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Kenyan Completes Remarkable Journey at British University

Kenyan community organizer Sammy Gitau completed another step in his remarkable journey this week. As Tendai Maphosa reports from London, the story began when Gitau was foraging through a rubbish dump in his birthplace, the slums of Nairobi, and now includes a hard-earned masters degree from Britain's University of Manchester.

Of the thousands of students who graduate from the University of Manchester this week, 35-year-old Sammy Gitau's journey to the institution is probably the most remarkable.

Born and raised in Mathare, a slum in Nairobi, his parents made a living by selling illicitly brewed alcohol. Gitau's was only 13 when his father was killed in a fight. Being the oldest son in a family of 11, he became the family breadwinner by stealing and dealing drugs.

But in 1997, Gitau's life changed when he overdosed on cocaine and fell into a coma. That experience somehow turned his life around and when he recovered he decided he wanted to help others.

He went out onto the streets and began organizing the community and helping people.

"I would say, 'Look here, how about we work together and clean this area,' and somehow they would follow," said Gitau. "As we were doing that, opportunities would open and the neighbors would notice that is something positive they are doing and they would start sending food and encouraging the young people who are living in the street. After one activity that trust and faith would be much stronger and they would come and ask me what do we do next?"

It was during this time that Gitau was foraging through a pile of garbage in Nairobi when he found a prospectus from the University of Manchester. Going through it he became interested in a program offered by the Institute for Development Policy Management. He recognized the course as something that would enhance what he was already doing

Later, he mentioned his dream of attending the university to people who had supported his projects. They in turn called Peter Mann, the course director at the University of Manchester.

Mann says there are cases where the university has admitted people without an undergraduate degree, but Gitau did not even have a high school diploma. The university took a chance on him because he came highly recommended and his quiet confidence and determination were the qualities that made him prevail against the odds.

Mann says Gitau had never written an academic essay or looked up academic references in a library, but he was helped by the staff and somehow made it through without any preferential treatment.

"All his work was assessed anonymously by markers, it went to the external examiner who did not know who he was, so he was absolutely treated the same," said Mann.

Gitau says he intends to return to Kenya, where he hopes to use his new skills to strengthen the community resource centers he has set up in four slums.

"The idea will be to help them acquire a platform for discussion, and the way I want to achieve this is by looking for ways on how we can set up community radios within such communities," said Gitau.

For Gitau, graduating is just the beginning of what he called a new and exciting chapter in his life. Most of all he hopes that his story can inspire others and show them that if they want something bad enough, it is achievable.