Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A tale to warm the heart

I get press releases from Manchester University, but none with quite the impact of this one.

A former Kenyan slum child who found University of Manchester prospectus leaflets in a dustbin will finally achieve his dream of gaining a Masters degree tomorrow (13 Dec).

Sammy Gitau discovered the documents inside a discarded cardboard wallet decorated with the University’s name in a well-to-do neighbourhood near his home in Mathare, Nairobi 's oldest slum district.

Sammy read references to his country on a page about a course based at the University's renowned ‘Institute for Development Policy and Management’.

And after a struggle of epic proportions he’ll receive the accolade on Thursday. Aged 13, Sammy became his family’s breadwinner when his father, who brewed illegal alcohol, was killed in a hammer attack.

After he was beaten by angry mobs for thieving he became a drug seller in 1997, hitting rock bottom when he overdosed on cocktail of drugs soon after.

Even after he was accepted on to the course, Sammy was forced to take on the UK immigration service, which after hearing about his limited schooling, refused to believe he was a genuine student.

The ruling was overturned seven months later.

Drawing on his experiences, Sammy established a community resource centre which lobbies for fresh water and an electricity supply, as well as helping young men to come off drugs and find a job.

A group of wives of local and international officials - including the wife of the head of the Kenyan EU delegation Monica Quince - helped Sammy to convert cargo containers into classrooms from which he could teach skills to disenfranchised youngsters, such as carpentry and computing.

And it was another EU official Alex Walford who encouraged Sammy to apply to the University’s School of Environment and Development to take the MSc in the ‘Management and Implementation of Development Projects’.

He said: "After the drugs put me in a coma, I remember hearing hospital staff telling me I was going to die and when you are dying, you make a deal with God.

"You just say, get me out of here and will do anything. I will go back and stop children going through the same kind of life as me.

"This may be the end of the first part of my journey, but it certainly isn’t the end of the road.

"In my field work last in July this year, I was able to share and set some foundations of how best to work effectively with slum communities.

"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 be may a model which can be emulated across Africa.

"If it wasn’t for my amazing experience and support from my friends at Manchester University and constant support from donations around the world, this dream would never have become a reality."

Sammy’s University programme director, Dr Pete Mann said: "I found it humbling to teach Sammy - it really is a remarkable achievement.

"In class, he was reflective, thoughtful and creative - a very successful student.

"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."

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