The Unstoppable Journey of Lawrence Nyanya

By Laura Hanson

Lawrence Otieno Nyanya

In the Luo culture, if you are born at night, you carry the name Otieno. Lawrence Otieno Nyanya was born on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1980, in a village called Ramba.

I’m Lawrence Nyanya. Some people call me Tomato because “Nyanya” is a Kiswahili word which when translated into English means tomato. So most of my friends call me Tomato and I accept.

Nyanya grew up in a family of 12 siblings, six girls and six boys working as subsistence farmers and later, in the informal gold mines around Ramba. Nyanya was the shyest and the smallest of his brothers. His mother, Judith, would often protect him from hard labor in the field, keeping him close by to do housework, to help out in the kitchen. Nyanya’s mother had finished primary school and his father, Peter, dropped out in class four (year four of primary school). They knew that without an education, their children would never find secure employment outside farming and directed all their family income toward primary school fees. “We had more than enough to eat, but we didn’t have clothes,” says Nyanya. “Most of the time we would use the school uniform for wearing at home.”

Family photo with older siblings. Nyanya, the youngest in the photo, sits in his mother’s lap.

Family photo with older siblings. Nyanya, the youngest in the photo, sits in his mother’s lap.


Judith, Nyanya and Peter

Although Peter couldn’t help Nyanya with his schoolwork, he was encouraged when he saw him reading. But he became anxious when he thought his children weren’t studying enough. “[My father] wouldn’t allow us to go to bed early. He would go to bed and then wake himself up to check on us to make sure we were still reading.” As Nyanya neared the end of primary school, he began to realize that his education was about to reach an abrupt end. The annual fee required for secondary school, about one hundred and forty dollars, was an impossible sum for his family to pay.

What I remember about primary school is that when I was in class seven I knew I would not make it to high school given the nature of my family. My siblings, whom I was following, had not joined high school because they lacked school fees. So I was having this feeling in my life that I won’t make it to high school anyway. There are two things that strike me most in my primary school. One was that when I was in class seven I came across a book that was written by professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. And in that book there was a poem that was being recited and the poem was like “Father, mother, the battle of weapons, the battle of spears, the battle of arrows, the battle of iron shield cannot work anymore. We haven’t any more cattle, we haven’t any more land. What is left? The battle of wits, education.” So, in this poem, Thiong’o was trying to advocate for education. So this really impacted my life because it made me realize how essential education was to my life. So I was wondering, if this is the only thing left for an African child, yet I will not make it to high school, how is my life going to be? So it kept me wondering.

To graduate from primary school, every student leaving class eight must take the highly anticipated KCPE, Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education, a national exam that determines a student’s placement in secondary or high school. High performers will go to a national school, average performers to a provincial school and others to a district school. Students who do not score well may not be admitted into any school and must repeat class eight before they can take the exam again. Nyanya’s older brothers and sisters had all scored well enough on their KCPE to be invited to provincial high schools. But Nyanya saw that it had made no apparent difference in their lives. Most had been unable to pay their school fees. No matter how he scored, he thought, the outcome would be the same. Then the Bishop came and gave Nyanya a challenge that would change everything.

Excerpt from The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1965).

Father, mother
Provide me with pen and slate
I want to learn.
Land is gone
Cattle and sheep are not there
Not there any more
What’s left? Learning, learning.Father, if you had many cattle and sheep
I would ask for a spear and shield,
But now –
I do not want a spear
I do now want a shield
I want the shield and spear of learning.The war of shields and spears
Is now ended
What is left?
The battle of wits,
The battle of the mind.
I, we, all want to learn.

 Nyanya (far left), at age 18, walking to church in Kericho, along a road edged by tea fields.

Nyanya (far left), at age 18, walking to church in Kericho, along a road edged by tea fields.

Because I was learning in a school that was sponsored by the Anglican Church, the Bishop of the Anglican Church came and gave us a challenge. He told us that any pupil that will score 500 out of the possible 700 marks in KCPE, the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education, he was willing to pay for this pupil in high school, his tuition fee. I remember I made that commitment and I took the challenge and I promised that I would work hard so that at the end of the day I’ll get those marks. In 1998 when I sat for my KCPE, I got 501 marks meaning that I met deadline and even increased it with one point. But my hopes died. How did my hope die? I was called to join high school and I went to follow this with the Bishop. So before go to you talk to the Bishop you have to talk to the Vicar and I told the Vicar, I am one of the pupils that made a commitment to work hard and score 500 marks and above and I have scored it. I carried my school leaving certificate and even my calling letter and he looked at them and he was startled. Then he told me, “Nyanya, as we are speaking right now the Bishop is in a critical condition in the hospital in Nairobi. But let’s pray for him and if he gets well maybe things will be ok.” So I came back home and in my heart I was praying for the Bishop because I knew he was my only hope. I think it is the same week when I heard the death of the Bishop announced on the radio and they came and buried him in Ramba. And I can remember President Moi attending the Bishop’s burial and honestly he died with my hope.

