Started at the bottom

I believe success and greatness have a price, and that price is responsibility. Responsibility demands relentless hard work and focus in life.

At age 15, I took what I would regard as the longest shot in my life. I left my two siblings alone in our rural home and traveled to the city in search of education and a better life than the one we already were living.

In the same year, I had done my final primary school exams and emerged top student. This did not however bring as much joy and celebration as it would normally do. As I finished my last paper, I knew as clear as everyone else that this was where education and I would part ways. This too was a reality for most of the kids in our village, who clearly knew they had to start thinking of the next phase of their lives.

Spending the next two months with my siblings was the most humbling experience in my life. There are few things that hurt more than seeing the people you love suffer, knowing there isn’t a single thing you can do. I knew there were a lot of things to be done to change these circumstances but first, I needed more than just a primary school certificate to my name.

In early December 2009, I made the tough call – to move to the city.  I had spent the last twelve hours in a bus that was frequently breaking down. I had no bus ticket, so I snuck into the boot of the bus where there was next to no air and my only companions were vegetables, chickens and luggage.  There were clearly a lot of hard times ahead, but this was definitely one of the worst. The deep pain of leaving my brother and sister behind without anything to go by would remain for the next five years of my life.

I arrived in Nairobi.  Like any other person going into a vast city without a plan, I found myself in the most unfortunate part – I landed right in the heart of the Kibera Slums. Being in Kibera for the first time was the most confusing experience. All of the houses looked the same and so did all the streets and its people too.  Clearly there wasn’t an easy way to get help, so I decided to approach a nearby school. From a distance, before the school gate stood a man who seemed to be questioning everyone who got in or went out. He was clearly the guard. I had to think of a better plan of attack.

“Wewe ni nani na unataka nini” were his brute Swahili words, which basically meant “who are you and what do you want?”.I knew this was no time to play small. I confidently looked him in the eyes and told him “Oh I am related to the principal. How come you don’t know me?”I acted surprised. Hearing that I was related to the owner of the school and the fact that I spoke English provided a beautiful combination that indicated to the man he was going to lose more than an argument if he kept me any longer. I was directed to the principal office.

In less than three sentences I gave my story to the school principal. I had to tell her I had heard a lot about her school, which was why I had to go there to ask for a chance to learn.  The lady looked at me and simply asked if that was all I had to say. I added, “If you give me a chance in your school I will be the top student and also beat the school’s best record”. Her next words almost made me faint. “Go to class”, she replied, calling someone to show me the way. In a nutshell, this was my ticket to finishing high school. I kept my word and I became the best student, although it wasn’t the highest score to ever be attained.

Among the high-school policies, you were required to volunteer somewhere for six months to show your gratitude to your community. Different students were posted in different areas where they were to help out in whichever capacity they were asked. I was posted at the Mirror of Hope, a community based organisation helping disadvantaged children living in the Kibera Slums acquire a secondary school education. I was grateful I had finished high-school. This was something many of my peers never dreamt of.  However, there was one bigger problem – I was hungrier still for success! I decided to focus on the next six months before I went back home to stay with my siblings, this time maybe for good.

Volunteering at the Mirror of Hope was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of personal growth. Meeting and interacting with people who shared their incredible life stories made me realise I was never alone in my misfortunes. Helping out children, suggesting small developments to the organisation, and seeing women whose lives had broken rise up brought me happiness and a feeling of achievement. For the first six months that I volunteered at the Mirro of Hope, I laughed more than I ever had in my whole lifetime, which brought a little more meaning into my life.

I was four months into the program. Two more left before I packed my bags and said goodbye to the city. Two Australians visited the Mirror of Hope, one of which was Nate. As usual, I loved having visitors around and even enjoyed showing them around the Kibera Slum, my home away from home. Together with other volunteers we exchanged stories and life experiences, learning to respect each other more for who we were than where we came from. One month went by and one day I woke up to the news that Adventure Out Loud was fundraising for my college education. To be honest I had hoped that something could happen, but the best idea I could ever imagined was landing some casual job in the city. Being fully sponsored for four years in a university was the last thing I ever could have dreamed of.

It is three years later today, and I am studying a Bachelor of Arts and Economics at University. It is only a matter of time before I graduate and make all my dreams a reality. Life might have dealt me a bad hand, but I won’t accept defeat! I am grateful to enjoy the reflection of my life up to this point which to me has been a success story on its own.

About the author

Jacob is a writer, university economics student and community youth leader living in Kibera Slum, Kenya. Ever the optimist, Jacob is never short of a smile or a joke and along with an unwavering determination, these were the qualities that led AOL to sponsor his university education when we met him in 2015. Jacob became the guardian to his two siblings, James and Cythia, after the sudden death of his parents as a young teenager and he is proud that Cythia will be staring university in 2018.

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