Kenyan cousins aim to improve life for villagers who helped them get to MSU


With help from Nangea’s uncle and the people of the village of Enoosaen, the cousins are attending MSU with the hopes they will return home and make life better there.


On a morning when Dominic Nangea was 7 years old and walking to school alone through a tangle of forest, he found his path blocked by the thick spotted trunk of a python.

The head and tail of the snake were hidden in the underbrush. That Nangea was looking at the midsection of a creature that could swallow a goat horns to hooves was not immediately clear. He stepped forward for a closer look.

“I had to run back, and, I tell you, I did not go to school for a month because of that,” Nangea said. But he would not admit to his parents — cattle herders who could neither read nor write — that fear of a snake was keeping him away from school.

“If you say that at home, you’d be told, ‘OK, fine. Go and herd cows if you think that is good,’ ” Nangea said.

In Enoosaen, the remote village in Kenya’s western highlands where Nangea and, his cousin, Julius Kuya, grew up, it was not assumed children would get a formal education. But the cousins are getting just that, courtesy of their village and Michigan State University.

Their tribesmen, the red-cloaked Masai, are cattle herders, small farmers, a once-nomadic people who have held onto their traditions and treat the ways of a modern world with a certain ambivalence.

Dominic Nangea (right) and Julius Kuya hope to return to Kenya and help the quality of life in their village after attending MSU. / Greg DeRuiter/Lansing State Journal

That Nangea and Kuya graduated from high school was rare enough. But, with help from Nangea’s uncle, they did something more. They got scholarships to Michigan State University. In August, they crossed an ocean.

The opportunity comes with obligations. Their tens of thousands of dollars scholarships cover tuition. The costs of room and board, books, everything else they need to live in East Lansing, could never have been met by the cousins’ families alone.

Their entire village is contributing money, 1 million Kenyan shillings for each, or the equivalent of about $11,000. The expectation is the two young men will return, that they will use their education to make life better in  Enoosaen.

“They’re really expecting a lot for us,” Nangea said. “They know we’re here working hard.”

Pythons weren’t the only obstacles to an education in Enoosaen. Sometimes, there were hyenas along the path to school. Leopards, too.

The walk alone took an hour.

“Walking that much early and rescuing yourself from the wild animals is kind of a challenge and most people don’t do it,” said Kuya, who is softer-spoken than his cousin. “Most people think, ‘Why should I be waking that early?’ “

Then, there is the culture, which he said led many to leave school early — or never go.

Their parents hadn’t gone to school. There were things they didn’t understand.

Nangea remembers coming home to tell his father he was first in class. His father initially thought the boy had gotten a horribly low score, a “1.”

“I had to explain to him number one means I defeated everyone in class,” Nangea said. “I am the first one. Then, he understood.”

Excelling in school

When Kuya and Nangea reached high school age, they left Enoosaen for a boarding school in nearby Rongo, which had a more competitive environment. There, too, they excelled.

“Both of them scored very, very high in terms of the national examination results,” said Morompi Ole-Ronkei, Nangea’s uncle.

“I was convinced that they would be part of the next generation that can help influence how things go, so I wanted to find something for them.”

Ole-Ronkei called his own education “an accidental history.” In the years after Kenya won independence from Great Britain in 1963, the new government began encouraging Masai families to send at least one of their children to school.

Ole-Ronkei was volunteered. Even so, he said, had he not won a scholarship to a school for needy boys in Nairobi, “I would have done what all the other boys in the village do: We make it to seventh and drop out of school.”

As it happened, Ole-Ronkei became the first person in Enoosaen to earn a university degree, enrolling in the University of Oregon in 1985 with the support of the village and staying for a decade to earn a Ph.D. in communications.

Since his return to Kenya, Ole-Ronkei has helped several young people get into colleges and universities overseas: Oregon, Stanford University, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia.

MSU connection

Ole-Ronkei knew Peter Briggs, who worked with international students at the University of Oregon before becoming the director of MSU’s Office for International Students and Scholars.

On a trip to the U.S. headquarters of the Christian relief agency where he worked, Ole-Ronkei scheduled a four-day stopover in Michigan and got Briggs to introduce him to someone from admissions.

“I convinced this lady that their coming here would transform not only them but transform the community where they come from,” he said, “and for some reason she believed me. I must have been persuasive enough.”

Money the issue

Briggs said he didn’t need much convincing.

“In terms of the academic qualifications, I didn’t have any doubts,” Briggs said. “In terms of the worthiness of the goal, I didn’t have any doubts. I was stressed about the money.”

His office has what he described as a “teeny weeny” amount of scholarship money, used almost exclusively for international graduate students. Only when graduate recruitment doesn’t quite work out as planned is there “leftover money” that can be used to diversify the international undergraduate population, Briggs said.

$32,000 a year

Undergraduate international students at MSU pay almost $32,000 a year in tuition. Even students who come from poor countries, whose families are sacrificing for their education, “you can say they’re from some level of privilege because they can think about coming to the U.S. to study,” Briggs said.

Nangea and Kuya are exceptions — their entire community has come together to pay their way.

“This isn’t common at all,” Briggs said. “It does happen, and this is a good example of it, but it’s not common.”

Other successes

The money Enoosaen has paid to send young people overseas has paid dividends over the years.

There is Ole-Ronkei. There is a young woman named Kakenya Ntaiya, sent to Randolph-Macon a decade ago, the first woman from the village to study abroad. She has since earned a doctorate in education and founded a girls school in the village.

Nangea and Kuya arrived in East Lansing in mid-August. They chose to live separately so as not to isolate themselves from the community, but they eat dinner together every night and talk about the day’s novelties.

They remark on how plentiful food is, how much their fellow students drink. When the first snow fell, Nangea said, “it looked like the world was ending.”

Kuya arrived hoping to become a veterinarian. Now, he wants to be a doctor.

His father died from malaria when he was a boy.

Nangea is studying agribusiness management. In his community, cattle herding is giving way to cash-crop farming.

Nangea doesn’t know precisely what he wants to do for his neighbors. He hopes his studies will bring it into focus. But he feels an urge to protect them, to protect the culture, the land.

“There is a lot on my shoulders,” he said.



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