Text and photos: María Rodríguez / Nairobi (Kenya)
Professor Godfrey Muriuki has an anecdote which provides several clues about who he is. His anecdote doesn’t have an exact date. However, it happened when he was nothing more than a child who, like everybody else at that age, just wanted to play all the time with other kids in the streets of the Nyeri County, located about three hours away from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. He was born in a very poor family. However, his circle of friends belonged to better families, economically speaking. That was the main reason why, unlike his playing mates, he couldn’t attend school. Professor Muriuki’s anecdote starts one day when he saw the other children coming back from school, and an idea came to his mind: “I want to attend school too.”
Maybe at that moment Muriuki didn’t know exactly the importance of attending school. However, his childhood wish of coming back to home at the same time that his friends, or discovering what they did there marked his life forever. The anecdote doesn’t finish here. That boy wore the traditional Masai clothes which showed unashamedly his sexual organs. Although in a child it isn’t so scandalous, it was completely forbidden to attend school in that way. For this reason, he didn’t start to go to that place called school until he got a pair of trousers, like the rest of the children.
Gosfrey Muriuki is professor of African History at Nairobi University, the eighth best of Sub-Saharan Africa according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. He has given classes in different universities around the world, from Europe to EE.UU, and in other African continent’s universities. He studied in Uganda, and he obtained his doctorate in London. It was the 60′s, when the majority of African independences took place and, according to him, this was “a new beginning.” In this way, he became one of the pioneers of African History, a subject so isolated from the study programs –and even now-, so damaged by the clichés, so adulterated by the Eurocentric gaze of the continent.
Professor Muriuki could go to the university thanks to the help of other people who believed in his capacities, despite his lack of resources. This help burns into the memory of those who knows that, without this support, they would never be where they are today. Therefore, in the late eighties, when the World Bank suggested that the African governments were in charge of helping the citizen to access to education, he suggested the University to open a department which looked for funds to support people who needed help to start and/or continue their education. That’s how the Nairobi University founded the counselling department to special students with Professor Muriuki at the head.
The number of students who take an interest in the department looking for the possibility of receiving any support to continue their studies is very significant. Since the department opened, they have tried to support around 14,000 students. However, due to the limited resources they have, only 1,300 students have been supported. It is not easy for the students to achieve it, and the situation is similar to the gymkhana game, in which it is a matter of primary importance to strive to attain all of the goals. One of the goals is to score highly in the university entrance exam; another one is to have religious report comments and reports from the government – a local authority which knows well the familiar situation of the student works for it – which prove that the student situation is really complicated. In Kenya, those students who have a high score at the university entrance exam have a guaranteed 70% discount on tuition. Nevertheless, it is not always sufficient. It’s terribly expensive to live in Nairobi, and the cost of photocopies, books, clothes, food, transport and rent can become the worst enemy for a student. Furthermore, the government, “which behaves like a bank”, provides loans to the students so they can cover these costs. However, because of the 4% loans interest, just a few families take the risk and take it as a choice; particularly when 30% of the students are from poor families, according to professor Muriuki.
When The South Face arrived to Kenya and went to the Nairobi University to consider the best way to give a grant to students, they met professor Muriuki and his department. He and his staff were the ones who advised them to focus on women “who have been and still are more disadvantaged than men,” the professor explains. About 40% of the students are women, according to the most recent data compiled by the United Nations. Likewise, the professor advised to focus on particular degrees where the number of women is lower: Engineering, Education, Environmental Conservation, Medicine or Nursing, among others. These are the degrees which bring a social transformation and an economic development to Kenya.
Both students of the Kenya University and the professor know that The South Face grant is a great support. It covers the tuition fees and the accommodation costs for the entire university degree. Moreover, it tries to keep the girls concentrated on their studies and they don’t work while they are studying so they give their best, although this is not always possible. “The students granted by The South Face are really motivated because this encourages them to be the best students in their class and yes, their marks are excellent,” the professor claims. Thus, several girls granted by the organization have achieved outstanding marks, the highest qualification mark that a student can have.” However, beyond the classroom results we find the results on the Kenyan society. In this regard, “since they are the best they set an example for their communities too,” for the girls of their villages who start to dream to be like them, to go to the school and to the university.
In The South Face this is called “multiplying effect” because the granted girl transfers to other people the values about the importance of education, and about the environmental conservation or the women rights. Later on, these people will transfer these values to other creating a kind of “Pay it forward.” Professor Muriuki knows it very well; without the other’s support he wouldn’t have been able to go to the university. Recalling the anecdote of how he started to go to school, he remembers the day when The South Face team arrived to his department. He directly addressed them and said: “Look, I need a budget because there are a lot students who need support to continue their studies, so when The South Face team told me about what they wanted to do, the only thing I could say was: ‘hallelujah!’”
Translated by: Isabel Rodríguez González