methods can be developed. Children with dyslexia are good with numbers, but poor in reading and comprehension. They also tend to have bad handwriting.
Sometimes dyslexia presents similar to attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), so it is important for parents to have their child evaluated by a psychologist, or a special education teacher. There is nothing wrong with being dyslexic.
When diagnosed early, children can be guided to discover and nurture their natural talents. This gives them a competitive advantage in that particular field, instead of having them struggling in school, yet there is more to life than reading and writing.
I highly suspect that my case could be a form of genetic dyslexia and that my dad, a successful farmer, over 100 years old and who did not go to school could be dyslexic. I see so much of my father in me. His love for trees, his way of doing things, and my passion for landscaping.
I also suspect that my elder brother, another very successful farmer, could be a severe case of dyslexia. Both of us were struggled in school and there was pressure for us to keep up.
Among my siblings, there are three engineers and a pilot. They can now see how different I felt working hard in school with not much academic progress.
The discovery that I have dyslexia has taken away all my fears and insecurities. Look, I am talking. I am not shy anymore. I have found a new me.”