Like one in 250 girls in Kenya, Martha Bande was fresh out of high school, and her parents could not afford to further her education. With few other choices, she took up a job as a domestic worker but her employer let her go after a month because she believed she had potential to do more. Now an ICT professional after paying for her education through savings from various administrative jobs, she tells her story with the hope of inspiring others
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life after high school. Having completed school with a hefty fee balance, and knowing my parents could not further my education, I just wanted to be anything; anything that would just start me off on a better path - a secretary, receptionist, teacher… you name it,” Martha Bande begins her story.
Being the fourth born child of seven kids, she had seen how her parents had struggled to pay school fees for her siblings. Though hurt by circumstances she saw around her, she had reconciled with the fact that if she wanted to go through any form of tertiary education, she would have to carve out a way for herself.
“As I stayed at my parents’ place doing chores for a year after KCSE, I would question whether my life would ever amount to anything. At times, I wondered whether I had better chances just getting married young - not out of love but a sense of hopelessness,” she says.
So, when an opportunity was presented to her to do the same house chores for remuneration, she jumped at it. She had learned about the job opening from her aunt and, although the pay was only Sh3,000 a month, she was keen to give her employer her best.
But her stay with her new employer was not to be long. After a month of doing laundry and house cleaning, her employer let her go with the words, “you are not meant for this, go find what you really deserve and should be doing.” She had heard how eloquently Martha spoke and had enquired of her KCSE results. To her, Martha had potential for more... much more.
“I scored a B minus but given that I had spent more days at home because of fees issues than at school where I could concentrate on the upcoming national exams, I know I had the potential to do much better,” says Martha. With that, she was let go and paid her first salary.
“You always appreciate those who see potential in you. They are our encouragers, getting us to test our limits, break barriers and pursue our dreams. We lost contact, but I’m grateful she did not let me get comfortable,” Martha says. “I took the money and paid for a course in computer packages,” she says adding that she decided to start educating herself with what she had.
If a basic course was all she could afford, then that was where she was going to start. She was hungry to make something of herself, to study and at least get a diploma. In part, she saw that the only thing that would unlock a brighter path for her was education and so she set her mind there. After obtaining her course certificate, someone told her of an opening for the position of a school matron. The salary was Sh6,000 a month.
“I saved up little by little, so I could at least afford to pay for another short course,” Martha said. With the money she had put aside over time, she registered for a Certificate in Public Relations, a 6-month course at the University of Nairobi.
“Elation! That is the one word I will use to describe what I felt as I walked along the campus paths. I felt like I had walked right into my future. Even though it was a small beginning, it renewed my hopes for a better future. Graduating years later with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the same university was and remains one of the highlights of my life. I had broken the ceiling, I had made Mama proud, I had made me proud, I had become a symbol of hope for those who knew me and were going through the same challenges as me,” says Martha.
But before the degree, before the graduations, there were numerous discouragements when things didn’t work out as she had hoped. There was the sending of more than a hundred CVs with no response. The journey was not without its dark days.
“I remember at some point applying for every job advert I came across. Even if it was for the position of CEO, I would send my CV asking for the consideration of the post of an office assistant,” she says. There are many times she felt desperate, many times she prayed that better opportunities would come along.
From the numerous applications she made, she finally got a response from a construction company that needed an office assistant. “They paid me Sh6,000 - just like my previous employer. But at least here, I had access to free internet and more days off. That meant I could afford to go to school and look for more job opportunities. I began applying for jobs again and my next opportunity came in September 2008 from a law firm,” says Martha.
She remembers going for an interview at the law firm, Bengi, Miriti & Associates Advocates, and feeling so inadequate. “This was my first formal interview. I’m sure I fumbled like a real amateur would. I answered questions with such naivety, clearly portraying my lack of experience. I was also the least qualified of the interviewees and so I left knowing I stood no chance of any consideration,” she says.
