The Starehe Of Our Time
A True Story
on Nov 26, 2020
My younger brother Symo has this close friend of his called Allan Mwangi who hails from a home that is not far from ours. I find Allan such a friendly and helpful fellow. One day in 2014 when Allan visited Symo at home, he walked into my room and engaged me in a conversation in the course of which he asked me, "How was Starehe?" He was talking of Starehe Boys' Centre, a charitable institution here in Kenya where I had my high school as well as college education.
I was lucky to have attended Starehe in its heyday when Dr. Geoffrey W. Griffin, the celebrated founder of the school, was its director. For quite a number of years before I joined Starehe and during my time there, the school was always either position 1 or 2 in the final Kenya's high school exams known as KCSE. That was apart from the 2002 KCSE exams when Starehe emerged number 5 nationally.
We, the Starehe students, used to get excited during the release of KCSE results. Media cameras would roll into the school to capture the atmosphere of excitement among Starehe students on evening assembly. Some Form 1 students, eager to appear in the media, would scramble to sit on the front benches of the school assembly hall.
When Starehe emerged number 5 in the 2002 KCSE exams, there was a palpable wave of sadness and disappointment among students and teachers of the school. Some members of the Starehe community suspected the KCSE results were doctored at the examination centre to punish our school for not having taken part in a 2002 teachers' strike. And quite a number of that year's Starehe candidates paid to have their KCSE papers marked again. It just wasn't usual for Starehe to be number 5.
I attribute Starehe's exemplary performance in KCSE exams in our time to the way it admitted the brightest boys in the country, the crème de la crème. After the release of Kenya's national primary school exam results, most top-performing boys when asked which high school they wanted to attend, would say it was Starehe Boys' Centre. And Starehe attracted the brightest boys owing to its culture of excellence. For most of us Starehe students, the desire to excel academically was in our DNA.
Our culture of excellence was apparent in the way we kept the school neat and tidy. We used to have what we called the inter-house cleanliness competition in which the cleanest dormitory would get recognized fortnightly. The announcement of inter-house cleanliness competition riveted junior boys who did the donkey work in keeping the school neat and tidy.
Standards of discipline among Starehe students were also high during our time in the school. Pocketing, oversleeping in the morning, not wearing a tie in class or speaking rudely to a prefect could get you into hot water. But if you felt you were being punished unfairly, you could air your grievances during baraza, a weekly meeting between students and staff of the school. Most of us found barazas to be very entertaining, just listening to our fellow students complain about something or propose a new idea.
Starehe teachers also played a pivotal role in infusing us with a culture of excellence. Devoted and competent, the teachers administered tests like clockwork, sometimes over lunch hour. And some of them offered remedial classes to the academically weak students.
Perhaps due to its renowned culture of excellence, Starehe occasionally received high-profile visitors. Like in 2002 when I was in Form 1, Princess Anne - a member of British royal family - was the guest of honour on that year's Founder's Day. In days leading to the Founder's Day, Dr. Griffin kept reminding us of the impending visit of "Her Royal Highness". I wondered what he meant by "Her Royal Highness". And from the way he pronounced it made it sound to me like "Her Royal Hyenas". Only until much later did I realize that that was the respectful way of referring to Princess Anne.
Then the following year in 2003, our school hosted President Mwai Kibaki on Founder's Day. During one baraza a week or two before that year's Founder's Day, Dr. Griffin joked how those of us receiving prizes would shake the President's hand. Because I was slated to get a prize as the best Music student in junior high school on that Founder's Day, I looked forward to shaking the President's hand. So when the day reached, I ironed my best school uniform and wore it in preparation for my face-to-face encounter with the President. But alas! When it came time to receive my prize, it was not the President who gave it to me but Prof. George Saitoti, the then Minister of Education. I was proud of my achievement nonetheless.
And then in 2005 when I was in Fourth Form, Hon. Moody Awori - the then Vice-President of Kenya - graced us with his presence on that year's Founder's Day. (Dr. Griffin was conspicuously missing on that occasion as he was in hospital; he died a few weeks later.) Seated on a podium as a piano accompanist that day, I happened to observe Hon. Awori closely as he delivered his speech. And wow! I was impressed to hear him speak fluently without reading from written notes so much that I mentioned his eloquence of speech to my classmate Wilson Chira who was also seated on the piano dais. Chira enlightened me that the Vice-President was reading his speech from a set of two screens mounted in front of him.
Yes, Starehe was a great school during our time. That's why teachers from other schools regularly came to our school to learn the secrets of our success. I remember walking into a lecture theatre where a group of visiting teachers had been given a talk and found written on the theatre's blackboard the number of 'A's and 'A-'s that Starehe had registered in the previous KCSE exams. The numbers were impressive to say the very least.
