A Kenyan's Path to Manchester

Sammy Gitau grew up in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. As a teenager, he joined a gang, and became a drug addict. But a pamphlet in a dust bin helped turn his life around. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Gitau, now a graduate of Manchester University.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Sammy Gitau graduated from Manchester University this week with a master's degree in development. Mr. Gitau first read about the university on a pamphlet in a dustbin near his home in Mathare, a grim neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya.

He was 13 years old. His father had been murdered. He was the eldest of 11 children; was expected to support his family. He fell in with gangs and turned to drugs. This year, Sammy Gitau completed a 32,000-word dissertation on the management of development projects, which he knows firsthand. Sammy Gitau joins us from Manchester.

Mr. Gitau, first, congratulations.

Mr. SAMMY GITAU (Graduate, Manchester University): Thank you very much.

SIMON: What turned your life around? What happened when you were 13?

Mr. GITAU: Well, growing up from a very difficult background in the slums of Mathare, you know, after I had to experience a lot of near-death events, the last one which was to overdose on drugs in the streets left me very scared because I found myself in a hospital bed really asking God, use me to go back and talk to young people and give them a hope to change from that difficult road.

SIMON: So you asked God to use you to help others?

Mr. GITAU: Yes. I started, first, by trying to talk to my buddies to show them that was a pointless life, and my buddies would not listen to me. Most of them had ended up in prison, four others were already dead. So I ended up starting several activities with much younger generation; the first one was a library. And we started by asking people to give us books that they were not using. And when we had enough, we constructed shelves. And then there was that need of having a study area where young people could come and study or even exchange ideas. The only way we would make that happen is by getting the cargo containers then converting them into offices yet, at the same time, running activities in a way that the authorities wouldn't feel like we just came and decided this is our land.

SIMON: So you got these big cargo - I mean, these are the big kind of iron boxes that they take off ships.

Mr. GITAU: Yes.

SIMON: And you would have libraries in them.

Mr. GITAU: Yes. Just to give you a rough picture. In Mathare, we have, at the moment, four containers for putting activity like computers, carpentry; we have library and study area.

SIMON: And how do you get from Mathare to Manchester University?

Mr. GITAU: Well, there was a gentleman who visited from European Union. His name is Alex Walford. When he came and he saw what I was doing, he asked me, what do you want to do for yourself? I said I would like to come and study in Manchester University since I had already gotten their information from a pamphlet I got in the streets. And as we asked the university, they said yes. This is somebody we can give an opportunity to come and study with us. Right before I came to Manchester, I needed, you know, people who could donate enough resources that would sustain me through the year, and that came in term of some of the friends I met while visiting the U.S. When I look back, it has taken a network of people to get me where I am.

SIMON: Of course, as you know, Mr. Gitau, there are tens of thousands of Kenyans who come to Great Britain and study, and a lot of them stay.

Mr. GITAU: Yeah.

SIMON: And they do very well.

Mr. GITAU: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: I understand that you're going to begin, at least, by going back to Nairobi and Mathare.

Mr. GITAU: Yes, I have to go back because even in those communities where, economically, people are really stressed. Given the opportunity, people can learn. So if I go back home, I'm allowing many other more young people to realize they need not to be scared of dreaming big and trying and engaging themselves in whatever that they find positive to do, you know, with their hands and with their life.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Gitau, it's been good talking to you.

Mr. GITAU: Thank you.

SIMON: When you go back to Nairobi, are you still going to be a Manchester United fan, no?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GITAU: Yeah, I think, football, in general, is a language that has really made us, in one way or the other, become - you should come in the slums when sometimes Manchester United is playing.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. GITAU: Everybody keeps quiet. It's not easy to stay away from football.

SIMON: Mr. Gitau, thanks so much, sir.

Mr. GITAU: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Sammy Gitau, recent graduate of Manchester University.

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