Over the last couple of years, Kenya has witness several incidents where primary or secondary school candidates who performed poorly in their final exams either took their lives, or threatened to do so.
A good fraction of those who excelled in their exams could not go to the schools of their choice due to school fees, and ended up in deep despair.
However, there are some who faced the same challenges but opted to take up artisan courses at vocational training centres and village polytechnics – an alternative route that many perceive to be a preserve of academic failures.
These masons, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, salonists and electricians have since grown and developed to be experts in their own right, who make significant contributions to the country’s economy, sometimes thriving at the expense of those who have university degrees but no jobs.
“There seems to be a mismatch, in that the skills many of the young people acquire in colleges and universities are not required in the job market. Yet there is a mad rush for formal education when there is more demand for artisans,” said Martin Owino, Center Manager of Ahero Vocational Training College.
Read on and be inspired.
Peter Odhiambo, 24 - Mason/ Building and Construction
In Peter’s own words, God’s favour is upon him like never before.
In primary school, he repeated several classes a couple of times and was ridiculed and abused by many as a result.
However, he vowed never to let these detractors stop him from achieving his goals.
He went through Grade Three twice because he could not attain the pass mark set by his teachers, and was subsequently transferred to Chemelil Factory Primary School, where he went back to Grade Two when teachers there realised that he could barely communicate in Kiswahili and English.
“At the previous school, all lessons were conducted in mother tongue, and it was the first time someone was asking me to speak in English or Kiswahili.
“On many occasions, I bribed my younger classmates with sweets and other gifts so that they could help me with class-work. By the time I was sitting my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams, I had spent 13 years in primary school. My age-mates were sitting their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams!” he explains.
Peter was for long the laughing stock of the whole village. Even some close family members felt that he was a failure because he managed to score only 150 marks out of 500 in KCPE.
“My own mother lamented in my presence that I was a serial repeater, yet those I started primary school with are successful and were already job hunting,” said Peter, who quickly added that his father, Godwin Okoth Ooke, was always on his side and encouraged him all through.
“He told those who were laughing at me that nobody’s future is dictated by the grade they get in school, because one’s God-given talent can make him or her achieve their goals. This has since turned out to be true,” he says.
Initially, Peter wanted to be a truck driver, so he keenly studied his village and found a mouth-watering opportunity that he could tap into.
He realised that there was no mason in his village. To find someone to do even the most basic construction works, villagers had to travel more than 20 kilometres.
His father, ever so supportive, bought him a trowel, mason’s level, tape measurer, masonry hammer, an e-square and other tools, and then walked with him to Ahero Vocational and Training Institute in 2015.
While studying, he would volunteer at construction sites to gain experience and knowledge.
“From the construction sites, I was able to learn a lot, and I used to help many of my friends during practicals,” said Peter.
He got his first job a few weeks after graduating. His uncle contracted him to plaster his house.
He did a great job and was paid Sh7,500, and after that he started getting more referrals from the villagers.
Peter’s desire for a permanent job prompted him to go to Chemelil Academy, where there was an ongoing construction of a Safaricom mast.
Twice, he asked to be part of the construction team with no success. The foreman promised to call him when an opportunity arose.
One morning, while weeding their home garden, he got the foreman’s call, and this became his breakthrough.
“I asked them to pay me only if they were satisfied and pleased with my output. This is how my star started shining bright,” he said.
He constructed the mast in Kisumu and was contracted for similar jobs in Nyakach, Kisii and Nakuru, before he joined Soliton Tenment, a telecommunications technology company based in Nairobi.
For his job, he earns between Sh45,000 and Sh60,000 every month, and he advises young people to stop concentrating on white collar jobs and degrees.
“I never went to high school, and I don’t regret it. Trust in God and know that your level of education does not matter. There is a hidden talent in you. Take advantage of it.”
Sharon Atieno, 23 - Mechanical engineer
Due to lack of school fees, Sharon stayed at home for more than two years after she sat her KCSE exams.
