Three years ago, I arrived in the United States to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. I will graduate from Oberlin College, where I am a neuroscience major in May 2014. Since my arrival in the U.S. in 2010, Oberlin has been more than a home to me, even though it is thousands of miles away from my homeland, Kenya. This year, having finally overcome homesickness, I started thinking about my childhood in Kenya and was a little struck by the contrasts.
If you had asked me what I wished to become about ten years ago when I dropped out of school, I would have told you many things, but being in college would not be one of them. Presently, and in retrospect, my childhood seems in many ways as distant as my homeland is from Ohio.
My name is Peterson Njamunge. I grew up in Kiamaina, Kenya, an informal settlement located on the outskirts of the town of Nyahururu, some 200 miles away from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Over 21,000 people, a third of them under 18, live in Kiamaina. The settlement with its poverty, illiteracy, poor medical services, lack of sanitation, and other challenges is a slum by many standards.
But to make matters worse, Kiamaina is nearly invisible to the rest of the country, and to the world. Occasionally, though, this rural slum does hit the headlines.
In September 2011, Kiamaina broke national news when 12 people died from consuming a local illicit brew. Although this was the first time that many Kenyans heard of this community, Kiamaina is no stranger to such tragedies. What makes its story even more mournful is that it has been painfully neglected and its challenges have gone virtually unnoticed by both the government and non-governmental agencies. With the exception of one religious group, there are no other NGOs actively working in the area. Even as the rest of the country has made significant strides in development over the past decade, Kiamaina has lagged behind in many ways. The youth have been hit particularly hard, as a lack of education has caused them to receive no benefit from national youth empowerment programs.
A majority of Kiamaina’s youth lack basic literacy skills or are only semi-literate. This is particularly unfortunate because primary school in Kenya has been tuition-free since 2002. For many of these young people, education is not something they can afford to dream about. There are no jobs in the area and schools require students to buy uniforms and books before enrollment. This poses a serious challenge for many of these youths, as the cost of these mandatory school items is much higher than the average monthly income for many households. Besides the financial obstacles, many aspiring scholars in this area are often discouraged from seeking an education by their peers, neighbors, and even family, many of whom either dropped out of school or never joined school at all.
Personally, it has been more than a decade since I dropped out of primary school, in the fourth grade. A few of my friends, who like me, could not afford school fees, school uniform, or books, did the same. Growing up in a poor rural slum in Kenya did not present a very conducive atmosphere for learning. My next door neighbor had never been to school, and that was the norm in Kiamaina. It was accepted, even expected, that those of us who cared to join school at all would drop out at some point, and I did.
Fortunately, I was able to go back to school – thanks to one of my former primary school teachers’ persistence – and rewrite my narrative. I have been able to access numerous opportunities through education and have even published a biology textbook that is currently used by Kenyan high school students. Education has personally changed my life, but it has also left me yearning to provide young people who share my background with a chance at education.
In 2012, I co-founded the non-profit, Kenya Reads, with my Oberlin classmate Shauna Godfrey. In addition to distributing textbooks and storybooks, we thought it pivotal to start an after-school mentoring program. Based on my own experience, I was inspired to provide the students with positive role models, in addition to the educational materials.
Since 2012, when Kenya Reads was established in Kiamaina, over 2,000 students have gained access to textbooks and storybooks. This year, we are looking to start a community center that will partner with women from Kiamaina to produce and sell school uniforms at an affordable price. Our primary objective is to eliminate the barriers that deny an education to many young people from there and other poor areas across the country. However, we do have a secondary goal: that of pulling Kiamaina out of oblivion. Hopefully, through our work, we shall not only promote literacy in Kenya but also raise awareness about communities like Kiamaina’s, which suffer in obscurity.
About Peterson Njamunge:
Peterson Njamunge is a third year Oberlin College student hailing from Kiamaina, Kenya. In 2012, Peterson launched Kenya Reads with classmate Shauna Godfrey. A neuroscience major, Peterson is a published author of a biology book that is used in Kenyan high schools. Since joining Oberlin in 2010, Peterson has been working on his memoir with the help of his professors and hopes to complete it before the end of 2013. A fan of basketball, Peterson also enjoys blogging and playing soccer in his free time. Peterson is a DJ and enjoys entertaining — when he isn’t changing the world.