Day of the African Child: Joyce, 15, inspires her semi-literate parents

Joyce Katana in New York, USA
Joyce Katana in New York, USA

“If two children are sent home for lack of school fees, the parents would work hard to find the required fees and take the son back to school. The girl can wait,” the mechanic says as he settles onto the plastic chair in the tiny living room of the three-roomed house, the walls a mixture of mad and stones.

“That is our Duruma culture, just like in many other African cultures,” he says, shaking his head in regret.

It is precisely this notion — that the girl’s place is in the kitchen and not in the classroom — that Jackson Katana vowed not to uphold.

Despite not being privileged to step into any classroom in his entire life, Katana vowed from an early age he would ensure his children got the best education. Even the daughters.

“I was prepared to face the wrath of the community,” says a proud Katana, who talks about his firstborn child, Joyce Katana, with anybody who cares to listen.

The excitement is palpable. Katana and his wife, Zainab Mnyika, are preparing to travel to Nairobi. The plane carrying their daughter is expected to touch down at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Sunday evening.

She will be coming back to Kenya for the first time since August 5 last year, when she left for the US on a scholarship from the Bridge International Academies. She is now studying at Avenues, The World School, a secondary school in New York.

Katana and Zainab laugh at the memories of the fights they had over Joyce’s scholarship. Zainab, who dropped out of Class 8 to get married herself, would hear no talk about her precious little girl going anywhere far from her, whether to learn or work.

“When she told me she was going to Nakuru for a symposium and if she did well she would be offered a scholarship to go to the US for her secondary education, I just agreed, not knowing she would be one of the lucky ones,” says Zainab, as she breastfeeds her lastborn son.

However, when Joyce broke the good news to them, she was not prepared. “I remember we fought about it. I could not imagine my little girl going in a foreign country to be alone, far from me. It just did not enter my head,” she says.

Katana says they stayed for two weeks without talking to each other. Such was the seriousness of the fight, just because the then 14-year-old Joyce was intelligent enough, smart enough and showed enough maturity and leadership skills to impress the Americans that she could cope in their country.

Bridge International Academies public relations manager Jackline Walumbe says their scholarship programme targets vulnerable children from humble backgrounds.

Speaking ahead of today's International Day of the African Child, Walumbe says the right to education is one of children’s most important rights. This year’s theme is

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for Children in Africa

“This year’s theme is a reminder of the linkages between the regional and global agendas on development, and the importance of promoting child rights, including by addressing child marriage,” Walumbe says.

Zainab says she would not want for her Joyce the life she went through because of culture. “I gave birth to her while I was 19 years old. I was not mature enough to be a mother but I was forced to because of the circumstances,” she says.

Walumbe says by empowering children through education, regardless of the gender, you give them an equal opportunity to compete.

Bridge International Academies has for the last three years sponsored over 150,000 children through various stages of education including primary, secondary and even tertiary education across the globe.

Speaking to the Star from the States via Skype, Joyce says though she was hit by the culture shock, she quickly adapted and now feels Kenyan children can compete favourably with children from the US and other continents if only given the opportunity.

“At first I was shy and felt intimidated by the environment and the other children. They were more confident. But I quickly learnt,” says Joyce with a surprisingly heavy American accent.

Since she has only spent only 10 months in the US, it goes to show she is a quick learner.

“At first I struggle to fit into the society. I do not have to fit anymore,” Joyce says.

She feels lucky to be coming back to Kenya for her summer holidays a day after her 15th

birthday.

“I am thinking of having sessions with my peers and other children in schools so I can talk to them about life outside here and how we are not any inferior to anyone,” says the talkative girl.

Zainab says she feels like she would have been the worst mother ever had she denied her daughter the opportunity to study in the US.

“I have so much hope for her now,” says the mother of four.

Katana says Joyce will Joyce will deliver them from the abject poverty they are in.

“She is my hope. Our hope. She will make it and came help us get out of this place and move to a more decent house,” says the proud father, as he peers into the neighbourhood outside through the front door which is wide open.

They live deep in Jomvu location, in a village called Narcol Ngamani.

Katana says he was afraid he would have never been able to pay school fees for Joyce had Bridge International Academy not come into the picture.

“They came in while she was in Class 6. They paid for her fees through to Class 8 and when she passed and was called to Matuga Girls High School, they also paid her fees for the first year before she had to fly to the US,” says Katana.

Joyce says she finds other cultures unique outside Kenya and that some of them are challenging.

“I had never been in a trouser before I left Kenya. But now in the US, I wear them. It was a bit strange at first but I find it gives you more confidence if you wear something you are comfortable in,” says the 15-year-old.

Her mother, Zainab, says since Joyce likes to study so much, she has advised her to look for a course she can do.

“At 34, I have been trying to look for a course I can do but it is difficult for me to choose,” she says.

Her daughter has inspired her.

Joyce says African children should not be bothered by obstacles.

“Just jump the obstacles and stay focused on your education, career, life or anything you set out to do. I hope the African child does not hold their circumstances as obstacles to their desires,” Joyce says.

Meanwhile, research by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Forum for Africa Women Educationalists (FEWA) shows the government has not protected pregnant students and adolescent mothers against discrimination.

The two organisations conducted a survey and wrote a report on the state of affairs for the 2016-17 period, ahead of the International Day of the African Child.

Elin Martinez, a children's rights researcher at HRW, pointed out that throwing pregnant girls out of school will not solve the problem.

Martinez urged the government to punish anyone found defiling school girls.

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