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Scholarships give Kenyan women a future

Girls from marginalized areas across Africa have found help in Zawadi Africa Education Forum, a non-governmental organization headed by Dr. Susan Mboya – the daughter of the great Pan-Africanist, Tom Mboya.

Published July 30, 2009

Susan Mboya. Photo by Lakeland College

Susan Mboya. Photo by Lakeland College

When her father, the late Tom Mboya, paid airfare for intelligent young Kenyans to pursue further studies in the USA, she was not yet born.

Susan Mboya strikes you at first glance as just another woman going about the business of working hard to feed her family. But her brisk and calculated stride in a pink skirt suit, barely past her knees, gives her an executive look. And the company of PR personnel about her might give off the air of a diva. Her average height, about 5, 9’’ and slim body do not give her away as extraordinary.

But this ordinary woman is part of an extraordinary legacy. Mboya is now following in the footsteps of her father by reaching out to girls who have the brainpower but not the means to further their education.

“As a child I saw men and women that my father airlifted pay a visit to my family,” she reminisced. “They were doing fine. They are leaders now, people with good paying jobs.”

Growing up in Nairobi, without a father figure, Mboya attended Loreto Msongari Primary School in a leafy suburb of Nairobi City before joining neighboring Kenya High School.

“Growing up I was working towards becoming a doctor, let’s say striving to do something in the medical sciences,” she said. “During this time it never occurred to me that I would one day get to the point of fighting for the girl-child.”

A section of the Zawadi Africa Education Forum (the Zawadi family), during the 2009 Annual  fundraising Dinner at the Laioco Regency Hotel in Nairobi Kenya.

A section of the Zawadi Africa Education Forum (the Zawadi family), during the 2009 Annual fundraising Dinner at the Laico Regency Hotel in Nairobi Kenya.

Mboya sips her steaming hot tea in quick gulps. The black sky swirls with huge Nimbus clouds that hang precariously close to the large windows of the Laico Regency Hotel. The Nairobi weather is moody. Mboya tells the story of the girl child with her shoulders hunched to protect against the stinging cold.

“When I paid my mum a visit to the USA, that’s…ah…yeah, in 1995. At that time studying at the Oxford University for Women. I mean I was greatly moved by the experience,” she said. “But what melted my heart was the fact that my mum was a beneficiary of the 1959 airlift.”

‘Air lift’ was the brainchild of Mboya’s father. With the help of prominent American educationalists, he [Tom Mboya] formed the African-American Students Foundation (AASF). The members would talk to institutions and personalities, making their case for higher education of young Kenyans without opportunities under the repressive colonial system.

AASF received 55 scholarships while the fundraising committee collected more than $35,000 from 8,000 contributors.

Looking back, Mboya believes that the airlift changed her mother’s life. It gave her education, exposed her to the world and gave her a voice.

Perhaps looking at her own life as an executive and her mother as an enviable professional, Mboya pauses. “Girls are immensely gifted but poverty inhibits them from exploring their intelligence, creativity in sciences, arts or life skills such as leadership.”

In 2002, the idea of helping these unfortunate girls took root.

“We started and registered Zawadi Africa Education Forum as non-profit organization in the US. And our first way to go about it was to do some awareness. So we held a dinner,” she recalled.

Brenda Ratemo, a Zawadi beneficiary talking of her experience at the Zawadi Africa Education Forum,  fundraising  Dinner at the Laioco Regency Hotel.

Brenda Ratemo, a Zawadi beneficiary talking of her experience at the Zawadi Africa Education Forum, fundraising Dinner at the Laico Regency Hotel.

But the problem was so huge that Mboya could not possibly help all children in one swoop. She chose to help girls only. This at first sounds discriminatory.

“All children are equal, aren’t they?” she asked rhetorically.

Mboya shifts in her chair and leans forward. Her face does not show a hint of uncertainty. But nearby something begs the question whether she is being fair. Just across Laico Regency is a huge car park. There, small boys of about ages 12 to 18 spend their day spraying cars with water for meager wages. These boys need someone to fight for them, don’t they?

With patience she said, “As a person, I have limited capacity and resources. We believe that the girl has the biggest need. We have lots of girls that try to access education but their applications don’t get through. Some have their applications go through but cannot afford a ticket”.

And looking at the statistics across Africa regarding girl-illiteracy, her ‘biased’ initiative has statistical merit.

Statistics show that in the post-independent East Africa, women make up over 50 percent of the population but only constitute 5 percent of the corporate sector, and less than 1 percent of the political leadership.

Most girls from Africa fail to access education as a result of childhood marriages, cultural customs and traditions. The perception in many of these countries is that investing in male education is of greater value than female education, leaving girls shivering in the cold air of illiteracy.

For example, Mboya said, Yale University failed to attract a single female student from East Africa in 10 years.


With Zawadi Africa, these girls have at last found their voice. When Mboya held a press conference followed by a well-attended fundraiser dinner, a couple of girls under sponsorship talked of Zawadi as godsend.

Peggy Mativo, who has just received a fully paid scholarship to study bio-chemistry at the prestigious Harvard University, was all smiles when she spoke of her experience.

