Defying the odds

Kakuma’s shining academic star

The dust has finally settled and top performing Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) class of 2015 candidates have had a week celebrating their achievements, some even gracing national TV stations to tell the whole world what it took for them to excel in the examinations. Some have even had parties in their honour as parents, siblings, former teachers and schoolmates seek to share in the glory – quite understandably and rightly so.

However in far away Kakuma Refugee Camp, Turkana County, 17 year old Margaret Awak Aguer is still coming to terms with her performance. Margaret defied all odds to score an amazing 400 out of a possible 500 Marks in the examinations and thus became the best student in the entire refugee camp where 2,939 (607 female) candidates from 19 primary schools managed by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) sat the examinations. The camp has 20 primary schools and 12 pre-schools with a combined student population of 71,972 (28,773 girls). The bulk of the funding for school facilities, payment of teachers’ salaries and provision of teaching and learning materials is provided by the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) but other donors also provide resources to complement these efforts. The World Food Program (WFP) supports with provision of a daily cup of porridge for all learners attending school in the camp. With the large number of learners compared to the few facilities and resources, it is very difficult to meet the minimum Education in Emergencies standards set by the Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE), let alone those of Kenya’s Ministry of Education.

Shambe Primary School in Kakuma Refugee camp, which Margaret attended is a nondescript school with has a student population of 2,226 (838 female) but no proper physical structures and aesthetic beauty to write home about, in fact the classes are usually overcrowded and hold an average of 148 learners per classroom. That however, did not deter Margaret and her fellow learners from pursuing their dreams. In 2015, the school presented 219 (38 female) candidates for KCPE.

Margaret’s story is that of hard work, humility, discipline and desire to succeed in life, despite the obvious obstacles on her path. In 2010 at the age of 12, she arrived in Kakuma from Jonglei State, South Sudan accompanied by her aunty Sarah Abul, her younger brother and 3 other cousins, leaving her father, mother and two siblings behind as she pursued education at Kakuma Refugee camp. Her parents and the rest of the family eventually followed but she continued staying with her aunt Sarah because of the distance to the nearest school. “I really wanted to go to school immediately but every time I went, some older children would bully me and so I stayed home to avoid being bullied” says Margaret. She gathered courage and decided to confront her fears head-on and the following year she confidently enrolled in Class 4 at Shambe Primary School, about 2 kilometres from her home.

Like many other girls in similar settings, Margaret had to balance between studies and domestic chores like fetching water, firewood, washing and occasionally assisting her aunty with cooking for the family. “I enjoy cooking and can make very good mandazi” she says, adding that her aunty has always been very supportive and even bought a solar lantern to enable her study at night. “Whenever she came from school, she used to assist with the work, eat dinner and then study until around 11 pm. In the morning she wakes up at 5 am to fetch water, help prepare breakfast before leaving for school” says her aunty Sarah who happily adds that she has never had any cases of indiscipline involving Margaret since they started living with her.

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Like most other girls living in Kakuma Refugee camp, Margaret Awak was often forced to balance between her studies and domestic chores like preparing meals for the family. © LWF Kakuma 2016

On the day the results were released, Margaret was unwell and had gone to the camp clinic for treatment. “While at the clinic, a boy who had also sat KCPE told me he had checked his results via SMS. Not knowing what to expect, I left the clinic without collecting my drugs and ran back home, bought airtime for my aunt’s phone and checked my results. I could not believe what I saw on the screen until I went to school and confirmed that I had actually scored 400 marks” says Margaret with a wide grin on her face. She also adds that it was a big miracle for her, having failed to finish the Insha paper and also having not done the County preparatory mocks due to sickness. “Kiswahili was the most challenging one for me” she says, though she still scored an ‘A’ with 80%. She is full of praises for her Kenyan class teacher known as John whom she says kept on encouraging and guiding the candidates as they prepared for the exams. “He brought us many books and revision material and spared his time to help us understand questions better.” explains Margaret.

Margaret now expects to join a national school, giving her an opportunity to go outside Kakuma Refugee camp for the first time since 2010. “I’m very glad I have successfully gone through my primary education. I want to study law and eventually become a judge” she reveals excitedly.

Some of Margaret’s best memories of school include the mid-morning porridge that provides learners with the much needed energy. “Some children go to school on empty stomachs and cannot even concentrate in class without that porridge” she says, adding that growing up and attending school in a refugee camp has taught her to always work hard and stay focused. “You can achieve anything despite your surroundings if you do your part and leave the rest to God” she says and quickly adds that “Success does not just come, you have to work hard for it.”

With the 2015 results, girls in Kakuma Refugee camp have now beaten their male counterparts to the number one position for the second time in a row. As a matter of fact, girls clinched all the podium places leaving the boys to scramble for the remaining places.

Fred Otieno,

LWF Kakuma

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About kwetukakuma

Documenting Kakuma... in pics and narrative.
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