If You Can Read This
My name is Naomi Mutuku Williams, and I will never forget the day my life started to change.
It was 2009 when I met Shannon for the first time, and I was sitting by the road in our neighborhood, Mukuru Kwa Njenga, one of the most marginalized communities in Nairobi, Kenya.
I was 8 years old and could barely read, let alone write.
I lived with my parents in an area most people would say is one of limited opportunity, but to me, it was home. Most of our neighbors were out of work, casual laborers, or at the very best, specialized in a trade like carpentry with which they could sometimes get work. Everybody struggled to get by.
Most schools in the neighborhood were either terrible or too expensive to be an option for families like mine. Even the local public school was too expensive.
I have two brothers and four sisters. My two older sisters didn’t finish school. One died and left a young son behind, and one dropped out of school to get married.
None of my family finished secondary school. Of course, my parents love me and wanted the best for us, but no matter how hard they worked to provide for us, it didn’t make it any easier. I spent most of my time playing in alleys. I wasn’t sad because that was normal life for me.
When families have lots of children, it can be difficult for them all to go to school and so the parents have to choose. They often choose boys.
I was just playing when a lady, who I now know as Shannon, walked up to me and asked why I wasn’t at school. I explained that I didn’t go to school because my parents could not afford it. When families have lots of children, it can be difficult for them all to go to school and so the parents have to choose. They often choose boys before girls. My brothers were at the local public school, which was expensive, charging fees for books, teachers’ motivation, exams, and other necessities, all of which is normal practice in the majority of Kenya’s public primary schools.
Shannon asked me if I wanted to go to school, something I had never thought I would have the chance to do. I had always been jealous of the other girls who were able to go to school, even if they didn’t seem to learn much. Overwhelmed with excitement, I agreed without hesitation, and my parents jumped at the opportunity for me to have a fully sponsored place at Bridge International Academies.
That moment, eight years ago, was the biggest turning point in my life. Today, I am at one of the top secondary schools in Kenya because I worked hard and performed really well in the end of year primary school exam. I did so well that I won a scholarship. Every day, I am amazed that a girl from the slum has come so far. I am so proud of my journey. At my school now I am one of the top pupils with A scores in many of my tests.
Meeting Shannon and starting at a great school turned my life around. For the first time in my life, I was in a school where I could really learn, and learning made me want to discover and explore the world even more.
Now I want to become a cardiologist. I know that if I continue to work hard, it’s possible. When I finish secondary school, I’m aiming for Harvard.
Shannon found me when the Bridge school had just opened in 2009. At school, I learned how to read and write and to understand math and science. I made great friends, grew in self-confidence, and started to respect myself more. I started to believe I could do anything, learn anything, and become anyone I wanted.
I was a girl who had no future, no dreams. Now I can say I am going to be somebody who’s going to change the world.
What I really want is for other children like me to have the same chance even if their families don’t have much money. I was a girl who had no future, no dreams. Now I can say I am going to be somebody who’s going to change the world. Being able to read and write I can now teach myself, too — it has opened up the world to me. I so want to make my parents and my community proud, and help my country to improve.
I know that there are many, many children in Kenya like I was — illiterate with little chance of getting a job, of having a future, and of changing the world or the life they are born into.
I have learned recently that there are about 600 million children in the world who are not really learning. Across sub-Saharan Africa, where my home is, a quarter of young people are illiterate. It makes me feel so sad and angry that there are girls and boys who don’t have the opportunity I had. They have hopes and dreams, they just don’t have a good school or teachers that will help them.
That used to be me. Today, I would probably be a house-maid if I had not learned to read and write. But I was given a chance. Today I have the chance to follow my dreams.