Lawrence's test score in the record book at his primary

Lawrence’s test score in the record book at his primary

Nyanya spent the next seven years working outside of school. He joined his father and brothers to work in the abandoned gold mines near their home and later, as a tea picker, on the green sprawl of plantations in Kericho.

I knew that my life would be like any other boy that didn’t go to school so I had to do other things that boys do. So that is when I joined the mining. So you will go and excavate stone, dig holes, do the whole process of crushing it into porter and using mercury to separate it. So I was involved in the local mining industry here in our community. And I did that for some time and I realized that it was not adding any value to my life so I decided to go and try my hand in Kericho where I picked tea. It rains in Kericho and when it rains, you have to be there on the farm. The work doesn’t stop because you are paid based on the kilograms of tea you have picked. So we had to work whether it was raining or not. And when it rains the tea becomes heavy. So I realized within one year that this also could not help my life.

Next, Nyanya began work for a mutatu driver, as a manamba, someone who hustles passengers to board the small, overcrowded minibus taxis that provide much of Kenya’s public transportation. It’s a job that requires sharp elbows and salesman-like assertiveness.

You really have to be tough to ensure that you have people entering your matatu. We were competing for clients and I’m not that kind of person who will use fist or fight. So I did it because it was the only way to make ends meet but I left it. And for some time, I ended up working in amgiengo – you go where there is a house being erected and you offer your services. We call it a “wheel barrow” in Kenya so if you hear someone being called a wheel barrow in a working or a building construction site, that means somebody with no skills at all. And there’s a word that they kept on telling me. They will tell me “You, push this wheel barrow there, we are not part of the mistake that you never went to school.” And I believed I was doing that because I never went to school. So I know what not going to school means in Kenya. It means you are nobody, it means you are a wheel barrow.

During this time, Nyanya was living in one of the slum estates around Kisumu. Wages after a long day on a building site came to 200 Kenya shillings or $2.35 USD, half of which was spent on lunch and breakfast. When possible, Nyanya and his fellow workers would survive on one meal a day in order to create some savings. He felt exhausted, misused, and demoralized. But one day, he received something that splashed some light on his dream of returning to school.

In 2004 I came across a Standard newspaper. I think I bought something. It was not actually a current newspaper but I bought something, then the shopkeeper used this newspaper where the story was written to wrap whatever I bought and then when I went to the house and I was unwrapping this thing, I came across this newspaper. I read this story and it was the story of a young girl who was living in the streets of Nairobi in the slums and this young girl happened to have gotten her KCPE and had taken five years before joining form one. During these five years, she had joined commercial sex work and she had given birth to three kids. With the help of a city mayor she got a high school education and she had to work in a salon to provide for her three kids, take them to kindergarten, pay rent for the house, and her fee was taken care of. But what interested me most was the end of the day she scored an A- that gave her an entry into Nairobi University. So when I read this story I asked myself, am I able to do what this girl has done? And I began wondering if only I could get a chance like the girl got, maybe I would be able to go to school.

Nyanya held on to this newspaper for a long time. He kept it under his bed and would refer to it often. He began to pray and to visualize himself in school. Later, when Nyanya was working as a taxi driver, he recommitted his life to the Christian faith and began serving in the church, going out with his pastor into the open markets to preach.

During this prayer, I used to help the pastor translate. He would preach in English and I would translate into Luo, and somehow he believed that I was educated. The church started a school in 2005, it is called Bright Future Academy, a primary school, and the pastor spotted me as one of the people who could teach in that school. So he told me “Nyanya, we as the board of the church, we have sat down and we want you to be part of the team that is going to be teachers in this school. So can you please submit your credentials to us?” So that when I told him, “Pastor, I don’t have any paper. I’m a class eight drop out.” It took him by surprise. I can remember he took one minute then he told me a word, “Nyanya, I still believe you can go to school.” So that kind of ignited that kind of a dream that was initiated when I read that kind of a newspaper.

Nyanya’s church agreed to support him if he wanted to join form one, the first year of high school. So Nyanya was sent out to look for a school.

