From the word go you are born disadvantaged. You are born a girl, which in itself isn’t a disadvantage in the true sense of the word but you are born facing hurdles in your path. You are not even aware of them, not consciously, at least. You see them growing up, how boys are cut slack at home and in school. In fact, you grow up aware that education isn’t exactly something that is expected of you to triumph in, or even give too much dedication. Everybody will be happy at whatever stage you fall off.
You are named after love; Mapenzi Brenda. It’s like a sweet song sung during harvest, a tune from a bird’s beak. It’s the smell of rain on dry thirsty earth. It’s a feather falling gracefully to the ground.
You go to Ziwani Primary School, in Kipini, a stone’s throw from the brown Tana River. It’s like any modest school in the area; patchy at the very most. A few blocks facing each other reluctantly, a small school farm where some students are punished by hoeing, and a borehole donated by some sympathisers where a clutch of children squeal as they drink from during breaks in lessons. The lower primary classes are made from mud and sticks. There are gaping holes in the wall, natural AC, if you will. The upper primary is semi-permanent but incomplete. A massive tree that never sways stands near the edge of this square, casting a large shadow from where visiting parents sit for an audience with teachers.
School isn’t easy. In fact, school is an uphill task. But life has to go on; the bell rings when the bell rings. Lunch time you stare at each other because there is no food, at least not before another well-wisher starts a feeding program. Kids often faint from hunger. You grow lean and strong and your body adapts to the challenges of feeding it once a day.
You perform dismally in class but you aspire. There is a small fire inside you that you don’t know who or what lit. It’s a flicker that can easily be blown by a sneeze, by a snag, by a word of discouragement, or by an environment that works to eat your ambition, not nurture it. You look around and find no role models. There are no sophisticated women who come driving to school to give talks in high heels evoking hope and ambition. The women you know toil in the dry earth, digging and planting and praying for rain. The women you know stay at home to raise children. The women you know don’t know other women they would have fashioned their lives around. They are your aunts and sisters and cousins. Mostly their realistic aspirations are marriage and motherhood.
So you turn to your radio to escape; an old transistor radio that crackles. A gift from your father.
At dawn, before the grey light slips into the small hut you sleep in with your siblings, you turn on the radio at a very low volume. You listen to a particular journalist, Boniface Musambi. He comes on every 5am with his confidence that punctures the still of the morning dawn. You wonder about him; what he looks like, where he sits at 5am, why he sounds so fluent, so engaging, so worldly. You let him escape with you each morning. You dream of being a journalist. You dream of being on radio but to be on radio you have to be in school.
You trudge on.
In class seven you get into boarding school. Your dormitory was once a class. The toilet is outside, and the toilet is the bathroom. There are no windows, just a grill. You and a bunch of other girls pursuing their own dreams sleep on mattresses on the floor with thin covers or no covers. You can’t say you are used to the cold at night or on very hot nights, the marauding mosquitoes. It’s desperate but you want to be a journalist. You want to be on the radio at 5am, for the world to listen to you. Your grades suffer but again everybody’s grades are so bad. Some girls just give up and stop coming to school altogether. Sometimes it’s easy to just get married and have children.
The headteacher – Marion Bosire – holds meetings with teachers. “Are these children prepared for exams next year?” she asks them rhetorically. “Some can barely read or do simple Math!” One day a bunch of important-looking people drive into the compound. Important because nobody hardly ever drove into the school compound. Students in classrooms crane their necks to have a better look. The visitors have meetings in the headteacher’s office and much later you will learn that they are from People’s Action for Learning [PAL] network and Regional Education Learning Initiative [RELI]. They had come to introduce a program called Accelerated Learning Approach which is about Foundation Literacy and Numeracy that advocates for reading and writing as a core value for every student like you from impoverished regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. That program, as it turns out, may have changed the course of your life.
You and other students join the program. You especially dig into it with your teeth. You wake up at 4:30am to study and sleep later and later. During the day you study with the teachers of Accelerated Learning. You are suddenly reading better, and writing better, and your confidence is growing with the pen. Unbeknownst to you, other girls in Tana River, girls and boys with dreams from radios and televisions and books are on this program. There is Marahumprey Neema from Idsowe Primary School in Garsen. She’s twelve, the second born of a family of three girls and two boys. Her mother always tells her that she is her ticket out of poverty, something no mother should ever tell a child but these are no ordinary circumstances. She lives with her grandmother and her mother in a permanent house by the main road. Her dad took off. They have a dog called Bruno who is one year old, a mongrel. Apart from her family, she loves Bruno more than anything else. She wants to be a veterinary doctor. She wants to take care of dogs because she feels she understands the language of dogs.
The Accelerated Program is preparing hundreds of girls like you and Marahumprey to face the national exams and gain access to decent secondary education. When exams come you are emboldened with confidence. In fact, you are looking forward to it. You sit for exams and it’s not as bad as you imagined it to be.
One day as you sweep the compound with a short old broom, a neighbour says you are needed in school. The results are out. You finish your chores and for some reason, call it a habit, you wear your school uniform and head out to school. It’s a hot and stuffy day, the kind of days that have promises of elusive rain. You wait leaning against a beam in the verandah outside the headteacher’s office.
She’s smiling broadly when you walk in, a not-so-common occurrence because smiles don’t belong on headteachers. Her office is full of books and old files. The open window lets in the smell of the heat of the sun. You stand stiff because you are still a student in your heart. I have great news for you, she says, you scored 364 out of the 500 marks. You are one of the highest in the area. Your name is on a board in her office. You hardly hear what she says after that. It feels like a dream, a mistake, something to wake up from. She’s saying something about pride and hardwork but you don’t catch her words because you’re crying. You are crying from shock and relief. You step out of the office and run all the way home with the good news in your heart.
One day you might remember this day as the tipping point of your life. Maybe you will experience many of those but this one might take the biscuit. Maybe you will become a journalist or maybe you will find different passions along the way. Whatever the case, you are here and you feel like your life has been accelerated by the learning program.