The Tragedy of Unpaid School Fees
Fredrick was waiting for us. He had “something to share,” which means there is a need he wants to share with us in hopes we can help. This is made less awkward than you might imagine because even though the Kenyans we work with often have “something to share,” they very readily accept it if you say you can’t help. They just appreciate you listening, and perhaps sharing a moment of their grief, or frustration, or helplessness. Sometimes it’s all of the above. You feel helpless just hearing about the endless array of challenges, each one alone enough to overwhelm most people.
Fredrick, his face barely visable in the gathering darkness, told me that he had completed all of his course work, even his final exam, to complete his University degree in education, a most uncommon accomplishment. His problem? He could not claim his degree because he had 60,000 kshillings ($720) of unpaid fees. He didn’t know how, in his lifetime, he would ever be able to pay this off. “What?” I asked in disbelief. “How did they let you get so far without paying your fees?” “They let me do this because I had paid over 300,000 kshilllings. They knew I was trying. They hold on to the degree as collateral. They know I want that degree very bad. Very bad!” he repeats as he looks down.
Let me fill you in on just a few more details, in case you might think that Fredrick was being somehow negligent in not paying these fees. This is a man who lives in the most abject poverty you could ever imagine. He has six children. He has devoted his life to educating them, and the thousands of kids he has touched as a dedicated teacher in the rural area of Samburu district. His two oldest daughters have scored so well on their national exams that they’ve been accepted into national secondary schools, which he is very proud of, but it heaps a huge financial burden on him. Fredrick got his degree while acting as a principal at a huge rural primary school – over 1,000 students! He would go to an intensive program at the university in Nairobi during the three months that regular school was out: April, August, and December. In the four years he had been principal at the school, he had brought it from being dead last in the district, #35 to being #1! That’s a story in itself, but I’ll hold that for later. In short, Fredrick is an amazing man and phenomenal educator. On top of that, he is a delight to be with. His ready smile belies the burden he carries.
After Fredrick “shared” with us, he left; no onus of expectation left behind. He had put his challenge out there. Perhaps we could help with a “small assist.” If not, he understood. His story left us speechless. It was not the first we had heard. Because of poverty, at least one third of Kenyan college students are never able to claim the degrees they have earned. Many have dropped out along the way, realizing the inevitable. It happens at the secondary school level as well. This year we helped a bright young girl who came to us for the second year in a row, asking if we could please help pay the 5,000 kshillings ($60) she owed to be able to claim the diploma she had earned in 2010. How badly she wanted that diploma she had worked so hard to attain! We helped, with money donated to Kenya Keys’ “most urgent need” fund. It seems any donor would feel good to see $60 go so far.
Students often proceed through school on a “wish and a hope.” They struggle through each term, getting family members and friends to kick in what they can on fees. We’re amazed at how often people that are literally starving, will give what little they have to help with someone’s education. They never question the importance of such sacrifice. They know it is the only ticket out of poverty, and they help where they can.
So what happened with Fredrick? We always have to consider what precedence we are setting with each decision we make. We discussed it with our Kenyan leaders. How could we help him without setting a precedent for others? One of our team members, touched by Fredrick’s story, said she wanted to pay his fees off; reward him for his diligence and perseverance in a situation that would have made so many others give up. Perhaps we could award it as a one-time merit award?
That’s what was done. Fredrick never in a million years believed that such a thing could happen. His fees were paid off all at once. His smile could be seen a mile away. “I will graduate on July 23rd” he exclaimed with glee! “I will collect my degree!”
Fredrick was a lucky one. To all those countless others, wishing to obtain the diplomas and degrees they’ve earned at such cost, we applaud you for your hope and faith. We would hope, in turn, that you may somehow, someway, obtain what is rightfully yours.