From Kenyan slum to UK university, Sammy Gitau's achievement inspires others

From Mathare slum to Manchester University – Sammy Gitau’s achievement

Sammy Gitau, who grew up in a Kenyan slum, achieved an amazing dream on Dec. 13, 2007, when he graduated from England’s Manchester University with an MSc in international development project management. He even received a merit for his dissertation, which focused on his community projects in Nairobi. "For the past few days I haven't been able to sleep I've been too excited,” he said. “So many doors had been shut in my face because I didn't have this or that. Now, finally, I can think big. Now I can go back to my projects and make sure they do well."

He only attended school for a few years, and even then, the family business – an illegal liquor outfit – cut into his studying as he tried to do his homework on the table where customers drank. His studies were interrupted by brawls and running errands. At 13, he became the family breadwinner after his father was murdered in a gang attack. He turned to drug dealing and theft to support his mother and 10 siblings.

In 1997, after he emerged from a coma induced by a cocaine overdose, he decided to change his life, and began a project to help children in the crime-ridden slum, Mathare, where he grew up. With donated containers as classrooms, he and three volunteers with his community resource centre taught children skills like carpentry, tailoring, computer skills and baking. It costs $100 a month to run and is estimated to have helped some 20,000 slum children.

He was foraging at a rubbish dump when he found a Manchester University prospectus, which mentioned Kenya as part of a course offered by the University’s Institute for Development Policy and Management. "People thought I was crazy. I felt like a crusader because I didn't know anyone who had done this." But his work with the children had brought him to the attention of European Union officials working in Kenya, who helped him apply to the university's School of Environment and Development. The university decided his vast experience on the ground made him eligible to study and paid his course fees; his living costs were covered by donations from people who had visited his project in Kenya. Then immigration officials refused a visa, because he had only two years of formal schooling. It took another seven months before a judge overruled this decision, and he was able to attend.

“This may be the end of the first part of my journey, but it certainly isn't the end of the road," he said after graduation. “It is the hope and the trust in the eyes of my people that strengthens and ensures me of great success in future. I have big plans for the centre- I hope to expand the project into other areas of Nairobi. Who knows, it may be a model which can be emulated across Africa."

Said program director Dr Pete Mann: "A development project or agency can only benefit from one who has witnessed so much adversity yet brings such intense spirit of endeavour on behalf of others. We have only begun to hear from Sammy Gitau."

This story was prepared from several sources, including A miracle for Christmas, by Emily Dugan, which appeared Thursday Dec. 13 2007 in the; a BBC story entitled Kenya slum dweller gets UK degree, Dec. 13, 2007; Long road from Mathare; and Miraculous journey ends with university graduation, Your Manchester Online. You can also see an interview with Sammy Gitau on Frost over the world on You-Tube.