However, she joined Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) and took a course in mechanical engineering.
Immediately after finishing Grade Three of the course, she got a job at a Jua Kali shed in Kisumu, where she used to earn a paltry Sh50 every day.
But in May last year, she joined Jamboleo East Africa Engineering as a mechanic.
“I am now learning so much about so many different departments at Jamboleo, and I earn Sh8,000 every month, which is enough to cater for my bills,” she says.
Sharon was recently promoted to engineering, and she now handles bigger machines, such as the grinder and lathe machine, and she occasionally does welding.
“This has been my dream job and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by not joining university. This is what I love doing,” said Sharon.
But it hasn’t been an easy ride for her. “Some people, especially women, no longer want to associate with me when I’m wearing my grease-filled overall, and that’s so sad because they don’t know how much I enjoy my job,” she said.
Stephen Odhiambo, 23 - Radio mechanic
Right from childhood, Stephen never enjoyed school, and for this he was always getting into loggerheads with the school administration.
He remembers skipping school on several occasions with some of his colleagues to go and work in people's farms just to make a few coins.
“During school hours, I used to prepare land for sweet potato farmers for Sh150 per day. I repeated Grade Seven because of truancy,” said Stephen.
He sat his KCPE exams in 2016 and scored 243 marks out of 500, but could not proceed to Form One due to lack of school fees.
His mother said she could only manage to pay school fees for his elder brother, who was also joining Form One.
Unlike others who went to vocational training centres to gain skills in various fields, Stephen learnt his trade through apprenticeship at an electronics shop at Nyamlori Market in Kisumu.
Now, he can repair just about all electronic goods, and he makes between Sh500 and Sh1,000 every day.
The highest he has made in a day is Sh4,000. “This has made me realise that I made the right decision to gain training on repairing electronics. Nobody can take away your talent. Young men and women should, however, be patient when learning, and when pursuing success.
Beatrice Adhiambo, 25 - Automotive Engineer
When she scored 285 marks out of 500 in her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, Beatrice was told despicable things by her siblings.
She is the sixth born in a family of eight children, and in 2007, her mother fell ill and was admitted to a Kericho hospital.
She had to take care of her for three months, which meant that she couldn’t go to school for the rest of that year.
When she went back in 2009, Beatrice was taken back to Grade Seven, and she sat her KCPE exams the following year.
But just like many children across the country, she could not join high school due to lack of school fees.
She also faced ridicule among her peers and family members - who constantly reminded her that she was “worthless”.
“I remember one of my elder brothers telling me that the marks I got in KCPE should earn me a direct ticket to marriage. I could not persevere the shame and embarrassment anymore, so I fled to Nairobi,” said Beatrice.
In the country’s capital, Beatrice became a house help for two and a half years before she got a job at Supa Loaf as a casual labourer.
Two years later she became a waitress at a local hotel, but after eight months, she cut her losses and went back to Nyakach.
Despite harbouring dreams of becoming an automotive engineer just like his father who died in 2001, she did not have the school fees necessary to enrol for the course.
“I approached a neighbour and pleaded with her to lend me her motorbike for Sh300 a day. I became a boda-boda rider in Sondu and would make up to Sh2,500 every day. I saved Sh1,000 daily for my school fees until I got enough to join Ahero Youth Polytechnic,” she said.
She studied automotive engineering, but before she graduated in 2018, she used to work at a garage in Kisumu, where she was being paid a daily wage of Sh500.
Within a few months, Beatrice got her first job in a garage in Nairobi’s Umoja Estate, where she was earning Sh800 per day.
She joined Midax on Mombasa Road, where she would take home Sh1,500 per day, but is currently at Kochieng’s garage on Kangundo Road, where she makes Sh3,000 on a bad day, and up to Sh8,000 on a good one.
Beatrice is a specialist in car engines of light vehicles, and says she has no regrets for joining a career shunned by many women.
The jovial woman is already planning to join a school for adults, to learn English and Kiswahili so that she can communicate better.