Photo by Lee Pellegrini
This summer, Zainabu Mohamed traveled more than 7,000 miles to attend Boston College—a journey she hopes her grade school students in Anyiko, a remote village of western Kenya, will one day follow.
Mohamed, founder of St. Christabel School in Yala Township and now pursuing graduate studies through BC's Lynch School of Education and Human Development, traded a Nairobi banking and hospitality career—fraught with what she characterized as “emptiness”—for the arduous challenge of self-launching a Catholic primary school in the village of her late grandmother, for whom the school is named (“beautiful Christian”).
Raised as a Muslim but taught in Kenyan Catholic schools, Mohamed said her early education memories left a lasting impression. “Learning went hand-in-hand with joy," she said. "We read many books, produced beautiful Christmas plays, took swimming lessons, and sang our lungs out at Mass. We laughed and played hard, and the friendships I made then continue today.”
Mohamed converted to Catholicism in the spring of 2017. Six months later, she—with the advocacy of the local priest—broke ground on her grandmother’s land for a new school building, which opened in January 2018. Following a recruitment effort that netted 15 students, most of whom attend tuition-free, her dream became a reality. While friends have been supportive, Mohamed shoulders the bulk of the school’s financial responsibilities.
“I own a local restaurant, and after those bills are paid, the remainder of the revenue goes to the school,” explained Mohamed, who is enrolled in the Lynch School's online M.Ed. in Global Perspectives program and attended last July’s Emmaus Leadership Series Foundational Retreat, a program of BC’s Roche Center for Catholic Education that helps prepare Catholic school presidents, principals, and heads of school for the demands of leadership.
“Yala used to be home to a white sugar company, the Maize and Produce Board, the railway, and Moi University’s Odera Akang’o campus, but all have collapsed, leaving just small businesses that employ few people,” said Mohamed. “Many households are without electricity, and water must be fetched from the river. There are no jobs, young girls get into early marriages and, sadly, the cycle of poverty remains unbroken.”
Mohamed, whose travel and BC program attendance were covered by scholarships, explained that the student-teacher ratio at the village’s only other school makes learning very difficult. St. Christabel offers an uncrowded and low-cost alternative that preserves the students’ hope of attending high school, graduating, and ideally, enrolling in a college.
“Zainabu possesses both deep wisdom and a profound faith. Her wisdom enables her to see the challenges around her and respond intelligently and meaningfully; her faith has trained her vision to see the most vulnerable and place her gifts at their service.”
Anyiko Village, a Luo-speaking community, was once ruled by traditional leaders; one of the most famous, according to Mohamed, was Senior Chief Odera Akang’o, a forceful education advocate who introduced compulsory primary and secondary education in 1915. Some of the most educated and influential Kenyans emerged from Akang’o’s Gem (an electoral constituency) area, she said.
“This is our heritage, our shared story, and it’s told to every Luo child from Gem. It’s shared with pride, but, sadly, for the current generation, it’s just a story. Part of our mission is to help them see beyond their homes, to fuel their dreams, and to provide the tools to help them get there.”
St. Christabel now enrolls 45 students in preschool through grade 3 in three classrooms, and employs six teachers, a gardener, two security guards, and a cook; all are paid, but each employee is willing to make sacrifices and understands that their pay may be late or less than anticipated at times, she said.
Mohamed learned about BC in 2018, when she attended an entrepreneurship workshop for African women at Babson College and spotted a Roche Center brochure at one of the conference tables, which led to an inquiry and her eventual enrollment.
“Zainabu possesses both deep wisdom and a profound faith,” said Kristin Melley, the Roche Center’s director of professional development, who has forged a strong relationship with Mohamed. “Her wisdom enables her to see the challenges around her and respond intelligently and meaningfully; her faith has trained her vision to see the most vulnerable and place her gifts at their service.”
Her actions were further informed by an understanding that education reforms society. A village school calls for community involvement, and if opportunities for change could be seeded from within, in time, they would become lasting solutions.
“In her graduate studies, Zainabu was challenged to undertake a social justice project through which her efforts would make the world a better place—no minor undertaking,” said Lynch School Associate Professor Patrick J. McQuillan. “After just a quick overview of the work she is doing at her school, it became apparent that she was living a life of social justice, and her efforts are seen as improving the life chances of students in her village.”
“We are striving to build authentic partnerships with Anyiko Village families and communities in the hope that in a few years, we will see our children step onto the world stage, and eventually, return to the village to become productive change leaders,” said Mohamed. “We are in dire need of classrooms, books, and education scholarships. Digital learning is still a dream, but despite these challenges, St. Christabel School has given me more than I have given to it. I have found my joy, and that is priceless.”
—Phil Gloudemans | University Communications