“Flora and the Elephant” by Rinda Hayes
Flora and the Elephant
When I met Flora Mutiso in 2009, I was stunned by her story. A devoted student, she had arisen early in the dark, like so many children in the bush do, and she had started off to school with her siblings. It was just beginning to get light, when suddenly the crash of elephants broke the stillness of the air. Flora was the one they got, as the other children scattered and went for help. She was lucky. Humans seldom survive encounters with elephants, but her face was smashed and her scalp torn open. The brain injury that resulted took her years to recover from.
When I first met her, four years after her accident, she was still recovering. Her speech was delayed. A dedicated teacher had brought her to me, hoping we could sponsor her. “She’s such a bright girl”, teacher Carolyn had said. “But she is still recovering. Please talk to her. Give her time to respond because it takes a while for her speech to catch up to her thoughts.” And she was right. The words came slowly, but Flora’s thoughts were clear. Her determination was palpable.
For years after meeting Flora, I would report in presentations about meeting her, hearing her story of terror and triumph. She became our poster child of sorts.
She had overcome such odds, her accident on top of the extreme poverty of her family. She had repeated class 7 and 8 in order to improve her score on the national exam so she could qualify to go to University. She did not want a college, she wanted the top. And she paid the price, living in a dark, cement room, sleeping on the floor, daring to leave her room at night to use the common toilet in the ground. She had ended up scoring well, which allowed her to go to the University of Nairobi to pursue her long-held dream of studying to be a math and chemistry teacher in secondary school. There were far too few female teachers to be found in that field. She not only loved the subjects, but hoped to be able to empower girls in the sciences.
It had been years since I’d seen her. I’d heard she had done very well in university, had received her degree, met and married a good young man who was an environmental activist. I had requested that she try to come see our team, as I missed her and her early sponsor, Susan Goodwin, was on our team. Susan had longed to meet her.
Flora said she’d love to come. Years later, there she was, with a three- year-old son, looking more mature. Very thin. But Flora. Still the scar on her face, the right side of her nose still flattened, long crescent scar on her head. And a huge smile.
The tears came for me, as they often do, when I see a student, once a child, grown into firm adulthood. We reminisced. She told me of her current situation; rising at 4:30 am, teaching at Machakos Secondary school, one of the top in the nation, from 6AM until 4 PM, then remaining at school to help the students with their night- time Preps, which is more studying. The schedule these students keep is simply unimaginable in our world. People simply don’t believe it when I tell them. But it is true. The “learning” as they call it, not studying, goes on for 15 hours a day. And Flora also holds special “preps” on Sat. mornings and Sunday evenings.
“We Kenyans must work very hard, Mama Rinda”, she said. “Without hard work, we will never be able to make it to a new life.” I shake my head in awe. “It’s true! We need to work hard. But I love it! I love my students. I love teaching Maths and Chemistry, indeed, I’m the only Madame teacher in the science department. And I would never be there if it weren’t for Kenya Keys. They saved me! Sponsorship saved me! I am most grateful.”
She had traveled 14 hours to see me and Susan. She and her three year old son traveled from Machakos to Nairboi then boarded the night bus from Nairobi to Mombasa, then another two hours in a small public, overcrowded van (matatu). She had three hours to spend with us before she turned around and repeated the trip in reverse: fourteen hours back, so she could get back in the classroom by the next morning.
An elephant couldn’t stop this girl, but poverty came close to stopping her. Thank you to the American sponsors who set her free. She will teach and inspire countless girls in her years as a teacher. They will not only feel her love and strength, but they will see that girls, math, and chemistry can be lovely friends.
Rinda Hayes is the co-founder and director of Kenya Keys. She has dedicated the last 13 years of her life to developing and growing this amazing organization, changing the lives of hundreds of young Kenyan students, their families, and their communities.
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