Learning It The Hard Way - Reflections of a Young Man™
Audience-Centred Stories!

Yippee! This blog of mine is back online with better stories - now written for people, not for profit. From now henceforth, God-willing, I will be telling you stories here that will tickle your fancy, deepen your faith, offer you hope, improve your outlook on life, inspire you in one way or another, or simply add to your wealth of knowledge and wisdom. How about that?

Learning It The Hard Way

In the photo above, I am the lad in a white cap with my tongue impishly sticking out. I was getting ready to row on Lake Victoria with my team-mates in the legendary 2003 Starehe Boys' volleyball team.

When we as a team qualified for the 2003 secondary schools volleyball national championships after winning a nerve-wracking game against another high school in Nairobi, we began to tussle on who would travel to Kisumu in the Great Lakes Region where the championships were to be held. The sports governing body had slots for only 12 players and some senior members of our team wanted Kenneth Karani, an old boy of Starehe who had left the school the previous year, to be part of the team travelling to Kisumu.

Including Kenneth Karani in the team meant that some of us junior members had to be left out. Luckily for me, one senior member named Isaac Ruto insisted repeatedly that I had to attend the championships. Eventually, we managed to break the rules by having 14 of us travel to Kisumu, including Kenneth Karani. So nobody was left out.

Although Kenneth Karani high-balled to Kisumu illegally because he was then not a bona fide current student of Starehe, he turned out to be a great boon to the team. He was fun and friendly, even to me despite the fact that he was six years my senior when I joined Starehe as a first-former in 2002. He liked calling me "DJ Thuita".

But what I remember most about Kenneth Karani was one phrase he liked using - I will teach you the hard way! - which I think was his way of silencing anyone who happened to offend him. I liked that phrase because it resonated with how life has taught me the hard way over the years.

Like I remember during my first days at Starehe, I was so proud of being part of the school and overly confident that I would perform consistently well in academics. I even told one of my newly acquainted friends in Form 1 back then that I would be number one in academics right from term 1 in Form 1 until the final mighty high school KCSE exams.

Imagine in those first days at Starehe, I was so eager to start my studies and top my class that I complained to my senior brother Paddy who was in the school that we were being held in the school assembly hall for too long. You see, in those days, newly admitted Form 1 students used to report to Starehe on different days, so the school administration held us in the assembly hall as it waited for every new student to arrive before we could be split into different streams and begin our studies.

Guess what? After we were eventually split into different streams and our high school studies commenced, I ended being position 32 out of 35 in the then mercurial stream of 1F Class of '02. And I have always reckoned I could easily have been the last had I not scored an impressive 96% in Social Ethics and Education which we were taught by an amusing priest-to-be teacher named Br. Kiarie. Mark you, I was the same guy who had proudly proclaimed that I would be number one in my class right from term 1 in Form 1.

When we broke for holidays after that disappointing term for me, I read like a demon with a goal of making a quantum leap in academic rankings, from position 32 to 1, the following term. I remember fantasizing getting honoured by Dr. Geoffrey Griffin, the then respected director of the school, as the most improved boy during the final second-term school assembly.

How severely disillusioned I was! I only managed to improve by five positions the following term.

And even though I did gradually improve academically as my high school years rolled on to the point of scoring an A in the mighty KCSE exams, I never managed to rank among the top five in my stream of 4F. I can actually remember the five classmates I never managed to trounce: Brian Nalyanya, Lawrence Sikuku, Mwiti Makathimo, Douglas Ochieng' and George Yuka.

Later on in 2011 when I matriculated at the University of Nairobi to pursue a B.A. degree in Political Science, History, Economics & Public Administration, I happened to meet with George Yuka regularly at the university. He was then studying for a BSc. degree in Actuarial Science, the most prestigious course in Kenya. At one time, I bought him a sweet bun which he feasted with gusto as I asked him, "What did you guys used to eat at Starehe that made you so bright?" He laughed my question off.

