When Sammy Gitau, a child of one of Nairobi's most notorious slums, discovered a Manchester University prospectus on a rubbish tip, he kept it as a talisman and reminder of what life could be like. Like thousands of other children in the Kenyan capital's oldest slum, there seemed little means of escape. But today, Mr Gitau, who spent almost a decade gazing in hope at the precious booklet, becomes the university's most remarkable graduate.
Despite just two years of formal education, he has completed an MSc in international development project management (IDPM), and even receive a merit for his dissertation, which focused on his community projects in Nairobi. Today, as he steps out in his gown and mortar board, he will carry on his shoulders the hope of thousands of Kenyan slum-dwellers who never believed such a leap possible.
"It feels amazing as a personal achievement but also as a message to everyone that it is possible to succeed, even when you are from a community that nobody thought anything good could come from," he said.
Mr Gitau's programme director, Dr Pete Mann, said he had never heard of someone from a background of such adversity attending the university. "We have taken someone without a first degree but I don't think we have ever taken someone without even high-school education; so it's a massive accomplishment," he said.
Attracted by the colourful crest on its cover, and the name which reminded him of one of the city's football clubs, Manchester United Mr Gitau could never have dreamt of the fortune the discarded prospectus might bring. Looking through the cardboard folder, he grew excited by leaflets advertising a development course which mentioned Kenya. But faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he dismissed it as a pipe dream.
The rubbish heap where he found it was in an alleyway of a middle-class suburb not far from his makeshift home in Mathare. Frequented by desperate children in search of food and scrap metal to sell, the slum is an unlikely place to forge a dream of studying at one of Britain's top universities.
With only the bare bones of an education behind him, Mr Gitau became the family's main bread-winner at 13, when his father was murdered in a gang attack. His parents had run an illegal liquor outfit, making moonshine, but after his father died, the young boy turned to drug dealing and theft to bring money home for his mother and 10 siblings.
Despite being entrenched in a life of crime, Mr Gitau turned his life around in 1997, after falling into a coma induced by a cocaine overdose. When he came to, he said he felt a duty to change, and decided to begin helping slum children who were going through the same struggles.
"When you are dying you make a deal with God," he said. "You say, 'Just get me out of here and I will do anything. I will go back and stop children going through the same kind of life as me'."
Given Mr Gitau's education history thus far, it would have been remarkable for him to reach high school, let alone a postgraduate course. For the few years when he was in school, his time was torn between the family business and his books. He would try to do homework on the same table that punters came to drink the illegal alcohol. His studies were interrupted by brawls and running errands. "I ended up sleeping in lessons, because I was up so late, and I couldn't concentrate on work", he explained.
The discovery of a course that could lift him out of poverty was one he found difficult to keep to himself. "People thought I was crazy," he said. "I felt like a crusader because I didn't know anyone who had done this. I learnt not to share my dreams with people after a while, though, because they only took away from it."
Now 35, Mr Gitau has managed to swim against the tide of what seemed like an inevitable fate. His projects, which were helping 20,000 children to find a path out of poverty, caught the attention of other organisations in the area, who then helped him to transform his own life. His community resource centres for young slum children addicted to drugscost just 50 a month to run. With three volunteers, Mr Gitau taught carpentry, tailoring, computer skills and baking to those who would otherwise never have had a chance. At the heart of his plans was a library. "I wanted to offer these children what I could not get," he said.
It was the imagination and ambition of his home-grown charity that caught the eye of other NGOs. And when Monica Quince, the wife of the EU's head of delegation in Nairobi, and a colleague, Alex Walford, took an interest in his projects, they provided not only resources but the vital advice that led to Mr Gitau's Manchester adventure.
Following the donation of portable containers to house Mr Gitau's projects, he and Mr Walford became friends. A few months later, during a chat with Mr Walford about his aspirations, Mr Gitau began to tell him about the course of his dreams. He wanted to show him the prospectus, but when Mr Gitau couldn't find it, he simply told him "Manchester", and "IDPM". After looking it up on the internet, Mr Walford found details of the course, and set about helping him realise his dream.
Mr Gitau's vast experience on the ground caught the eye of the course directors, who were quick to see how much others could learn from his success as a project manager. The university paid his fees, but he still needed a way to fund his living costs.
"I had nothing to cover my accommodation or survival," he said. "So I contacted people who had visited my project in Kenya. So many came back to me and donated really generously. I could not have done it without them."
No sooner had he crossed that hurdle than another appeared. In 2005, immigration officials, who saw his lack of previous education, refused him a visa because, as they saw it, he could not be a serious candidate. It took another seven months before a judge overruled this decision, calling it "thoroughly unsatisfactory and insupportable".
So last year, visa in hand and abroad for the first time, Mr Gitau arrived in Britain to start the course that had fuelled so many years of daydreams. Once he arrived in Manchester, however, the work was far from over. While his spoken English was good, he had no experience of essays or research, so a tutor was brough in to support him.
Mr Gitau puts his achievements down to hard work. "After all the goodwill, at the end of the day it's just you sticking to your books," he said.
Today, Mr Walford will be among the proud spectators as Mr Gitau receives that longed-for certificate. The Kenyan said: "For the past few days I haven't been able to sleep I've been too excited. So many doors had been shut in my face because I didn't have this or that. Now, finally, I can think big. Now I can go back to my projects and make sure they do well."
The violent, desperate place he came from
Nairobi is a city of ostentatious wealth and desperate poverty. Often the two sit side by side. Korogocho, a slum next to the city's rubbish dump, houses 200,000 people but is less than a mile from the Muthaiga Club, where Nairobi's elite drink in men-only bars. Mathare, where Sammy Gitau grew up, is a short drive from the plush homes of a handful of ambassadors.
Two-thirds of the three million people in Nairobi live in slums. Home is often little more than a tin shack with a leaking roof. Inside, there is likely to be space for a tatty sponge mattress and a small stove; nothing more. There is no electricity, no water and no sanitation. Aid agencies build the occasional latrine but most people cope with "flying toilets" a plastic bag they hurl into an open sewer.
State-run schools are overcrowded, with too few teachers and no textbooks. Those parents who can afford it educate their children privately. Most who live in places like Mathare just have to make do.
Even then, many children do not go to school. Their parents prefer them to find bits of work here and there to contribute towards their meagre income. Many young people end up sniffing glue or joining gangs.
Violence is a daily threat in all of Nairobi's slums, but none more so than Mathare. Police are rarely seen and, when they are, they are there in force and with weapons. They were there in November 2006 when violence flared between two gangs, the Mungiki a quasi-religious sect and the Taliban. Despite their name, they are Christians who thought "Taliban" sounded good.
There was further fighting in June after a wave of beheadings carried out by the Mungiki prompted a brutal crackdown. Police attempts to hit back led to more than 30 deaths in three days in Mathare. Ordinary men, women and children with no links to the Mungiki were held face down in the mud and beaten with whips and clubs.
Life may be tough but some local initiatives have helped to improve matters. In Korogocho, young people have set up a radio station, Koch FM. In Mathare, film-makers are engaged in a project called Slum TV, making short films which are shown on a big screen once a month.
Steve BloomfieldReuse content