Don't get me wrong; I don't mean to say that Starehe was an utopia during our time. The school had its share of challenges and imperfections. I'd have loved to tell you about those imperfections but to keep this story shorter than a novel, let me do that in my next story. So stay tuned to this blog.
RECOMMENDATION: If you've enjoyed this story on the Starehe of our time, you might also enjoy another one I wrote two years ago on "Developing Mental Clarity". Just click on that link in blue to dive straight into the story.
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A Priest I Will Never Forget
A True Story
on Nov 21, 2020
I was brought up as a Roman Catholic; I just had to because both of my parents were, and still are, Catholics. As a boy growing up in the '90s, I attended mass every Sunday at my hometown Catholic Church where I interacted with nuns, priests, seminarians as well as fellow Christians, old and young alike. Among the priests I interacted with, and one I will never forget, was Fr. Deogratias Rwegasira. Or Fr. Deo in short.
A native of Tanzania, Fr. Deo was posted in the '90s to serve as a chaplain in Kiserian Junior Seminary, a high school that is next to my hometown Catholic Church where I attended mass every Sunday. It was during his tenure in the junior seminary that I got to know him, for he would often come to our church to preach and teach songs to our church choir. He had a passion for music which was evident in the way he owned an amplifier and a piano keyboard on which he had inscribed his name.
When I began accompanying our church choir on the piano in 1998, I loved to hear the choir sing alongside a piano keyboard hooked up to Fr. Deo's amplifier. So I would at times take the initiative of fetching the amplifier from Kiserian Junior Seminary and bring it to our church. I can still picture myself as a boy strutting on an aisle of a fully-packed church, with the bulky amplifier in my hands.
Back in the '90s, I once overheard a friend make fun of Fr. Deo that he knew how to play only one Catholic hymn on the piano. I think the friend was right, for I once observed Fr. Deo connect a piano keyboard to an electrical socket and then test it by playing the only Catholic hymn he was purported to know.
Though he was probably proficient in playing only one hymn on the piano, Fr. Deo was superbly gifted in music. He composed a number of songs that he taught our church choir. And wow! His songs were so tuneful and beautifully crafted that they stuck in my memory like glue on paper. To this day, I find myself crooning them as I got about my daily business.
Besides his musical talent, the other traits of Fr. Deo that endeared him to me were his compassion and kindness. I vividly remember one Sunday afternoon in the late '90s as some of my friends and I were swapping stories outside our church, we spotted Fr. Deo approaching from a distance. On seeing him, we quickly and cleverly agreed amongst ourselves to yawn as Fr. Deo was passing by to show him we were hungry and arouse his sympathy. The ploy worked because when Fr. Deo saw us yawning, he had compassion on us. He dug into one of his pockets, took out a Ksh. 100 note and gave it to us for buying something to eat.
Excited to receive the money, my friends and I went to our hometown of Kiserian where we bought from a food cafe a type of mandazi we used to call "half-cakes". The half-cakes we purchased were hot and fresh from the kitchen. I started eating my share with gusto but after several bites, the half-cake began to cloy due to too much fat.
Talking of his kindness, Fr. Deo once gently refused to give me a copy of the cassettes that our church choir produced in 1998. I kept nagging him to bestow me with the cassette to an extent of following him to wherever he went. Despite my persistent nagging, he never lost his cool. With kindness and consideration, he kept turning down my request to give me a cassette until I finally gave up pestering him. He truly practised the biblical virtues of kindness and gentleness that I have seen missing in some of the Christians I have interacted with over the years.
Because of his musical talent as well as his compassion, Fr. Deo was a charismatic and well-liked priest. Some church congregants enjoyed listening to his sermons so much that I noticed how they would smile whenever he was preaching as if they were also listening with their teeth. He delivered his sermons with a passion that rooted from his firm belief in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.
Why lie, I also liked Fr. Deo. Unfortunately, I got out of touch with him after he left Kiserian Junior Seminary in the late '90s or early 2000s (I can't recall the exact year he left). Sometime in 2014 after someone shared with me his email address, I sent him a message, hoping to reconnect with him. For some reasons I can't tell, he never replied to the two emails I sent him. Last year when I googled his name, I gathered he was posted to a church in the United States where he was eventually granted American citizenship. So America must now be benefiting from his enormous talent and extensive experience as a chaplain.
RECOMMENDATION: If you've enjoyed this story on a priest I will never forget, you might also enjoy another one I wrote sometime in 2018 on "The Day I Visited My Mentors". Just click on that link in blue to dive straight into the story.