The Chosen Ones


Ever been in such astonishing darkness that when you breathe in you feel darkness slide inside you? The kind of darkness that grips the earth in a tight fist. So dark you don’t recall what sunlight looks like? Now imagine driving down Mahi Mahiu -Narok road in that unforgiving pre-dawn darkness of 4am. Darkness literally pressing against the window. The car heater is on. You don’t know where you are, no context at all apart from the yellow lines on the road which race under your car and get swallowed by the darkness behind you. You are listening to heartbreak songs from the 90s because if you are going to listen to a love song it has to be a heartbreak song otherwise why bother with Celine Dion? You are thinking of all the heartbreaks you’ve had and how ridiculous and desperate it felt during that time. How dark it all seemed. How your emotions pendulumed between bitterness and desperation so many times, one could see it at the base of your throat thudding like a woodpecker’s beak.

You are listening to Pebbles and your heart is rushing with blood. Filling with swarms of buzzing bees. With bunches of beautiful flowers. Snowy flowers. Beyond the darkness is more darkness and it’s fine, you get used to it, in fact it becomes comforting because you are now a part of the darkness. You understand it. It can’t hurt you.

But then slowly you start seeing shapes outside, forms, the sketchy outline of a hill. The hazy form of a tree. Bridges no longer rush at you from nowhere. The world is suddenly taking shape. The darkness that seemed indomitable is suddenly running away, fearful of the light.

Then suddenly the sun rises behind you in sharp blasts of orange. Your car is instantaneously lit with warm light. It’s as if someone has suddenly squeezed oranges in the car. You look in the rear view mirror and you see her, a dawn so astonishing you pull over by the side of the road and you gawp at her. You think, damn, how can something so warm and comforting now turn out to be so harsh and mean later in the day? You raise your phone, like perhaps many people are doing at that exact moment, and she gives you her good side to take a photo. Heart full of warmth and reassurance, you drive towards Narok town.

You are in Narok County to look for a boy.

Actually, to look for a boy and a girl.

You check in at the Mara Frontier hotel. At the desk is a very very tall Maasai-looking girl with acres of smooth dark skin who takes your ID and scans it. Later, you join a small team from The School at breakfast, a buffet. You have liver and mandazi because who says you can’t have liver and mandazi? Mandazi, as an accompaniment, can go with anything but fish. It’s also the best type of mandazi; one that has gas in it. It’s the type of mandazi that you can use to scuba-dive given all that air in it. The type that looks pouty but once you touch it it sighs and collapses in your arms. It’s deceptive, yes, but there are worse things happening in the world.

Breakfast done, you jump into big land cruisers because where you are going is far and wild and you might get swept by rain. You drive onto the main road for a few minutes and then drive off onto a dusty road, clouds of dust in your wake. Clusters of manyattas run past you. You drive and drive, over hills and along fences made from sticks. After over an hour you stop somewhere and the driver sticks his head out the window and asks a man if he knows a boy by the name of so-and-so.

The man is suspicious. Who are you? Why are you looking for the boy? Where are you from? Satisfied we aren’t villains, he says the boy lives near that valley, he points with a finger bearing a dark nail like a bayonet with dried blood. “I can take you,” he offers. So he jumps into the car. He talks about how when he was a boy he left home to go find his wealth and came back a few years later with heads of goats. His mom handed him a wife. She was 12 years old. The next year she was pregnant. The driver gasps and says, “You married a child!” He shrugs. They have three children together. He has another wife with whom they have two children.
“Now you can’t marry them so young,” he said, “the government will jail you. Now they have to go to school. It’s important. School is important. My wives are now all going to school.”

They all live in the same manyatta. The wives each have a bed and he takes turns sleeping in each bed.

“Is there no jealousy?” The driver asks him.

“Why would they be jealous?” He asks. “I’m there, am I not?”

Outside, the earth is starting to boil from the heat.

In the valley, you reach a dead-end. Shrubs and branches scratch the car as the driver reverses. You try another road, up a hill, down a dry shrubby hill where you amble upon a man in a grey blazer and sneakers, standing between two women, his wives, you later learn. He’s holding a walking stick in one hand and a phone that is also a radio in the other. He’s got a weathered face and a set of small, suspicious, dark eyes that miss nothing. His women are in beads and shukas. The gentleman and your guy converse in rapid Maa. The man is the type accustomed to being waited upon to make a decision. “He’s a light boy?” He inquires. One of us in the car says, “yes, he is a light boy.”
He says there are two boys with that family name. The first one isn’t light but the second one lives down that road; take a left, drive right at the edge of the valley, it’s the manyatta at the end of that path.

