“Margaret Nyamvula – First Generation Learner” by Rinda Hayes
They are called “first generation learners”, students whose parents were never able to go to school, or only went for a few years. Almost all of the Kenya Keys students fall into this category. They are pioneers; the first to “taste the fruits”, as they say.
When in Kenya, we meet with and interview as many Kenya Keys students as possible. It’s June 20th and I’m interviewing Margaret Nyamvula, who is a first- generation learner. Her father died when she was young. Her mother never went to school. Margaret is the oldest of four children. The responsibility resting on her shoulders is great.
Her mother, Agnes Kwe Kwe, has been a cook at the remote primary school where Kenya Keys began – Bahakwenu. Every day she works for hours in a smoke-filled room, stirring the massive fire to cook lunch for 450 kids. Every day she rises at dawn to care for her own children before she leaves for school. Each day is a fight for survival for this family. Margaret represents the family’s only possible chance to escape the extreme poverty that is always nipping at their heels.
Four years ago Margaret scored well enough to be accepted into the Kenya Keys program, which infused the whole family with the light of hope. Without Kenya Keys, despite her good marks, she never could have gone on to secondary school. The education of just one of the children will entirely change the future of this family. They will be looking to Margaret for support from the day she graduates – in many cases, even before graduation. It is a big weight to put on her, as it is for all the students of Kenya Keys, but they seem to accept the responsibility readily. “I’m so glad I can help my family!” says Margaret in her interview. “They are all looking to me.” I ask her if that feels like a big responsibility. She sees it more as a privilege. She is the agent of change. Of this she is very proud, not burdened. “I will not see history repeat itself in me,” she says.
After completing secondary school last December, Margaret began a six-month volunteer internship for Kenya Keys. She’s teaching at the local primary school, where students hold her in awe. She’ll be leaving for college soon! And she was once a young student sitting at these very desks! Stepping seamlessly into the role of teacher, she has thrived with this responsibility.
Girls like Margaret grow up quickly. They often carry young siblings on their back by the time they are 6 six years old. In Margaret’s case, she cared for her young siblings while her mother went to school to cook on the blazing fire, eyes burning, skin scorching – all to be able to buy enough food to keep her children at home alive.
I ask Margaret if she has any concerns about leaving for college. “My main worry,” she says, “is that our family home will collapse while I am gone.” It has been a concern of hers for quite a while. She knows eventually she will be able to support the family, but how will they get by until then? Now that her siblings are getting older, they also need more food. Her bright eyes reflect the worry.
While her mother daily stirs the fire at the school, Margaret will be at the Bura Teachers Training College. Though losing her to college will put a burden on the family, her mother welcomes it. It marks the beginning of change. Margaret is the “torchbearer”, as they say.
As Margaret shares her excitement and her worry with me, I see in her eyes the fierce determination that so binds me to these students. They leave their rural villages, the only world they have known, to find their way to the college campus. They navigate public transport for the first time, and try to jump into the world of technology, having never touched a computer. Often mocked for their poverty and lack of sophistication, they find themselves far behind and far from home. Their fears are many – but these are youngsters who have imbibed bravery with their mother’s milk. They find a way.
I watch Margaret open the letters from the women in Arizona who sponsor her – six of them, who gathered as a group to provide this sponsorship. They call their group “Bravo”, because they are cheering Margaret on from a small spot across the world. She smiles at the thought of this. They have sent Margaret photos and letters of encouragement. She drinks in their encouragement and asks me to tell her more about them. Her eyes, deep dark pools, reflect her sense of wonder; wonder that they care, wonder that she is so lucky. She thanks me for finding “the mamas”. “Tell them they have changed my life,” she says.
I pack up my things. Give me just a snippet of her bravery, her stamina, her fierce determination! I will ride home on them, back to my other world, where courage often fails me, but girls like Margaret lead me on.
Rinda Hayes is the co-founder and director of Kenya Keys. She has dedicated the last 13 years of her life to wn as the people demolish their businesses and homes: developing and growing this amazing organization, changing the lives of hundreds of young Kenyan students, their families, and their communities.
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