The Story of Kennedy Baya: DO NOT BEND
Out of all the good moments we experience in Kenya, none is quite as great as watching a sponsor and their student meet. It’s always tinged with a bit of disbelief. Really? The person across the world, whose name I’ve heard and whose life I’ve learned about, is really YOU? It can sometimes be awkward, but most often it is powerful and very moving.
But I’ve never seen a sponsor/sponsee meeting like the one I experienced in this trip to Chwele. The Parkin family, all seven of them, had come as part of the Kenya Keys team. They’d been loyal sponsors for 10 years, not only having each of their four children sponsor a child of their own, but also gathering the neighborhood kids every Christmas to pool their money for a sponsorship. Their sponsorships had carried students through high school and then through college. In short, their involvement had unlocked the potential of many. But since we were working in an area so far from where almost all or our students originated, I hadn’t thought they’d be able to actually meet one of them.
Then Kennedy Baya showed up. The Parkin’s youngest son, Matthew, 16 years old, had sponsored Kennedy for the past seven years. They had both grown up sharing letters, never knowing they would someday meet. The college Kennedy was attending was five hours away. When he heard the Parkins would be in Chwele, he asked our director, Joseph Mwengea, if he could possibly wire the funds so that he could travel the distance on a bus and come. He showed up dressed in his best, with a smile that glowed, as only a Kenyan smile can glow. We gathered around him as he told his story proudly, with great emotion and articulation.
His family was desperately poor, but through great determination, he’d still done well in school. Scoring well enough to qualify for a Kenya Keys sponsorship, he felt great hope for the future. He would be the first secondary school graduate in his family! All because of a boy named Matthew Parkin. He kept a letter from Matthew in his backpack and carried it with him always. If this boy across the world could believe in him, he had to believe in himself!
He did well in school until his father died quite suddenly. In a world largely without medical care, it’s often hard to even know the cause of a death. Heart attack? Stroke? Some other catastrophic failure? But he was gone. He and Kennedy had been as close as a father and son could be, and Kennedy was devastated. Utterly devastated. His studies floundered. He questioned over and over if he should drop out of school and try to support his mother and siblings. He finally decided that he should drop out, pick up any odd jobs he could to keep food on the table; become one of the hundreds around him whose dreams are upended by poverty.
But two things happened. A valued teacher, Raphael Mangisi, sought him out and pleaded with him to stay in school. “You are bright! You can’t quit! Get back in school and trust that your family will survive,” he said. Secondly, Baya was given a letter that had just come from Matthew Parkin. Enclosed in the letter was a family photo. Wanting the photo to arrive unscathed, Matthew had written across the envelope “Do Not Bend.” Baya thought those words were a personal message to him. At this critical juncture in his life, he thought Matthew was telling him “DO NOT BEND!”—to stay in school and fight on. He thought the timing was providential. And he took it seriously. He went back to school and decided to honor his father by rededicating himself.
There was not a dry eye, as Kennedy told this story. Who would have thought a sponsor’s letters could mean so much to a student? And indeed, Kennedy had gone on to do great things. He graduated with marks high enough to qualify for a partial government scholarship to college. Matthew Parkin had filled in the rest. He was soon to graduate with a degree in education, specializing in history and government. He was doing his internship, and loving his students and his work. And whenever there was a Kenya Keys leadership conference, he would travel back to mentor and speak, offering his story along with his message, “Never give up! No matter what seems stacked against you, do NOT bend!”
He asked if he could offer a prayer of thanks for the Parkin family. Such boldness and confidence we seldom see in our humble students. He wanted us all to gather to hold hands as he blessed this family that had changed his life, and he expressed gratitude for “his brother Matthew, who had offered him the gift of education.” He prayed that all good things would happen to this family who had reached out to a child across the world.
Speechless, we all held on to the beautiful moment, one we knew we’d never forget. Then he and Matthew put their heads together and started talking, laughing, and sharing, like two brothers that had known each other for a long time. Baya stayed for a sleep over, plying Matthew with one question after another, studying the photos on Matthew’s phone, loving the feeling of being part of the family. The Parkin family, and the Kenya Keys family. He’d found home.
You never, ever know what a sponsor’s letter can mean.
Note: Matthew Parkin has also written a blog about this touching story, which we will be posting soon.