We dared to follow our dreams

Clockwise: Dr Joy Mugambi, Stephanie Wanga, Fredrick Kimemia, Emma Nkirote, Tony Mochama and Brian Onjoro share stories of daring to follow their dreams. PHOTO| CHARLES KAMAU, DENNIS ONSONGO AND COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • This week, we engage two groups: those that went to college to study for ‘prestigious’ college degrees they had no interest in, and those that rose above the poor grades they scored in high school to pursue their dream careers.
  • This feature is also a letter to parents and education stakeholders – it is time to lift the iron hand with which you pressure the youth to study courses they absolutely have no interest in.

Lack of proper career assessment in early stages of education as well as inadequate mentorship rank high up on the list of factors that lead many into wrong careers.

There is also the added confusion that comes in the form of the grade that we score in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams that seems to be the key determinant of the course that we study in university, factors such as individual aptitude, interests and talents notwithstanding. Finally, there is pressure from parents and society in general to take up certain courses, the result being many individuals in careers they tolerate, rather than enjoy.

This week, we engage two groups: those that went to college to study for ‘prestigious’ college degrees they had no interest in, and those that rose above the poor grades they scored in high school to pursue their dream careers.

This feature is also a letter to parents and education stakeholders – it is time to lift the iron hand with which you pressure the youth to study courses they absolutely have no interest in.



Clinical officer to consultant family physician

Her C grade in her final secondary school exams seemed to have completely erased her dream of studying medicine, but because of the desire that she had to become a medical doctor, she chose to put in the 11 years that she needed to become a medical doctor.

“I started with a diploma in clinical medicine, which took three years. After that, I worked for two years in Kiambu District Hospital and a year at Marie Stopes, Kenya. Afterwards, I travelled to Tanzania to study for my degree in Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, which took six years. I then returned to Kenya, where I did my one year internship and then went on to work for three years. I got lucky to be partially sponsored by the government for my Master’s in Family Medicine, which took four years, but only because I took maternity leave in between,” she says. But Joy is not done yet, and plans to enrol for a PhD in medical ethics next year.

Her achievement did not come easy. The number one challenge was school fees, especially in her undergraduate level following her father’s death. It took the combined effort of her mother, sister and brother to keep her in school. Getting a school that would admit her for her undergraduate studies was also difficult.

“I visited the University of Nairobi and Moi University, but none was admitting clinical officers into their degree programs at that time, and so I expanded my search to the other East African countries and eventually got admitted to the International Medical and Technological University in Dar-es-Salaam. During my graduation in 2005, I was awarded for being the best in obstetrics and gynaecology.”

When she returned to Kenya, she sat the medical board exam, which she passed, and was posted to do her internship at Nakuru County Referral hospital. When she completed her internship, she stayed on at the hospital for the stipulated three years before applying for her Master’s in family medicine, a new specialty program that had started at Moi University.

“Don’t let your grades hinder you from your passion because failing is not the end, rather, the beginning. Start small and finish big, your efforts will always yield good fruit if you put your heart to it.”



Law graduate pursuing the arts

Stephanie chose to study Law for two reasons: the course was aligned to her favourite subjects – English and History, and because it was prestigious.

“My parents were keen on my studying medicine, but I decided to do law because I thought it was as close as I could get to the prestige of medicine whilst doing something I thought I would at least somewhat like,” she says. Once she enrolled for the course though, it was akin to a chemical reaction she did not understand, but which she desperately wanted to. “I realised that I was interested in subjects like history, religion and culture as expressed through mediums like music and literature, so studying law was not enough,” she explains and adds,

 “I spent a year attending sessions known as Ideagasms with Storymoja Publishers, sessions in which we would discuss, debate and passionately argue about all the things I was interested in. I also frequently visited the Goethe Institut, which had lots of film and literary forums. That changed everything for me.”

But she worked hard and completed her studies, and in fact scored first class honours because to her, it is foolhardy to throw away a chance to get an education. “I only work at things when I feel a deep reason for them. I am passionate about my continent and I want to get at the core of what ails it. The core of what ails my continent is not in law. Law shows you how to deal with the symptoms of the disease. I want to get to the disease,” she explains.

Her family has been supportive even though they still do not fully understand the path that she is taking. She has moments where she doubts the path she has chosen and whether things will really work out for her in the end, but she is determined to keep going.

“During the day I am at The GoDown Arts Centre, immersing myself in different kinds of arts since for a long time I was only interested in literature. I am also writing my first novel. I work with an amazing woman called Sandra Chege on a platform called Hadithi (hadithi.co.ke) that captures true African stories on love, pain, motivation, and family by means of letters to self. I have also just got my offer of admission to study for my MA in African Studies, which I’m really excited about. At the moment, I am busy applying for scholarships that will enable me to attend the programme,” she says.

If you are studying a course you are unsure about, Stephanie suggests dropping it. “Interrogate what it offers you, how it might serve your real desires, stick it out, and if it comes short, follow your heart.”




He chose comedy over civil engineering

“I was in what one would call the Golden Class at Starehe Boys, so my career options were limited to medicine, architecture, engineering or law. I decided to take a gamble with engineering, though what I really wanted to study was film,” he says.

When he completed high school, he applied to the film school at the University of Cape Town and got a partial scholarship. No one was willing to pay the remainder of his school fees though, and so he forewent that opportunity and instead joined the University of Nairobi where he was admitted to study Civil Engineering. He dropped out in his second year.

 “My parents were disappointed because all the hope that they had in me had been dashed. There was so much tension at home, I could no longer stay,” he says.