To her surprise, they called her back and gave her the job! She recounts one of the bosses telling her that the primary reason they hired her was because they recognised in her a hunger for growth and they wanted to give her an opportunity to do just that - to grow. Even though she was also the one who had quoted the least amount in terms of salary expectation, she acknowledges the fact that it really was by the grace of God that she got that opportunity.
“There are many times I would pray that God would just get me through the next step. Sometimes, I felt discouraged because things didn’t always work out as I hoped or at the time I wanted. Looking back, I have a lot to be grateful for,” Martha says.
The newest employee of the law firm, she now earned Sh15,000, which meant saving and applying for a Diploma in Project Management at the Kenya Institute of Management.
“I actually had no savings when I applied for the diploma course. Saving was difficult given financial responsibilities I had at the time. So, when I decided to go back to school, I got my paycheque and made the initial deposit to start classes. Luckily, we were allowed three deposits spread out across the term which made payment of fees manageable, given my salary at the time,” Martha says.
By the time she was enrolling for the course, she had already determined in her heart to at least get a Bachelor’s degree.
“I remember telling God to just give me an opportunity that would pay me enough to afford paying school fees for a Bachelor’s degree and for one of my younger sister’s high school tuition,” she recounts. She wanted to lighten the load from her parents’ back and give her younger siblings a better chance of making it through school without too much hustle.
In May 2012, Mercy says, her prayers were answered when she got an opportunity to work for TradeMark East Africa. This was her big break. With a better paying job, she enrolled at the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and after graduating in 2015, got a scholarship to do her Masters in Development Studies at the London School of Economics.
“I wanted to enroll to a globally-recognised university for quality learning as well as gain international exposure. The UK was more like a natural choice given their 1-year Masters programmes,” Martha narrates. “I had received a letter of admission after applying for the course online and knew well that I couldn’t afford the tuition and upkeep costs. I decided to do an Internet search for scholarships for African students, and this particular one came up - LSE Programme for Africa Leadership Scholarships. This was a perfect match given that I already had an admission letter from LSE. I applied and successfully secured a full scholarship.”
Since Martha did not want to quit her job, she negotiated a 1-year sabbatical with her employer.
“I did not do the course online but travelled to the UK to attend the classes physically. LSE was a culmination of realised dreams for me in so many aspects,” says Martha as her eyes light up and her grin widens.
“It exposed me to so much. I left there with a wealth of knowledge on development matters and a spark of intellectual curiosity. The globally-acclaimed university gave me a platform to build social and professional networks that have greatly contributed to shaping the person I am and the perspectives I know have of life,” she says, adding that she graduated in 2017.
Outside of the intellectual walls of the school, living in London exposed her to the raw definition of development and realisation of just how much underdeveloped Kenya is - whether we try to sanitise reasons for this or not. From the well-paved and clean streets, a functioning transport network and infrastructure, and zero power black-outs for her entire 12-month stay - it gave her a broader view of the world and broadened her way of seeing things.
Though she considers herself highly resilient, she confesses that there were many times that she felt stranded and discouraged because she couldn’t quite tell how and when the next opportunity would open up.
Martha’s encouragement to those going through challenges is to never allow hope to die.
“Always retreat to the greatness within you and work towards bringing that person out. This will mean making the most of the miniscule opportunities that come your way. And as one of my friends says, ‘decisions and commitment to these decisions’ account for so much you achieve in life. Of course all our paths are not similarly designed, so identify your path and walk it, most times you will just stumble into it. Get an education and seek knowledge with and without a classroom. Knowledge has a way of bringing out the uniqueness in you,” she says.
At TradeMark East Africa, a not-for-profit organisation that aims at growing prosperity in East Africa through trade, Martha is a Programme Officer, ICT for Trade. She works with a team of technical experts to deliver ICT solutions to facilitate trade in the region. Her role is mainly programme management; working to ensure projects are delivered in line with set programme delivery guidelines.
With her family doing much better, Martha says she is taking one step at a time, while trying to make the world a better place. Her youngest siblings are still in university.
When asked how she feels when she looks retrospectively at her life, she responds, “I see God. I feel God. I hear God. It’s been God all the way.”