To cut the long story short, my confidence in myself as a bright student was tested at Starehe Boys' Centre where I learnt that things are not always as easy as some people put it. Or as my friend Kenneth Karani would put it, Starehe taught me the hard way.


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How a Friend Helped Me

The handsome young black man in the middle of this photo is Peter Kariuki during his days at Deerfield Academy. I have extracted the photo with permission from the website of Deerfield Academy.

Peter Kariuki (yes, the young man I have mentioned in the photo above) was a schoolmate of mine at Starehe Boys' Centre but he never got to know me during our time in the school because he was three years my senior and we didn't board in the same house. He was promoted to be the school captain of Starehe Boys' Centre some time in 2003 when he was in the institute division of the school.

After completing his one-year term as school captain, he was awarded a scholarship to pursue a post high school diploma at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, United States, from where he was accepted in 2005 at the renowned Stanford University where Bill Clinton's daughter had received her Bachelor's degree a few years earlier. A lucky young man he was.

For some reasons unbeknown to me, some fellow students at Starehe hated Peter Kariuki with a passion. "Those guys are evil!" one housemate of mine told me while pointing to a team of the three most senior captains in Starehe that included Peter Kariuki.

Then when Peter Kariuki flew to Deerfield Academy, one of my classmates ruefully remarked, "Let him fly to America; he will still come back to Kenya." And he uttered that remark in a tone that suggested how intensely he loathed Peter Kariuki.

Me, I have never been one to hate a person just because others are doing so. I therefore befriended Peter Kariuki via email when I was first applying to top American Colleges that included Stanford in 2006 while I was in Starehe Institute. I however cannot remember the advice he offered me at that time. As it happened, I was rejected by all the colleges I applied for admission.

When I re-applied to the top colleges for the second time while I was a freshman at JKUAT where I was pursuing a B.Sc. degree in Electronics & Computer Engineering, I contacted Peter Kariuki again. This time round, I remember him advising me to be grateful that I was in JKUAT. But guess what? I never felt proud to be in JKUAT because I really wanted to study in a First-World environment where I could interact with people of other races. As it happened, I was again rejected by all the colleges I applied for admission.

And when I re-applied to top American for the third time in 2009, I decided to maximize all the help I could get from Peter Kariuki. I requested him to review my application essays. He obliged and offered me his honest assessment as well as suggestions to improve the essays.

Like in one short essay in which I wrote of how I evangelized the gospel to distressed people (that was a big lie! I have never preached the gospel to anyone), Peter Kariuki suggested I explain how evangelism enabled me to know what drives people and how people make life choices and choose ideologies to believe and live by. That subordinate clause I have displayed in green are the exact words he used. I so loved them that I copy-pasted them into the short essay.

Apart from reviewing my essays, Peter Kariuki advised me to also apply to less competitive colleges because Stanford's standards are high. Guess what again? The other colleges I applied for admission were Yale and Harvard which are as highly selective as Stanford, if not more. They all rejected me.

Grateful for the advice he had offered me freely when I applied to top American colleges in a span of four years, I continued to keep in touch with Peter Kariuki via Facebook. Like I asked him some time in early 2011 which of the schools he had attended (Starehe Boys', Deerfield Academy & Stanford University) that he had found the best. He replied that it was Starehe Boys'.

And guess what again? Some time in March 2011, I extracted from Peter Kariuki's Facebook album two photos of him taken while he was asleep in bed. I combined them with a photo editor and wrote on top of them "Kulala Tu!"[1] Then I posted the edited photo on my Facebook wall while poking fun at Peter Kariuki as an oversleeper. Mark you, oversleeping was considered a crime during our Starehe years and captains like Peter Kariuki were charged with moving from dormitory to dormitory at dawn to apprehend oversleepers.

When Peter Kariuki learnt what I had done, he felt offended. He sent me a message warning me that it's wrong to use other people's images without their permission. Then he later on blocked me on Facebook. Since then, I have never heard from him again. I would like to let him know, if he's reading this story of mine, that I have matured up. As in, I no longer use people's images without their permission.