So I went to look for schools and I wanted schools that were around our place here. Most schools rejected me because when they heard my profile having worked in the matatu industry – these guys are very rude. And my age, I was 26. But the students I was going to learn with were very young people and they thought I would be a bad influence to them. I remember one teacher said, “I would love to offer you a chance, but sorry this is a mixed school and we wouldn’t want somebody to come and ruin our girls.”

So Nyanya walked to another school where he received another rude shock. His younger brother, Thomas, had been a student there. Thomas had been the star of the school and had recently been accepted into university. The head teacher of the school, after learning Nyanya’s age and family ties to Thomas, accused Nyanya of wanting to join the high school out of jealously for his brother.

And he asked me “Are you related to Thomas in anyway?” And I said “Yea, he’s my brother. He’s my real brother.” And he asked me, “Between you and Thomas, who is the eldest?” and I said “Ok, it is me.” Then he told me “Young man, I don’t think you’re serious. I think just because your brother has done outstandingly well and has secured a chance in university, it is out of jealousy that you want to join. But I look at you, I think you are rude and that is why your parents never took you to school and took Thomas to school. But now because he has made it in life, you want to have a second chance. So, we have no place for people like you.” And I tried to convince him, and said “Sir, I’m born again, I’m not all that bad.” And he said, “If you’re born again, I fear you – you know people that are born again are the worst.” And I left. Now when I left – I think it was on a Friday – I’d been looking for a school since Monday and I saw students in a unique uniform that I’d not seen before. And then I asked “Who are these students and where are they coming from?” And I was told they are coming from Malela Mixed. And I said “Ok, maybe these people because they are just starting, would be willing to have me.”

The Malela Mixed Secondary School had opened that year, in 2006, through the CDF, the Kenyan Constituency Development Fund. It had not been officially registered by the government, did not have official teachers, and had little in the way of facilities. But it was Nyanya’s last chance at finding a school in the area. On the first day he met Boniface, an old friend from primary school, who mistook him as a teacher looking for a teaching post. Boniface brought Nyanya to the head teacher and persuaded him to give Nyanya a chance and admit him.

Nyanya was 26 years old when he started his first year of high school where he shared a desk with two other students, almost half his age. Most of his classmates shied away from socializing with him. Some of his teachers, wary of his worldly influence on younger students warned them not to associate with him. Although he was in school, he felt alone. Nyanya’s father loved to see him return to school, but he was worried whether Nyanya was doing the right thing. His father was not sure that he would have the funds to finish, that all this work might amount to nothing. All of Nyanya’s siblings had married and were starting their families.

As I walked back, because I was a day scholar, I would meet my age mates with their wives and children and would be like somebody introducing me to his wife, “This is my classmate, he’s not as young as you think although he’s in a uniform. He’s my age mate actually.” So, coming back, you find your age mates, they are family people. When they meet, they talk about the challenges they face at the family level when you want to talk about challenges you are facing at school. So there was a very large age gap and for a very long time I stood aloof with no friends and I was an alien in my own society.

Although the church had promised to help Nyanya, they were not able to cover the cost of his school fees. He started planting skumawiki, a leafy green vegetable and tomatoes to support himself but by the time he was in form three, his third year of high school, Nyanya started getting sent home when he couldn’t pay his school fee. He started to wonder whether he would really be able to finish high school and opened up to George, a friend at church who worked at Joyland, a school for students with physical handicaps. Joyland receives support from many different local and international NGOs and around 60% of students at the school receive some kind of sponsorship. (See “The Plight of the Disabled in Kenya” by Lawrence Nyanya) But at the time Nyanya didn’t understand the nature of the school. “In fact he never told me that the school was catering for students who are physically handicapped. But when he told me ‘You can come to Joyland,’ in his mind he thought I knew Joyland. And because this was an opportunity, I grabbed it with two hands.”

Nyanya’s interview for admission into Joyland was in December 2008, while most of the students were away for the long holidays. Nyanya took the entrance exam in the morning and waited while it was scored. He had passed. Immediately, he went home and worked until he had some money to buy the school uniform. In January 2009 Nyanya headed out for his first day at Joyland, taking a piki piki, a motorcycle taxi.

So how did I know that Joyland was a school for physically handicapped? When I got in Kisumu stage, the bus stop, in a Joyland uniform, the piki piki people requested if they could take me to Joyland. And I told them “No, this is a short distance, I can walk.” And they told me, “No, no, no, we are taking you there please even if you don’t have money.” They insisted and I said, “OK, let’s go.” But I planned to pay them. So when I was getting onto this piki piki, the piki piki driver was like, “Are you well, are you comfortable seated? Please if you are not, please let me know.” So he has handling me with a lot of care and I was like, “What’s happening here?”