The women remain silent.

Off we go again, down the shrubby hill. Past carcasses of trees, past trees with dusty leaves. We drive at the edge of the path, under patches of shadows cast by trees. We finally get to a humble boma. A cluster of people in shukas stare at our arrival. This is not a place accustomed to vehicles and strangers. There are cows. A goat turns to look at you. You look at it. It looks away, disinterested.

You wander away as the rest confer. You pee against a fence. If you are a lady you don’t pee against the tree. You just hold it inside. Like stifling a yawn. As you walk back you see two chairs in a state of despair behind a house. The chairs look intimate, like they had been conferring and you suddenly interrupted.

The boy no longer lives there, you learn. He moved elsewhere with his mother. You all bundle in cars and off you go again, all the way to the main road that is over an hour and a half away then head towards Nairobi, where after 40 mins, you get off the road onto dry, flat land without any life. When you run into two Maasai girls with colourful shukas flapping in the wind you stop and ask them about the light boy. They know of no light boy. You are frustrated, but the ladies from The School say it’s normal. “We can look for these kids for a whole day.”

Finally, after an hour, you find him.

Here is how you ended up there.

A few months ago this boy filled out a form from The School: Name, parents name if any, etc. He attached his birth certificate and his parents ID, if any. His parents filled sections of the form stating what they do, how much they own, what kind of structure they live in etc. This boy then answers some questions in the form; challenges he has gone through in his academic life, challenges in his community and how he solved them, what he has learnt in life, what his dreams are, what sport he likes. He then took the form to his headteacher who filled it, commenting on the child’s academic abilities, his family’s financial status, and his history in the school.

He then left that form at the nearest Mpesa shop or any UNHCR center where it was picked up, and then landed at The School along Mang’u road in Thika where a clutch of men and women went through his application and thousands of others, reading stories about domestic violence and abject poverty, sifting through these tales of woe and desperation to determine who is most needy. There are over 10,000 of these applications from all over the country and they only select 150. It’s not easy. “We don’t decide who gets in,” one tells you, “God decides.”

Their selection is then sent to another batch of people in a different room, who go through all of them and decide if they have met the criteria.

Once they have narrowed them down to a good number, they all go to these areas and they conduct interviews with these selected kids, to corroborate on what’s in the forms they filled. After a few weeks of deciding if the interviews reflected what was in the forms, they send a team to visit these kids in their homes to see if their situation is what they described.

And you will see quite a few of them. You will look for a girl for hours, through valleys and ridges, a river. You will ditch the vehicle and walk and you will find her in a small mudhouse, living with her mom, dad long fled. You will ask her questions, ask the mom questions and look into the mudhouse and you will be shocked at how a small, dark space like that can not only house humans, but can house many humans. It houses a family that has the love of the mother and in that very deplorable situation you will be surprised at the dreams this mother has for her daughter.

You will also learn that people are the same, they want the same things for themselves and their children and they fear the same things just like you do. But by a twist of cruel fate, poverty has brought them to their knees and they beg when they have reached the end of their tether and, be sure, this is the end of their tether. But then you will also discover the pride in them, because they seek dignity even if they lack and beg. They wash their tattered clothes and hung them. They tie their mangy hair when they hear ‘guests’ are coming. They apologise if they don’t have enough chairs for you, but then they offer you a jerrican. And it’s heartbreaking when you place some money into the mom’s toughened palms, the hands that have known hard labour, the hands that could easily have been a man’s hand. It’s not much, but insanely that’s the equivalent of what she makes in a week tilling land for neighbours. And she tries not to weep because she doesn’t want to embarrass you. But she ends up wounding you, with guilt.

Anyway, that’s how you ended up there, on that flat land, standing next to a manyatta, your heart breaking at this boy’s state. A bony dog lies under a shade by the house, eyes half closed. Old clothes flutter in the breeze from a clothesline.
There is a small tree where goats lie under to escape the heat. It’s a small manyatta that everybody lives in. The land is not theirs. Squatters. Dad died. Mom scrapes by. The boy, a very intelligent one, wants to be more, to do more. They all do, these desperate kids. They want to be lawyers and doctors and engineers but what they really want is to escape poverty and all of them say they want to come back home and help their mothers or fathers or their community.