“Zawadi has invested in us. To me Zawadi is not just a foundation but a family,” she said. “It is leading in helping girls and I am sure that in years to come, girls from Zawadi will be leaders in Africa.”

Lorna Ogolla, another beneficiary with a full sponsorship in civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that a one-sentence request saved her life.

“For me I just called the Zawadi offices and told them, ‘I need help’. And I got help,” she said with a broad smile. “Zawadi is a group of brilliant minds and brilliant hearts that are bent to change the face and fate of Africa. Now Zawadi is not just a foundation. Zawadi is my family.”

Lorna Ogolla, recipient of full scholarship in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shares the one sentence request saved her life

Lorna Ogolla, recipient of full scholarship in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shares the one sentence request that saved her life

Chris Muthama, a marketing manager for Safaricom, a mobile service provider in Kenya said: “A community cannot develop without an educated population. Education of girls is the way to reduce poverty and Zawadi has taken a lead in this. Zawadi Africa should be our inspiration.”

Mboya said the criterion for picking these girls is transparent and any girl who feels the urge to educate herself but lacks the wherewithal can be eligible.

“We accommodate all girls,” she said. “The first thing we do is sit her [a girl who is interested in a scholarship] down and ask her if she has what it takes. We then ask her to fill the forms and then send her to get her certificates.”

Some of the paperwork needed include a high school leaving certificate, a high school transcript, three letters of recommendation and an essay about oneself.

Mboya said: ‘We need these to get to know who we are dealing with. Her leaving certificate helps us to know if she has been in any leadership role, something that really matters to us. Part of our goal is to raise leaders across Africa.”

Once this is done, Mboya said, these forms are usually sent to universities across the U.S. and a Zawadi representative in the US then follows up with the schools.

“When we get a positive answer, we closely work with the family of the successful girl,” she explained. “We advise on passport acquisition, booking visa interviews and air tickets.”

Zawadi Africa representatives in Kenya then ask relatives and local leaders including, possibly, a parliamentary representative to help with the necessary arrangements.

“These people are always ready to chip in,” she said. “Their representative legislators hold fundraisers for them while our partners wait to add to what is lacking.”

The last step is the orientation on the American culture and ways of life, which she said, is quite different from that of Kenya. Once they arrive in the US the girls are usually given mentors who are African girls who went before them.

Mboya explained: “These mentors hold conferences with them as often as possible, reminding them why they are where they are. We don’t want to send these girls floundering in a foreign country”.

The noble idea has seen a whooping 55 girls from Africa enrolled at top universities in the U.S. including Yale University, Xavier University, Smith College and now Harvard University.

With a huge budget on the head of every girl, Mboya has to keep asking for help in order for more girls to see the light of education.

Reach Oduor Jagero at koduor@eafricainfocus.com

Author Profile: Story  on August 2, 2009, 8 Comments


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8 Responses to “Scholarships give Kenyan women a future”

  1. rispah birgen says on: 31 July 2009 at 1:58 am

    congratulations for the good work. I would like however to know if I can benefit from the scholarships. Iam a lady aged 36 and have just admission for MBA at the Catholic University, starting 31st August,2009.I will surely appreciate your assistance

  2. David Ohito says on: 1 August 2009 at 1:05 am

    Great and inspiring story. The problem and challenge I have is that those brainy girls away in the far flung corners may not read this story because they are not on face book nor anywhere near a computer.

    But is simple well written and well told. How I wish the Susan Mboya function is not at Laico regency but at a rural setting where the may disadvantaged brainy girls live. But as starting point it wins all my support.
    David Ohito

  3. Masya says on: 1 August 2009 at 2:38 am

    Wow, good work indeed by susan Mboya. I know atleast two beneficiaries of that program, Charity Wayua and Sheran Oradu, who are indeed gonna take Africa by storm, in the fulness of time.
    Keep up yo unmatched good work, Sue.

  4. oduor says on: 1 August 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Yeah, i hope so too. That it will be at some rural home. I would love see more of this…and i would love boys to go to skul too. Human is human, child is child…

  5. Pamela Mulumby pmulumby says on: 1 August 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Rispar, please visit http://www.zawadiafrica.org for more information.


  6. Jacquie Ombewa says on: 22 August 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Amazing material! The Mboyas are legendary back in my place and to see the late Mama Pamela’s daughter do this is very inspirational!!! Keep up the good work guys and keep publishing such useful material….

  7. meseret says on: 1 October 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Hi my name is meseret negatu and I am from Ethiopia .I am 25 ears old and I am married and I have 2 children both are girls .I graduate in computer science degree program form Sheba university college.My comment is that is there any scholarships For ethiopian women please mail me .thanks


  8. Dina says on: 10 March 2010 at 4:40 am

    mY NAME IS Blandina Bobson and currently working in a project that supports HIV+ people and children orphaned due to HIV AIDS as a data clerk.I really want to further my studies and do a degree in Sociology, this way i know i will be in a better position to help the community more but i cannot afford the fees. Is there any way that i can get a scholarship. I have never had a n opportunity to go to college but i really want to. I have community work experience but not qualified.Is there any way that i can get assistance?
    My email is dinabob2002@yahoo.com


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