[1] "Kulala Tu!" is a Swahili statement which translates in English as "Just Sleeping Only!"


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Celebrating JKUAT: Kenya's MIT

These are the enduring students of JKUAT's Electronics & Computer Engineering Class of '11 in their fifth and final year of the degree course. I would have been in this photo had I also endured the course but I ignominiously dropped out in my second year. Photo courtesy of my friend Peter Karanja.

At the time I was matriculating at JKUAT in May 2007 to pursue a degree in Electronics & Computer Engineering, I also landed a part-time job to teach piano to a daughter of an affluent couple who lived in a leafy suburb of Nairobi. I didn't perform well in the job because I was young and inexperienced but some remarks I heard while teaching there impressed me.

"This young man is an engineering student at JKUAT.," remarked the daughter's mother while talking of me to a lady with whom she was having tea.

"JKUAT!" the lady exclaimed, "That's a university for brilliant guys unlike XY University [name withheld] which is for jokers."

That lady must have been right in saying JKUAT is for brilliant guys given the experiences I had at the university. Okay, let me narrate the story.

I enrolled at JKUAT with the intention of transferring to MIT in my second year. But then, I scored the following grades in my first semester at JKUAT:

Workshop Processes and Practice IB
Chemistry ID
Workshop Practice IIC
Communication SkillsA
Calculus IB
Physics IC

Having scored all A's in my high school KCSE exams, I became disturbed by those JKUAT first semester grades, especially the D in Chemistry. And I think that D was well-deserved given the trouble I had in understanding the subject which we were taught by an abrasive and commanding lecturer named Oyaro. Like Oyaro taught us a structure of the atom that was radically different from the simple one I had learnt in high school. For me, understanding the structure of the atom that Oyaro taught us felt like I was learning Greek.

Those first semester results were a rude awakening that I wasn't as brilliant as I had perceived myself. And they forced me to change my plans of applying to MIT as a transfer student and instead chose to re-apply as a freshman.

My second semester results at JKUAT were even worse because I failed in Material Science. And I am thinking I failed in the subject because its comprehension required that I had understood the structure of the atom that Oyaro had taught us the previous semester. Given the trouble with which I have said I had in understanding Chemistry, little wonder that I failed in Material Science which I failed again when the university asked me to repeat the exam - a further proof that JKUAT is for brilliant guys. See?

Those results notwithstanding, I treasure the experiences I had during my two-year stint at JKUAT. First, I had the opportunity to study with seven former students of Alliance High School in the Eletronics & Computer Engineering Class of '11. I had read that Alliance sent a larger number of students to top American colleges than any other high school in Kenya did, which I still think is the case. That's why I felt honoured to school side-by-side with those seven former students of Alliance High School.

Secondly, I loved JKUAT because it was close to such big urban areas as Thika and Nairobi yet it was pristine enough to offer a rural environment that made me stay in touch with nature. As I wrote in my previous story in this lovely website of mine, I enjoyed roaming in JKUAT's bucolic fields to read and reflect.

Lastly, I came to love JKUAT hospital, a spacious well-protected one-storey building, where I was admitted twice after I went bonkers due to the hard times I underwent while trying to cope with poor grades in class, failure to get accepted at MIT among other issues. So much did I love JKUAT hospital because of its cleanliness and the friendliness of its staff that I later on sometimes wished I could get sick again so that I could get admitted back to the hospital where I had been looked after like an infant baby.

Before I end this story, allow me to mention two shortcomings I observed at JKUAT which put the university reputation at stake. It's main campus neighbouring communities have dusty roads as well as shanty houses infested with petty thieves. A lot of dust stirred by vehicles cruising in those dusty roads usually ends up in JKUAT. And the petty thieves sometimes get into the university to pilfer such stuff as garments on clothes lines.

Given an opportunity to meet the current JKUAT vice-chancellor, I would advise her to partner with the university's neighbouring communities (like the way Yale University does with New Haven) to seek solutions for those two shortcomings because the university's reputation is inextricably intertwined with the wellness of its neighbouring communities. That's all I am saying.


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