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.
By ODUOR JAGERO
Published July 30, 2009
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.”
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.
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.”
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.