Esther Khamala, a Form Four student at Matunda Salvation Army Secondary School in Lugari Constituency fits aptly in American philosopher’s Walter Pitkins observation that life begins at 40.
At 40, she is giving it all as she prepares to sit for her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam to mark what she calls a beginning of her self-improvement in life.
The mother of six who spent 18 years out of school doing manual jobs to fend for her family in Nangili, Kakamega County feels the O-Level certificate she aims to attain at 40 will be the magical instrument to turn her life around.
She first dropped out of school in class six at Ndalu Primary School when she was just 12 years old after the death of her parents. The guardian who had adopted her shied away from responsibilities, leaving the girl to her own devices.
After 18 years of struggles, Khamala would later enroll herself at Kenbell Nangili Primary School to continue from where she left.
In 2019, she was admitted to class eight where she sat for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam and scored 290 marks out of a possible 500, setting her on the path of joining Matunda Salvation Army Secondary School.
We found her attending an agriculture lesson at Matunda School, busy scribbling the notes as the teacher explains. At about five feet tall, with a clean shaven head and well fitting uniform it is hard to imagine Khamala’s age is way beyond the average 18 years that her classmates are until she tells it to you.
But that difference in age, she tells us, has created controversy which has nonetheless not hindered her dream of sitting and passing KCSE.
She wants to be a human rights activist to defend the vulnerable in the society. Ms Khamala says her initial days in the faith-based school were awful as students who are the age of some of his children kept avoiding her because of the age gap.
“I faced stigma, it was real but with my age and experience, I understood why students were avoiding me. Many said I was not serious and that my age did not allow me to be in school worse, to interact with them,” she says.
“None loved to sit beside me but with time and the guidance and counseling of teachers things started to change and many began to embrace and accept me as one of them.”
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Ms Khamala says she would even use her experience and tactics to win the hearts of the young classmates.
“I could also come with some cooked food, buy mandazi and share it with them. To those who cared to listen, I gave them my story and soon things changed for the better and today we interact like agemates,” she says. Her greatest motivation to education is to get basic knowledge to help her fight for the vulnerable in the society after suffering rejection and oppression, including from her extended family.
Ms Khamala’s aunt from her mother’s side chased her away stating that their culture (in Bungoma) did not allow them to have an adolescent girl to live with them. “It was then that a male friend took me to their home promising they were well off and his parents would help me to continue with my studies. Unfortunately, I was turned into a housemaid and then a wife,” she says.
“The friend impregnated me and I got my firstborn child at the age of 13 in 1994.” As fate would have it after getting the fifth born in 2007, Ms Khamala was chased away from the family in Mudete area, Vihiga County.
According to her, the family framed her in a malicious damage case leading to her arrest (in January 2009 and subsequent detention for three years at Kakamega Women’s Prison. She would later on be freed in 2012 for lack of evidence.
“I tend to think that many suffer and keep suffering like me just because they lack one to speak for them. I want to finish Form Four and start the journey to speak for them perhaps after getting acquainted with rights laws and groups,” she says. Ms Khamala is in the same school with her fifth-born son who is in Form One, after getting some 348 marks in last year’s KCPE. Her two other sons are Form Four candidates.
The two children scored 378 marks each and were admitted at Butula Boys school under the ‘Wings to Fly’ programme that sponsors poor but bright students.
Matunda Salvation Army Secondary School Principal Mary Luvanda terms Khamala as a dedicated learner who has a good future. “She is a disciplined student who comes in handy at helping guide her fellow classmates. It is interesting to see her share the school compound with her own child in Form One,” she said.