Milcah Chepkirui didn’t think she could afford high school. Now, she wants to be a brain surgeon.
By Zeddy Kosgei
On a warm Monday afternoon, on the grounds of Kisaruni Group of Schools in Kenya’s Narok County, Milcah Chepkirui braces herself. In mere moments, she’ll address hundreds of guests—fellow graduates, teachers, parents and donors—at her graduation ceremony. Dressed in a flowing gown and black cap, she walks across the field, the wind flapping the fabric of her gown. Head held high, microphone in hand, the unlikely valedictorian delivers her speech.
“Being in Kisaruni has been a life-changing experience,” she tells the quieted crowd. “Some of us came here when we were shy but had big dreams for our futures, and now we are graduating as confident ladies, full of self-fulfillment.”
Afterward, still reeling with public-speaking nerves, the 18-year-old says it didn’t feel real. It almost wasn’t.
Milcah was born and raised in Sotik, a small town in Bomet County in Kenya. She is the fifth in a home of six siblings and one of two girls. She says she grew up loving to read because of her mother, Ruth Rono. A maize farmer, Rono was among the few women in the village to graduate from Grade 8, and also worked part-time teaching at a local primary school. She would bring home books for Milcah and her siblings to read.
“I told them ‘I am able to work as a primary school teacher with the education I got,’” Rono says. “‘Imagine how much more you can do if you got more education.’” She wanted her children to go further than she had.
This is a sentiment shared by parents in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region. A generation ago, few got the chance at a primary school education, and most never had any formal school at all. Of course, like all parents, they want better for their children. The problem is finding schools in a region facing extreme poverty. Primary schools don’t always have the resources and classes to accommodate learners. High schools are scarce, and those available are often too costly for parents, forced to decide which of their children receive an education and who to keep at home. Girls, traditionally responsible for household chores, tend to stay behind.
Since starting their work in the region in 1999, WE Charity has partnered with primary schools to help build classrooms, train teachers and provide resources so that more children have an opportunity to access quality primary education. In 2010, WE opened Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School in Narok County to give girls a chance to transition from primary school to high school.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring county, Milcah was in Grade 5, with three years left before her Grade 8 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams, the national tests required for primary school graduation. It was early, but Milcah was already harbouring dreams of high school. She didn’t yet know about Kisaruni.
“I loved everything about school,” says Milcah. “I was curious and wanted to learn about everything.”
Despite her love of learning, she couldn’t attend class consistently. Her parents had to put six children through school on an income from working one acre of land and a part-time teacher’s salary.
Although primary education is free in Kenya, parents still need to buy uniforms and school supplies, and pay for examinations and other fees. Secondary school, however, isn’t free. And with two older siblings attending high school by the time Milcah was in Grade 5, there was already a financial strain on the family. With most of the household income funding her siblings’ secondary school fees, Milcah was often kicked out of class for failing to cover costs of exams and supplies. Rono and her husband, John, took additional jobs working on other farms for extra income, but it wasn’t always enough. To make up for missed classes, Rono tutored her children in the evening after work.
By her Grade 8 year, in 2014, the family had pooled together enough for Milcah to sit for her KCPE exams. She earned one of the top grades in her school. The administration threw a party for her and the other top students and their parents. But Milcah didn’t celebrate for long.
The family realized they couldn’t afford to send her to high school. She says she cried almost every night.
“It wasn’t fair that I had performed well, wanted to go to school, but couldn’t.”
Her parents spent weeks trying to find the money—even asking for help from friends and family. That’s when a neighbour told them about Kisaruni.
“I was afraid to hope,” says Milcah, “but my mother and I decided to visit the school and ask if I could be accepted.” With the grades to back it up, Milcah was granted a full-tuition scholarship as one of just 44 girls accepted that year, in 2015.
Joan Busolo, Director of Kisaruni, believes that girls’ education is the most effective way to enhance economic growth and development.“Educated girls are the key to unlocking so many obstacles and breaking the cycle of poverty and illiteracy,” she says.
In school, girls will dream bigger.
Milcah wants to be a surgeon—a neurosurgeon, in fact. She chose the career after reading an article about Dr. Ben Carson when she was 14 years old. She had just joined Kisaruni when she came upon the article about the now-U.S. politician in an old Readers’ Digest magazine at the school library. She remembers reading about Dr. Carson’s struggle of being raised by a single mother and in a family that had difficulty making ends meet. She admired his ability to overcome challenges in his childhood to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and eventually U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His story inspired her to work harder.
“I started waking up an hour early every day for morning preps and spending more time over the weekend doing schoolwork,” she says.
The effort paid off. Milcah scored a B+ on her high school national exams. The grade is enough for her to get into university, fully sponsored by the government. She has already applied to several universities in the country, and hopes to start at one of them this year. As she leaves high school, she says the experience—her parents’ dreams and sacrifices, her own hard work—has prepared her to face any challenges that come her way.
She’s never heard of a female neurosurgeon in the region and now is more determined than ever to try to be the first—and inspire other girls to dream bigger.
Read Milcah’s full valedictorian speech below:
Our stakeholders, our education facilitators, our parents, my fellow graduates and learners—good afternoon. My name is Milcah and on behalf of my fellow graduates, I would like to thank everyone who is here today to celebrate with us our graduation.
I would also like to thank our education facilitators for instilling knowledge in us and our fellow learners for their unending support throughout the time we have been in Kisaruni. It is also my pleasure to thank our parents for the support they have given towards our education and our most gratitude goes to our stakeholders and sponsors who have made it possible for us to attend Kisaruni so as to access secondary education. Without them, some of us couldn’t have gone to high school and could not be the empowered ladies we are today.
Being in Kisaruni has been a life-changing experience. Some of us came here when we were shy but had big dreams for our futures, and now we are graduating as confident ladies, full of self-fulfillment.
We have had an amazing time living together as a family, inspiring each other and sharing knowledge on how we can be an embodiment of change back in our communities, and as we graduate today, we promise to be that change we desire to see in the world.
My biggest message to everyone here today is that you should hold onto your dreams no matter the challenges you may come across because you can make them come true if you have the courage and determination. Everyone here has something great inside them and only if we discover this, shall we unlock the potential within us.
Once again, a big asante to the WE organization for the impact they continue to create in our communities today.
Valedictorian, Kisaruni Graduating Class of 2018