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My journey: From KCSE ‘failure’ to college principal :: Kenya



Juma Nyongesa, Principal of Kenya Institute of Development Studies.

Juma Nyongesa, 36, is the principal at the Kenya Institute of Development Studies and a part-time lecturer at Africa International University. He shares his turbulent journey towards getting an education and lessons learnt along the way.

Briefly describe your background?

I was born in Kakamega County in a sleepy village along river Mururi Matunda. I am the first born in a family of 11 and where I come from this comes with responsibilities and expectations.

When you have come of age, you are supposed to take care of your young siblings including, but not limited to paying their school fees. My parents were peasant farmers, we lived in perpetual poverty. I remember my mother working on other people’s farms to be able to supplement what my dad could get from his meagre seasonal construction work.

While in primary school, during weekends and holidays I would join my mother to work the farms so that I could be able to raise money for uniform and books. The silver lining was that at an early age I learned the value of hard work and sacrifice.

After getting your KCSE grade, and discovering that you couldn’t further your studies, how did this affect you?

Passing exams and proceeding to university, at that point, was not only an option but the only option. Expectations were high. Land had been sold to gather for my school fees.

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Therefore nothing short of direct entry into university was expected. But when I missed the direct entry, it crashed my world, I felt I was a failure, good for nothing, a letdown and a disappointment to myself and the rest of my family.

This feeling of inadequacy was crippling and was the lowest moment in my life. If you do not have a strong support network at this point you can easily slide into depression. For me I had my mother. 

What did you do?

After staying at home for a few months, it was decided that I look for employment because I could not afford to join a tertiary institution through self-sponsorship. In 2003, I tried out several disciplined forces recruitment exercises without success. Success followed the following year when I was recruited by the Kenya Defence Forces and given the calling letter. I was elated.

However, this excitement was short-lived when 38 days after reporting at Recruit Training School in Eldoret, a parade was assembled and six called out. My name was among them and we were asked to pack our belongings and leave the school within 15 minutes.

We were told there was an error in the process of recruitment even as rumours abounded that a powerful politician had influenced our ejection to make way for his team. With my goose cooked, I moved to Limuru where I worked as a casual tea picker and later as a security guard in Nairobi. All this while I did not lose my desire to further my education.

How did they make you feel about the education system in particular?

After missing the university cut-offwith a few points and lacking resources to proceed, I felt the education system was discriminatory and unfair to the poor. The poor then simply had to excel at exams to stand a chance at life. The privileged, on the other hand, had a number of alternatives available to them. Thankfully, a raft of measures have been introduced to combat this disparity.  

Why did you opt to study community development and business management?

Having come from underdeveloped background, I thought of doing a course that would help me understand the causes of poverty and what can be done about it. Community development helped me comprehend the multifaceted layers of underdevelopment and the solutions therein. This was not only for my village but the rest of the country and Africa by extension. Business management was to help me link between entrepreneurship and wealth creation for the poor.

What culture shock did you experience when you joined campus?

My image of a university was a citadel where springs of knowledge flow and students make every effort to drink. I was shocked thus to learn of the huge number of students who have the chance to be in university but do not take their studies seriously. I could not fathom how some people partied with no regard to the primary goal of being in university.

How significant is having a mentor in campus?

I love hiking and mountaineering. When you go attempt a fresh climb, you encounter guides who help you know which route is safe to take. You trust their word because they have been there before you. It is the same concept of having a mentor. Mentors shape and mold us to make something out of ourselves. We minimise learning from our mistakes if we have mentors.

With skyrocketing unemployment, is pursuing an education still relevant?

This, in my view, is ignorant thinking and a narrow way of looking at education. I understand the frustration that those who have gone through the education system and are unemployed can cause them to assume education is not relevant. My view, however, is that education transforms one’s view of issues in the society. Education opens the doors of mental prisons even if you are not employed. What we need to interrogate is the kind of education system being used and what it prepares people for.

What are some of the things you have attained thanks to education?

Apart from being a principal in a premier development institution and a lecturer in a university, I have been able to travel the world as trainer in seminars and conferences, I have taken my ten siblings through school. I support 26 needy students and intend to do more.

What inspired you to study your masters and later PhD?

You can’t pour from an empty cup. You can’t give what you don’t have. Because my life was transformed while in class, I will want to do the same for others by lecturing and paying their school fees. This could only be done if I advanced my education.

As a lecturer, how do you inspire your students to become better?

They say teachers affect eternity – there is no telling where there influence stops. The moment I step in the classroom I remember how my life was before becoming a student and how I changed through education. I not only teach content for passing exams but teach skills for life using myself as an example.

What, in your view, are some of the things that ail our education system?

The system for a long time prepared graduates to be employees and not employers. Three quarters of the 600,000 candidates who sat for KCSE this year will not make to university. Where will they go academically? What of those who are not able to pay? These are the inadequacies that stakeholders should strive to improve.

Who inspires you and why?

Students in class; when they come in, still green, naive, ready to learn and you walk with them through the academic journey till graduation day when they are ready to face the world is very fulfilling for me.

What do you enjoy doing when not teaching?

I play rugby, read many books and serve in my church.  

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