Having worked in the matatu industry, and knowing how manabas and piki piki drivers normally behave, Nyanya wondered why he was being treated this way. When he went to the main office, George explained that, while the majority of Joyland students were handicapped, they were beginning to integrate non-handicapped students into the school.

The first two weeks were like a nightmare to me because I had not seen people in so much pain, people who can’t take a bath because they are not able to get to the bathroom, people who can’t walk, yet people who have a lot of hope in life and they will not want to get sympathy, all they needed was opportunity – and that is the motto of the school. And so I said, “Ok I’m here.” I loved pushing them with wheel chairs, making sure everyone was in class. Teachers for the first month, having heard my story, they had not welcomed me but within one month they really trusted me. So Joyland became my home. The students loved me a lot, the teachers appreciated what I was doing because I would ensure that, if it is mealtime, I will tell them not to line up and I will go and take a meal to each one. When we’d go out, I’d ensure that all their wheel chairs are safe, because I’d done the matatu business, so I’ll ensure that all their wheel chairs are safe on top of the matatu. We get to the destination, I’ll ensure that we get the wheel chairs down, and I’ll carry some of them and put them on their chair. In Joyland, that is when I now came to terms with foreign aid, in this manner that even though I didn’t have a sponsor of my own, but out of the flow of what they gave I was fed and I was catered for.

Nyanya became a mentor to many students, particularly those who, as a result of their condition, found themselves, like Nyanya, entering school later than normal and felt uneasy in a classroom of students much younger than they were. When Nyanya had started high school, he began dreaming of going to college to become a teacher. As always, money was hard to come by. His new family at Joyland helped him get started through a fundraiser held after Nyanya was admitted into Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST) in Bondo.

Nyanya helping a current Joyland student into the boy’s dormitory
Nyanya, in his Joyland uniform, stands with his sister Mary at a fundraiser held for him. Mary was the first person in Nyanya’s family to graduate from secondary school.

My first fee, which was $46,000 Kenya shillings, was paid by Joyland teachers, Joyland workers, the students contributed, and the cook. They said “If it is Nayana joining university, here is the money.” It was on 16th September 2010. That was my first day at the university and the experience was like “Oh God, this far I’ve come and this is what you can do and here I am and now I’m a university student.” It made me shed tears and it like washed away all the pain that I went through during this process. That is why I can talk about all this with a lot of ease, because at last I see hope at the end of the tunnel, at last I see the hand of God in my life. I felt so good joining university. It was an experience I will never want to forget about.

A scholarship through the World Bank funded the remainder of Nyanya’s tuition fee at the university. But as a full time student, he still didn’t have enough money to buy food on campus. Soon the Dean of the school identified him as a student who needed extra support and arranged for him to get a meal card – a gift with a stigma.

Nyanya speaking to a class at JOOUST

Nyanya speaking to a class at JOOUST

They went and paid and gave me a meal card so I would use my meal card to get food and it really helped me. But there was a psychological aspect of it because this money as the Dean of students was saying it came to support people who were either living with HIV or they were orphaned because of HIV. I’m not living with HIV but how do you get that out of the mind of people who see you use that meal card. And people who see you being given attention and that kind of money is being spent on you. And given my body size you see, Africans love big bodied, so if you are thin or malnourished, the first thought is that you are HIV positive. So honestly, even right now, there are students who believe it. I don’t want to erase it in their minds and I don’t think I need to do that but they believe I’m HIV positive. I thank God that the Dean of students took me through counseling and guidance and told me “Nanyana, as we give you this help, we know these are the repercussions but we want to help you and you know yourself and believe in yourself.”

At age 33, Nyanya is now in his third year at JOOUST in the School of Education Arts, studying history and religious studies. Despite everything he went through, he has no regrets – rather it’s just the opposite.

Looking back, I say I thank God that I never joined high school when I was supposed to join because then maybe I will not have been serious with my education, maybe I will have taken it as a process that every kid goes through. But myself, now I see it as the only opportunity that is offered to me. I see it as a second chance given to me to reshape my future having known what happens when one doesn’t get good education.

Nyanya knows that his experience will help him to handle his students with the understanding that he yearned for. He also hopes that by sharing his story, especially with Kenyans, he can challenge others like him to continue their education, just as the newspaper story about a girl who wouldn’t give up inspired him so many years ago.