What you need to know:
- When James failed his final exams in high school, he lost all hope and wished for death.
- Today, Dr James Karanja is inspiring hope to vulnerable young people because he knows what it feels like to have no hope
He stood facing the tallest tree he could find in the forest near his home. On his hand, he held a rope already fastened into a noose. In a few seconds, it would all come to an end.
James Karanja’s young life had been laden with so much suffering. His father was a drunkard who loved the bottle more than his own children. The only time he spoke to the children was to tell them how useless they were.
His mother laboured every single day to support the family of 13 children. They were often hungry because his mother could only afford one meal a day. But the stroke that broke the camel’s back was his dismal performance in his final secondary school exam.
“When I saw the results, all my dreams got shattered. I remember standing in that forest and telling God that if a C minus was all he had for me then my life was not worth living.”
As he prayed, hot tears flooded his face as he sank to his knees in despair. He tried rising from ground so as to climb the tree and put an end to his pain, but he couldn’t. His knees had turned to jelly so he remained on the ground. The sobbing continued until he fell into a deep sleep.
“When I woke up hours later, I felt very different. The heaviness in my heart had lifted, my mind was clear. The desire to end my life had disappeared and I walked out of that forest with a very strong will to keep going.”
According to James, the grade came as a huge disappointment because he was quite gifted academically. He has passed his primary school exams and managed to join the reputable Solai High School. His future was bright. In fact, he aspired to be successful and help his family rise from poverty. It pained him to see his mother work for long hours at the white farmers’ coffee plantations just to put food on the table. His father was a carpenter but his meagre income never made it past the nearest drinking den on his way home. James wanted to change his family’s fortune and education seemed to be the only way to do it.
“Solai High was a day school. I used to trek a distance of about 20 kilometres to get there. Fortunately in my second year, a kind lady from the church offered to take me in as her home was closer to the school. That made life easier for me. Still, I had to work on people’s farms during weekends in order to raise money for school fees. Getting extra time to revise became nearly impossible.” In addition, James was required to help with farm work at his hosts place. Sometimes they went without breakfast because she wasn’t well off either but James didn’t mind. He was closer to school and he was grateful for that.
“On weekends I would go back home and join my mother in tilling people’s farms. The wages were barely enough to sustain my needs as well as pay for my studies. Therefore I had to get as many casual jobs as I could. Unfortunately, this affected my studies so I was not able to post a good grade.”
Shortly after the incident at the forest, James got a temporary job as a high school tutor in his neighbourhood.
In 1992, his sister who resided in Kiambu learnt that tutors in her neighbourhood made much more than he was earning back home. She advised him to move to Kiambu and he obliged.
“ It was while in Kiambu that I learnt about a German organisation that helped underprivileged families. I wrote to them seeking an opportunity to volunteer. They offered me the chance to join the organisation as a volunteer. They were kind enough to give me a monthly stipend of Sh300.”
He accrued some savings from his volunteering allowance and enrolled at Daystar University for a certificate in Education and Counselling. After completing the course successfully, he joined the Kenya Highlands Bible College to undertake an advanced course in Theology and Biblical studies.
“After completing this second course, I received a scholarship to study Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Education at Nazarene University in Switzerland. After my undergraduate, I was offered another scholarship to go to the United States to study for my Master’s Degree. I enrolled for two Master’s Degrees: Master in Historical and Theological Studies and Master of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Seminary KY.”
After attaining two master’s degrees, nothing should stop one from getting a doctorate right?
James, the one who nearly ended his life because of scoring a C- in secondary school, joined Philipps University, Marburg, Germany to pursue a PhD in African Religious Studies. His academic accomplishment earned him a new title; Dr James Karanja.
“As I undertook my academic endeavours, I couldn’t help but think of many children whose plight was akin to mine or even worse. I knew what it felt like to sleep hungry and survive on just one meal a day. Shoes was a luxury, in fact I wore my first pair at the age of 15 not because I didn’t like wearing shoes but because we couldn’t afford them. So, when I got to Switzerland, I made proposed a campaign to the university management to raise funds for hungry children in Africa. It was a very simple model. Every Friday, the students would take light meals but pay the usual amount. The extra cash would be channelled to the food drive for needy children in Africa. It worked so well that when I later moved to USA, I proposed the same model.”
Dr Karanja admits he was touched by people’s eagerness and enthusiasm in embracing the campaign. It dawned on him that there are many people who if guided, are willing to make life more bearable for the vulnerable people in society. This realisation is what birthed his organisation that takes care of the less privileged.
“I founded a non-governmental organisation called Home Care International in 2006. Through the generous support of like-minded people we have been able to help refugees and needy families to access education, quality healthcare and mentorship.”
The organisation was started shortly after his mother passed on in 2005.
"I saw my mum work so hard to fend for our family. I have deep respect for her, she gave all she had even though it was little. I learnt a lot from her."
Over the years, the organisation has built rescue centres for boys and girls in Nakuru, as well as safe houses for victims of gender-based violence.
“One of our greatest achievement is seeing children go through school and even get a job placement. Most of the children we are supporting are still in school, and some have joined college and universities. But, there are some who are working in the bank and hotel industries.”
Dr Karanja’s efforts to transform lives didn’t go unnoticed even though he was in a foreign country.
It turns out the German government followed our activities both here in Germany and back home in Kenya. They appreciated the work we have done so far. So, last month, President Frank Walter invited me at his German Palace. He awarded me the Federal Cross of Merit medal, the highest recognition from German president with the title, “Bundesverdienstkreuz.”
Besides the NGO, Dr Karanja works as director of Christian Education and afterschool programs at the Evangelical Youth Work Bad Horburg and Hessen in Germany.
Looking back, Dr Karanja is humbled by how far the urge to be better and to help others has brought him. He believes people are capable of achieving their dreams despite the hurdles one is faced with.
“You can succeed from anywhere in the world. The most important thing is to never lose sight of your potential. Do not let your dreams fade into oblivion.”
The 51-year-old scholar and philanthropist lives in Germany with his two teenage children. He is divorced. He looks forward to visiting home in Solai, Nakuru, soon.