Dec. 13, 2007

An inspiration to us all

Occasionally there are stories so extraordinary and inspiring that you find it hard to believe they are real and not fiction. This is one of those stories.

Sammy Gitau graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Manchester on 13 December. That in itself is not extraordinary, but how he got to Manchester is.

Sammy is from Mathare, the oldest slum in Nairobi, Kenya and did not have the easiest start in life. At the age of 13, Sammy became his family's breadwinner when his father, who brewed illegal alcohol, was killed in a hammer attack. He became a thief, only stopping after being nearly killed by angry mobs. He then turned to drugs, becoming a dealer in 1997. His life hit rock bottom when he overdosed on a cocktail of drugs soon after.

He decided to turn life around: ‘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.’

He 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. He was supported by a group of wives of local and international officials who helped him convert cargo containers into classrooms from which he could teach skills to disenfranchised youngsters, such as carpentry and computing.
So how he did get from this life to Manchester? Incredibly, he found prospectus leaflets inside a discarded cardboard wallet decorated with the University's name in a well-to-do neighbourhood near his home. Sammy read references to his country on a page about a course based at the University's Institute for Development Policy and Management. This became his dream.

His initial foot up came from Alex Walford, an EU official, who encouraged him to apply to Manchester’s School of Environment and Development to take the MSc in the Management and Implementation of Development Projects. His application was successful, but he had to struggle to get there as the UK Immigration Service refused to give him clearance as they did not believe he was a genuine student because of his limited schooling. Thankfully, this ruling was overturned seven months later and he was able to take his place. Now, he has his MSc.

Reflecting on it all, he says: ‘This may be the end of the first part of my journey, but it certainly isn't the end of the road. 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. 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.'

Dr Pete Mann, Sammy's University programme director, comments: ‘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.’

Find out more about the University of Manchester’s School of Environment and Development on its website . Sammy Gitau also speaks about his experiences on a short YouTube videoclip .

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