For a year, he was homeless, putting up with friends willing to host him. His parents have never come to terms with his choice of career, and the only time they came close to applauding his decision was when he won Sh400, 000 in KBC’s Last Laugh Competition in 2014.

“There have been moments when I have felt regret sneaking up on me especially when I am broke, but over time, I have taken responsibility for the decision that I made and accepted that there will be no going back,” he explains.

Brian is still building up his brand of improve and stand up comedy.

On Facebook and Instagram, their (he works with other comedians and producers) username is Nairobi Comedy Club, which can be described as a space for alternative comedy. “When you move away from that which is ‘normal’, you have to put in more effort to succeed because you are under pressure and are building from scratch, so you have a lot more to prove. You need a very strong work ethic to succeed.”



Patient attendant turned health system management CEO

 “A poor grade in high school should not discourage you from pursuing your dream career,” says Fredrick.

When he got grade C in his KCSE exams, he doubted his capability and doubted he could realise his dream of becoming an architect. This score also meant that he would not get direct admission into the university.

He felt that his only option was to become a farmer, and yet all he really wanted to pursue was a prestigious course.

“Following my poor results, I gave up my dreaming of becoming an architect, and instead focused on my second option—a health-related course, which I knew I had to sacrifice a lot to achieve.”

His father gave him Sh6, 000 with which to register at a medical college. Following his brother’s advice, he first registered for a certificate course. He had to work part time as a patient attendant to support himself through school because apart from the registration fee his father gave him, he hardly received any money from his parents while in college.

It has been a tough journey to where he is today, and as you read this, Fredrick has a Masters of Science degree, which took him a whopping 18 years to get.

To get here, he studied for several certificates, then went on to study for a diploma, (he has two) followed by a Bachelor’s degree. He will complete his PhD this year.

“For younger people whose parents might be struggling to raise fees, and there is no scholarship forthcoming, I would advise them to take the longer route instead of giving up.

Start with a certificate in an artisan course, then build up from there. It will save your parents the heartache of trying to fund your training at the expense of the younger ones who require



Lawyer turned writer

The cluster system got Tony into law school. “I had very strong grades in English, History and C.R.E, so my natural choice for a career would have been law,” he says, explaining that he chose law because he was fascinated by the courtroom and what went on in there. In fact, he and his friends often visited the High Court just to “check it out.”

He also found local TV show Vioja Mahakamani interesting. “The series of books featuring Perry Mason also made me think that law was very glamorous, so I grew up with a very romantic idea of Law,” he adds.

His mother’s death shortly before he joined university contributed largely to the changing of the trajectory of his life.

“I joined law school as a very troubled student, and found myself writing poems to drown my sorrow.”

While in his second year, he got suspended for making caricatures of lecturers he did not get along with and posting satirical poems on the university noticeboard. It amused his fellow students but enraged the targeted teachers.

“I would go on to sojourn at David Makali’s Expression Today, writing and learning. David was like my school of journalism,” Tony explains. But it was later during his pupilage at a cousin’s law firm that Tony became pointedly aware that he wanted out of the legal profession. He walked out after just two months.

“I realised that I had not done any creative writing in the duration of the pupilage because I was immersed in writing affidavits and working on reports. I felt that my brain was becoming short-circuited and I was losing touch with my creative side, so I quit.”

He feels that over-emphasising certain courses at the expense of others is very colonial and needs to be done away with.

“People seem to be always looking for formulas when the truth is that life is very random,” he asserts.

When he quit his pupilage, he did not have a clear plan of where he wanted to go. “My father wept. I was scared, but only because I had no idea what would follow, so I started writing obsessively and would spend all my time at the Macmillan Library.”

A chance meeting with a Russian professor during a Kwani? writing workshop got him a 18 months writing scholarship at St. Petersburg (Russia) and that set him off as a professional writer.

Fifteen years later, Tony says he does not regret walking away from law.

“There are many fine lawyers in this town and chances are I would have joined the ranks, but then, writing has given me some continental prizes and I am really fulfilled as a writer,” he says.

But Tony is very particular: if you are in school studying whatever course it is,  whether you see yourself practicing it after you graduate or not, put in your best because that knowledge will come in handy.

Do not throw away the opportunity to get an education, he advises.

“The problem is that people equate knowledge to careers, let the passion that you have drive you.”



Emma’s KCSE exam score of D+ shattered her. “My academic performance started going down while in Form Three because I had stopped taking my classwork seriously,” she says, explaining that she allowed herself to be distracted by partying and other factors that accompany peer pressure.

She was fortunate that her mother believed in her, and therefore supported her and encouraged her to register for courses that did not demand a certain grade.

“I started with a certificate, then a diploma at the Institute of Advanced Technology in Mombasa. I later joined Africa Nazarene University, where I did my pre-university course and then continued with a Bachelors in Peace and Conflict Resolution, and finally a Master’s in Governance, Peace and Security. I majored in governance,” she says.

For Emma, joining university was a second chance she immediately seized, and worked hard to ensure that she did not squander it.

“I took my studies very seriously, and with the help of my lecturers and fellow students in the Peace and Conflict Department, the journey was fun.”

She adds,  “The system will not always be fair because it judges you with this one exam. To paraphrase what my mother told me when I found out what I had scored in my final high school exams, if you do not have a direct entry to university, don’t give up, the journey may be tough, but you have to make your dream come true, whether you crawl, walk or run.”

How a parent reacts to his or her child’s performance in school and in exams, she says, plays a key role in how their future pans out.