Abandoned by family: How broke students sweat their lives through university

By Agnes Aineah | Thursday, May 9th 2019 at 09:20
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University students share frustrations of living without financial help from parents who believe their bright children still get a boom from the government as it was in the 80s.

It started with a suicide letter that an alleged Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) student wrote threatening to end his life for lacking basic needs in school.

The letter that was widely circulated on social media earlier this month before it was taken up by Kakamega police for investigation was signed by a certain Jared who complained of leading a pauper’s life in university where family and friends had abandoned him.

“It is with deep sorrow that I have decided to do what I want to do. It has been long struggling tirelessly with no help from people. Since I joined this institution, no one has seen the importance of helping me,” read the letter in part.

“I have now seen it important to commit suicide and leave you in peace. I know such a decision will be of pain to people but all in all, don’t worry because you never cared about me,” the distressed author wrote before detailing his long struggle in university where he slept on an empty stomach for days without help from family and friends who ignored his calls.

The letter sparked a heated conversation that saw university students open up about the frustrations of being neglected by their guardians the moment they enrolled for studies in school.

“That suicide letter from the MMUST comrade, I totally relate!” wrote Hillary Omuono, in an online post.

According to the Maseno University student, friends, family and relatives only get excited when they receive the notice that one is joining university and the day they graduate.

“They will make the possible sacrifices to make it to the graduation square and sing, dance and carry you with joy. But one thing, through the four years in the boundaries of the university, no one cares what you are going through! Your calls are a bother. During these four years or so, you are a burden and no one is ready to welcome you,” ranted the Education student in the post that received varied reaction from his followers.

“Honestly, as a victim, I can tell you that it’s not easy in here! For the faint hearted, they will opt for suicide and other ways that can set them free!” he said.

Such has been the life of Leah Cheptoo, a 2nd year student at Pwani University pursuing Biochemistry.

A total orphan, Leah spends a huge chunk of the money she gets from Higher Education Loans Board (Helb) to educate her two younger siblings.

Leah gets Sh15, 000 in her account from Helb every semester. She sends home Sh10, 000 from this to cater for her siblings’ school fees. She says the remaining Sh5, 000 is never enough to cater for her rent outside school and food though out the semester.

“I use nearly all my Helb money on my siblings that I started providing for when our parents died. It is tough as I am forced to fetch water for neigbours to sail through the semester,” says Leah.

Leah pays Sh2, 000 for a single rented room at Misusini, an informal settlement located near the university in Kilifi. Things were easier for her when she shared the room with a classmate before the girl eloped with a boyfriend and left her to shoulder the rent on her own.

Pwani University dean of students Ronald Juma says the university can only accommodate 10 per cent of all students. The rest, he says, who are forced to look for accommodation outside the university end up living in deplorable conditions. He says other students do the unthinkable to survive harsh financial constraints.

“I have handled three cases in the university of students who were caught sleeping in the entertainment hall. When I questioned them, they opened up that they didn’t have a place to sleep,” says Juma.

At the University of Nairobi, Philip Ogolla has been forced to defer studies for two years when he couldn’t take suffering anymore.

Ogolla first shied off from joining his dream university when he received an admission letter in 2015.

“I applied to defer even before I joined the university because we didn’t have any money at home. Fortunately, a well-wisher came through for me and gave me Sh30, 000 which enabled me to start studying,” says Ogolla.

But halfway into his first year in school, the political science student who walked from Nairobi’s Kawangware slum to town dropped out of school when he could no longer raise rent.

And now back in school where he should be a final year school had his studies not been interrupted, the 2nd year student is thinking of halting his studies once more.

“I have never been able to access or print out revision materials for the exams scheduled for later this month. And my phone cannot access the internet. I can’t do exams this way,” says Ogolla who fears failing an exam he says he hasn’t prepared for. The top performing student hopes to secure the university’s scholarship when he graduates.

Kenya Universities Deans of Students Association (Kudsa) chairman Mohamed Abdullahi Aden, (also Maasai Mara University dean of students) says some of the financial challenges that universitystudents go through are self-inflicted.

“I’ve seen students who lost all their Helb money through betting and feared going back to their parents to ask for more. They are then forced to struggle through the whole semester,” says Aden.

However, other students use their Helb money to support their financially unstable families and are left with nothing in school, according to the deans’ chair.

He says the university helps the students cope by training them on financial literacy and availing work study programmes to very needy students.

Additionally, some 19 students at Maasai Mara University who can’t afford to buy meals are on the university’s feeding programme where all their meals have been paid for.

Mr Juma blames increasing cases of ‘sponsors’ in universities on financial challenges that students go through.

“A hungry, homeless and desperate student can do anything to survive in the university,” he says.

Kenya Parents Association chairman Nicholas Maiyo blames parents who neglect their children thinking they are adults when they join university.

“There are parents who think parenting ends when the children finish high school and get government admission to university. This should never be the case. Children should be supported until they graduate from college and get gainful employment,” says Maiyo.

He urges parents and guardians to support their children equally, saying male children are the most relegated when they go to university.

“A female student is more likely to get financial help from home. As parents, we tend to think that girls are most vulnerable when they are broke. But out there, all our children are equally vulnerable,” he says.

Working with Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), the parents association has produced a manual that will be used to train parents on best caregiving techniques for their children.

Dubbed ‘Parental Empowerment and Engagement Manual’, the curriculum for parents that will be launched next month will be offered during academic clinics and during school meetings with parents.

The Pwani university dean of students divulges the struggle of explaining to parents that they need to support their children in school.

“We have very naïve parents who still think that their children get 100 per cent government support when they qualify for direct entry in university. They fail to understand that this is a thing of the past and that the government can barely pay a student’s school fees, let alone pay for their accommodation and meals,” says Mr Juma.

Prof John Habwe, an Associate Professor at the University of Nairobi who first graduated at the university in 1987 says going to school was cheaper then.

“I had a whole room to myself when I went to the University of Nairobi many years ago. I was surprised when I visited my son in the hostels some four years ago to find four beds in one tiny room,” says Prof Habwe.

Though Habwe doesn’t recall the amount students receive back them, he says the amount was enough for one to buy several expensive suits and even to pay for flights. Then, the students did not pay school fees.

The UoN don suggests that government reduces the number of students joining university to fully cater for few bright students through Helb.

According to Helb boss Charles Ringera, the government subsidizes university education of direct entry students by 70 per cent. Students unable to raise the remaining 30 per cent apply for the Helb loan. Mr Ringera says it is impossible for a student to survive on the loan alone.

“Even for students awarded full loan which is currently Sh60, 000 every academic year, studies have shown that the loan cannot fully fund the students and they may be required to mobilize additional funds from other sources to be able to comfortably study in institutions of higher learning,” says Mr Ringera.

He says possibility of increasing loan awarded to students is a factor of loan recoveries and amount allocated to the board by National Treasury.

The Helb boss urges guardians to facilitate their children’s stay in university by providing them with food, accommodation and other essential requirements.

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