So they filled the form and they prayed and suddenly there were two big cars and people asking him questions; how are you? Where is your dad? Where do you sleep? What do you do when you wake up? What do you dream of becoming? Who is your inspiration? What’s the name of that dog? The dog is called ‘dog’? “Oh he has no name, ha-ha I get it.”

Months pass and suddenly it’s admission day at The M-Pesa Foundation Academy. They come from all over; Marsabit, Moyale, Busia, Migori, Tana River, Kwale. Around 10,000 kids applied, only 100 were chosen. It’s hard to save everyone. They come with their parents and guardians or teachers, with their grandmothers who can’t speak anything but their language and with their aunts or neighbours. You can tell they are wearing their best clothes, which have clearly seen better days. They carry old bags, big paper bags. They are stunned to be here, intimidated by the modern sports facilities, the buildings, the lawns and sprinklers. They tiptoe around. They pass through admissions desks, their details logged in. They whisper their names. They whisper their age.

They are assigned an existing student who takes them to a massive gymnasium. There, they will be given everything new; underwear, nightwear, uniforms, vests, shoes for school and for leisure, sweaters, weekend clothes, fleece, belt, trolley bag, face towel, swim bag, swimming costume. Everything they are wearing from home will be given back to their parents to go back with.

You walk around and watch them. They have never owned anything new before. They have never worn shoes from a box, or a blazer. You go through a corridor and see a student help another boy dress up. He helps him button his blazer buttons. He tells him, “you have to shower twice a day now, if you don’t you will be in trouble with the school.”

“How often did you used to bathe?” You ask, leaning against the doorway.

He blushes with embarrassment. “Once or sometimes never,” he says.

“Yeah, I used to be the same,” the student says. “But here, they are serious about personal hygiene.”

None of these boys and girls will pay a single coin to get an education here. But the school will always remind them of who they are; Thinkers, Doers and Leaders.

When you ask them how they are feeling, they all say they are surprised at how beautiful the place is. They all mention the facility. The lawns. You were surprised at the facility the first time you saw IT. It’s modern and Ivy league. Close to 1,000 students enrolled so far, all fully sponsored and 600 already graduated.

Most of them have never used a toothbrush or toothpaste or forks or pillows or even beds. They have never opened a tap or drawn a curtain. Or switched on a light. The culture shock will be immense and so in the coming weeks they will be put through an orientation program. They will be taught how to use cutlery, how to flash a loo, how a shower works. There will be medical and mental health screening, a school tour [which you can also do virtually HERE, school value and expectations, pastoral and spiritual care, philosophy, principles. They will be handed gadgets. This is high school happening but hybrid. It will feel to them like sleeping in a desert and waking up in the north pole.

Lounge area, hall of residence

Six months later, you will go back to their school and you will look for the maasai boy with dusty feet you met months earlier or the girl with dry cracked lips from Tharaka Nithi and you will not find them. This is because they will have been replaced by different people who smile, look you in the eye while talking, confident, happy, their true personalities yielded.

You will be tempted to use the word miracle to describe what you are witnessing and you will be justified.

Have you registered for my Creative Writing Masterclass? No? Why? Next month? Come on, that’s what you said last month. You have to beat procrastination. Kick it in the grill. Just sign up HERE.

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  1. Mko wapi gang? Thanks Biko for letting us know of these tranformational miracles. Let us play our part in making positive differences in people lives.

    1. It is a great coincidence that this great piece is here on the day that Saint John Bosco is being celebrated for transforming lives of of street children, juvenile delinquents and other disadvantaged youth in Turin, Italy, through love rather than punishment , also know as Salesian Preventive System

      Let us emulate him by enabling others’ education too in our unique ways.

      Thanks MPESA Foundation for being a pacesetter. Thanks Biko for sharing this great piece. May all these young ones soar to greater heights.

  2. Yes. Education is an equalizer. I teach in a national school, in addition to mpesa academy, equity, kcb, family Bank, world trust etc, etc give students from underprivileged back grounds opportunities. And 2 years down the line.. You can see the difference.

  3. This is transformation par excellence.

    I almost choked on this sentence “How often did you used to bathe?”
    Because in our time, that was once a week – every Sunday.
    First shower was in high school, and it was ice cold.
    All those that relate with this, tukutane nyuma ya hema. We got some reminiscing to do

    1. I have shed lots of tears, I have a huge lump in my throat very difficult to swallow. I relate, totally. many rains ago, I was that girl, yes, with dreams and hopes over the horizon. Education from well-wishers transformed my life. And I am passing it on.

