With a Little Help from Canada

Text and audio collection by Teresiah Chomba
Photos by Jessica Wiley
Delbert Ross Wanjala
Delbert Ross Wanjala

When I first met Delbert Ross Wanjala, I was struck by his extraordinary curiosity. I was a student-teacher at Saint Martha’s Mwitoti Secondary School in Kakamega County in Kenya and Delbert was my student.

Delbert was eager to learn and participate in almost every school activity. Most of his classmates were only 16 or 17. Delbert was 20 and he had the confidence to speak up and ask questions when other students didn’t.

Delbert’s school, Saint Martha’s Mwitoti Secondary School in Kakamega county
Delbert’s school, Saint Martha’s Mwitoti
Secondary School in Kakamega County

For the past three years Delbert’s education has been funded by a scholarship from the Kenya Education Endowment Fund (KEEF), a Canadian NGO that provides scholarships for very bright students from Kakamega County. KEEF sponsors students who do not have the means to pay the fees for secondary and post-secondary school. These fees, covering textbooks, uniforms, supplies and many others, can amount to $500 or more a year in a community – considerably more than most families earn annually. (Sixty-three percent of Nayanza families earn less than one dollar a day.). KEEF recognized Delbert’s intellect and saw his financial need.

Delbert home
Delbert at home
delbert classroom
Delbert and his classmates

I spent a lot of time with Delbert outside of class assisting him with his academic work. I didn’t learn about the hardship and adversity he faced until he came to me asking to borrow my phone so he could call his mother to request money. He later informed me about his humble means and the obstacles he faced in attending school with few resources. My heart went out to him.

Delbert is fifth of seven children. His parents farm a small piece of land growing barely enough to feed their large family. The minimal income that Wanjala’s family did have was invested in funding their first-born child’s education, with the hope that his success and future career would help provide financial support for his younger brothers and sisters. The family sold their only piece of land in order to send Wanjala’s oldest brother to post-secondary school. He made it through his third year pursuing medicine at university, but was hospitalized after being diagnosed with schizophrenia which prevented him from completing his degree.

Delbert with his cousin, Mother, Grace Osimbo Wanjala, and brotherDelbert with his cousin, mother,
Grace Osimbo Wanjala, and brother
Delbert, sharing his aspirations to be a doctorDelbert, sharing his aspirations to be a doctor

The Wanjala family was left with close to nothing, as all the hope and resources invested in their first-born vanished. They could not afford to fund Delbert’s education past his second year in secondary school and he was forced to drop out. Their neighbor informed him about funding opportunities through KEEF and Delbert returned to 8th grade in order to earn a high score on the exam to qualify for a KEEF scholarship. After an interview, a home-visit, and successfully obtaining high exam marks, Delbert was offered a scholarship to secondary school.

Delbert’s mother, Grace Osimbo Wanjala, deeply appreciates KEEF for all it has provided for Delbert’s education. Aside from school supplies, Delbert was given a bicycle to travel to and from school, as well as a lamp he could use to study at home. The one and a half hour bicycle ride to school started to interfere with his academics, as he was forced to leave his home at 4:30 every morning. After two years of commuting, KEEF recognized his struggle with transportation and provided the boarding fee in order for Delbert to live at school. Once he became a boarder, Delbert was able to leave the bicycle and lamp for his family to use at home.

Debert with his mother, Grace Osimbo Wanjala
Delbert with his mother, Grace Osimbo Wanjala

His mother doesn’t have the means to provide a tangible gift as an expression of her true appreciation, but instead she prays that God will bless the organization for all the help it provides for children like her son. She says KEEF has ignited great hope and promise that her son will be in a position to financially support the rest of his family after his university education. She has faith that he will achieve his goal of becoming a doctor. Delbert’s mother suffers from high blood pressure as a result of the stress she has experienced from her ongoing struggle to provide for her children. She feels that her physical health will improve once her son is able to complete his education.

Sharif Masinde, the Director of Studies and KEEF coordinator at Saint Martha’s Mwitoti Secondary School, also expresses great appreciation and satisfaction with KEEF. Currently 22 students at the school are being financially supported by KEEF scholarships; 21 students are sponsored by KEEF Canada and one student is sponsored by KEEF Kenya. According to Masinde, sponsored students are provided with books, yearly school fees, uniforms, two pairs of shoes and solar lamps. KEEF has also provided two students in the school with bicycles, because transportation to and from home can be long and costly. Aside from providing direct assistance for students, Masinde reports that KEEF has also contributed to the school by donating funds towards a laboratory.

DOS portrait
Sharif Masinde, the Director of Studies and KEEF coordinator
at Saint Martha’s Mwitoti Secondary School

While Delbert feels fortunate for the assistance that KEEF has provided, he wishes that KEEF’s support would extend beyond just direct educational funding. He says that sometimes he needs pocket money for things like food, and unexpected costs, such as burial services for family members. In this school, over a four month period in the spring of 2013, there were more than ten students whose immediate family members died.

A group of students at Saint Martha’s Mwitoti Secondary School who are supported by KEEF scholarships
A group of students at Saint Martha’s Mwitoti Secondary School
who are supported by KEEF scholarships

Delbert also says that he feels disconnected from KEEF and the donors who are supporting him. He wishes that he had more personal contact with KEEF in order to share his efforts and be recognized for his hard work in school.

Delbert’s story is an unusual example of success in a community where the majority of students do not make it to secondary school. Obtaining a scholarship is out of reach for many young students in need. KEEF is a merit-based sponsorship and therefore only attainable for very bright students who have the drive and resilience Delbert has had. The majority of students without financial means often get discouraged by the long and difficult process of applying for scholarships and end up joining the manual workforce. Delbert has repeated three grades in order to qualify for a KEEF sponsorship –a hurdle most kids aren’t willing or motivated to overcome.

Delbert’s life trajectory would likely be very different without the assistance he has received from KEEF; he claims that he would simply not have received his education without this opportunity.

KEEF scholarships are only guaranteed to pay for bright students’ secondary school, but the funding stops there. Delbert’s plan to attend medical school relies solely on his hope that he will score high enough marks to obtain a government loan that will cover his higher education tuition. The maximum amount of aid that students can receive from the Kenyan government for higher education is once again based on merit; Delbert must get all A’s to qualify and anything else will prevent him from achieving his goal. In Kenya, the government sponsors only one hundred and eighty students countrywide annually for medical school. This poses a great challenge for Delbert as the competition is very stiff. But he is determined to achieve his goal in spite of any obstacles along the way.