  4. It’s my resolution to get back to reading Biko every Tuesday. Have slackened for over a year. Unforgivable.

    Good read on my return! Best wishes to the learners as they learn the new ropes. May they also never forget the old.

  5. My favourite part of the story; “The women remain silent.”
    There is nothing that soothes a man’s soul more than a woman who knows how to STFU.

  6. Am all for those who go out of their way to change a doomed destiny into a prosperous destiny. May the lives of these children be changed for their better future, that of their families and their community.

  7. This is wholesome Biko,how i wish all those that applied would get their chances too but God works in mysterious ways He will always come through for them

  8. Things that we at times take for granted and abuse the words “humble backgrounds” this should act like a reset button…

  9. Thanks Biko for that story, at least it has a happy ending for some and now I can stop complaining about Mpesa charges because at least their foundation is transforming the lives of the least fortunate. The only sad thing is that there’s still those thousands of children living in abject poverty that do not get picked to attend the school.

  10. “Darkness literally pressing against the window. ” Wololo.
    It’s indeed true, you can’t save everyone. Wishing the best to the young bright brains or I don’t know bright young brains.

  11. Biko!!!

    This is beautiful! My heart is full!

    Thank you for the great insight and for bringing it to life through your writing and photos.

    May they shine and know that their visions are limitless.


  12. Oh my! This is so clear its like I was in the car as this was happening. The first pic in school uniform is a tear-jerker for me, May the transformational work by Mpesa Foundation live on. You cannot save everyone you said but something is being done to save a few. Kudos!!

  13. I downloaded several forms trying to apply for my community,but parents kept those forms till the deadline was over, Its hard to help people when it is not yet their time. Congratulations to the new students!

  14. Ah! Mixed emotions Biko…heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. The opportunities MPESA Foundation is offering these kids in incredible. A step towards their dreams.
    God Bless Them.

  15. Stuff that touches the heart ! Indeed education is the equaliser – now the same child has a sibling and had just completed class 8 who had applied for admission for the following year -KCPE results are out and the child has passed, In fact, topped in the very school they both were- same circumstances and nothing will change that- why wont the academy support the said child ? Tricky, but there’s got to be something they can do, isn’t there?

  16. Biko, for the most part of the story I thought you were talking about my School, because The School’s philosophy is built upon my School’s. The admission process is similar.
    The feeling I got when I landed in the paradise that it was/is, cannot be fully described in words.
    Of course The School is a “pro-max” version of my School due to the good funding, but also when you come in later to do what someone has been doing before, you learn from them and do it better.
    May these children never forget home, for they have left home to make home better.

  17. Hi,
    Beautiful article. Where is this school? I have wanted to support some needy children with education and this seems like an institution serious about doing just that. Would want to know how to partner with them or perhaps reach a child or two who did not manage to get into the program.

  18. Those who have read motivational stories must have come across a story about a boy and starfish that had been washed to the shores and he kept throwing them back and when told what he was doing wasn’t bringing change, he picked another one and threw it deeper into the waters and he said I just made change to this one.

    There are 1000s who applied but didn’t make it but those who made, their life has taken a twist.
    This is something so human and could bring a lot of light to this world.
    I felt my throat dry reading this story.
    Good work here Biko.

  19. As an alumni of this awesome institution I can’t thank you enough for capturing the shared experience of so many of us in such a beautiful way. This is art in a very rare form

  20. Mpesa Foundation Academy, a few other institutions and even fewer uncelebrated individuals quietly put the H in humanity. No race. No Tribe. No gender. No age. No religion. No status.

  21. I do not know how you do it, but thank you so much for bringing to light what this foundation does. I am not sure about the emotional toll of this journey on you, but I hope the God Lord blesses your path in life abundantly.

  22. Every time I read your stories, am uplifted. I love ur use of words, sentences so well constructed that I often laugh out loud with gladness and awe (who describes a mandazi as deceptive if not Biko?!).
    You just made my day…keep this up.
    And to Safaricom: kudos, way to go.

  23. This piece brought back memories of my days in Starehe Boys Centre which similarly recruits boys from underprivileged families across the country. It is good to see that many others are emulating the pioneering sprit of the late Dr. Griffin of Starehe. Each of us can make a difference in the lives of such kids in our own ways

  24. Biko Zulu. You are the greatest of all writers. You give your stories life and bring out the best or the worst from them. I love it.

  25. Sounds similar to ‘Wing to Fly’….I have been on this selection process and some visits are just heart wrenching…I still remember like it was yesterday. God bless the hands that giveth.