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New Plateaus Spotlight: Daystar University, Nairobi, Kenya

29 Aug

New Plateaus is about interesting people, places, and ideas. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get it all of this in one story. This article is about education, the history of East Africa, and how a Minnesota-connected university is doing their part to develop a continent.

I met Pat Mahin last winter when I worked at an Italian restaurant. One night we catered a benefit dinner for a foundation helping disabled children. It was a nicely dressed crowd out for a good cause and a good time. Pat really stuck out among his fellow guests despite him being a White, 60-something, thin, clean-shaven man with glasses—for he was wearing something like this:

Pat in Africa wearing the attire I saw him in that night in Edina.

Before I even had a chance to ask if he’d like beer, wine, or soda, I had to ask about the get up. He gladly shared that it was East African attire. This, of course, led to further questions, and I soon discovered that Pat Mahin worked for Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. Opening up this can of worms, and me having to get back to work (Pat was thirsty) we scheduled a time to meet again.

Not long after this benefit dinner, Dr. Timothy Wachira arrived in Minnesota. He had hands to shake, places to visit, and good news to share. Dr. Wachira is the Vice Chancellor (we say President) of Daystar University. As Daystar is a Christian college, Wachira was meeting and greeting congregations to spread the word of the school’s progress and success and to offer thanks for their support. Concluding Wachira’s American tour, Mahin arranged for all of us to meet at the offices of Daystar U.S.—Daystar University’s fund-raising arm—where he works as the Manager of Projects and Church Relations.

I arrived at their suite on the third floor of what was once the Edina Middle School. Mahin showed me around the offices before leading me to the conference room. There I noticed a large bulletin board on the back wall because of all the young, smiling African faces pinned upon it.

Soon Dr. Wachira entered the room, a middle-aged Kenyan with mustache, glasses, and friendly face. More than a friendly face, he had a friendly heart and was generous to offer me time this morning—the last of his three-week American stay. We were also joined by the Executive Director of Daystar U.S., Dr. Kathleen Johnson, a middle-aged woman with a short, blonde haircut and the look of a leader.

Here was the trio:

We sat down and began. But before we talked Daystar, we talked Kenya and Wachira.

 

Kenya is a mass of land about 20% smaller than Texas which lies square on the equator in the region of East Africa:

Though at this tropical latitude, its coast and elevated inlands means, “Kenya has one of the best climates in Africa”, said Mahin. The capital, Nairobi, is an 8 hour drive from the coast.

Kenya began, like so many modern African nations, as a territory of European rule. In 1963 Kenya gained independence from the British Empire. Over the years, this has been met with challenges from within by group repression, government corruption, and violent outbursts. In 2010, though, a new constitution was approved to worldwide acclaim, etching into stone the ideals of ethnic and gender equality, recognition of environmental issues, a re-defining of the three branches of government, and interestingly, some love for the younger Kenyans: one needn’t be 35 anymore to run for president. Any adult is eligible. J Academically, Kenya now offers 14 private schools as well as the giant, public University of Nairobi with a University of Minnesota-like 54,000 member student body.

Perhaps most notably, though, Kenya has developed to become East and Central Africa’s largest economy, with projections suggesting continued growth into the future. Boosted by rapid expansion in telecommunication and financial activity over the last decade, the service sector now contributes 62 percent of GDP; the agricultural sector, though, employs a whopping 75% of the workforce.

Kenya, accordingly, is East and Central Africa’s hub for financial services—and this predominantly takes place in Kenya’s heartbeat, Nairobi:

Nairobi, Kenya

Over the last 100 years, the capital has swelled from a railroad outpost to become the cultural, banking, and social hub it is today. The city had just half a million people in 1969; now it has a population of 3.1 million. That’s a lot of people. And despite the development of an ever-growing suburban middle-class, money hasn’t kept up with population; Nairobi is noted for its five populous  slums. Though not dangerous, according to Mahin, they are dirty and very cramped:

Though with still a ways to go, Nairobi and Kenya are leaders in a developing Africa. As such, they make the appropriate setting to continue our tale of Timothy Wachira and Daystar University.

Timothy Wachira was born in 1957 in a village of 1,000 outside Nairobi. Residents lived in humble dwellings without electricity or plumbing in a country that wasn’t yet a country. One advantage of colonialism was that school was offered to most children. About three-fourths of them in Wachira’s village attended primary school. Wachira was advantaged more so in that, his father being a school teacher himself, he grew up in a home that stressed the importance of literacy and learning a skill to make a better life. His family also had enough money to send Wachira to a boys-only boarding school.

After primary school the separation between those who would/wouldn’t attend school drastically grew as only 20% of primary school graduates went on to secondary school, said Wachira. Space, competition, and cost contributed to the low numbers. Four years of it was followed by two years of high school. And for Wachira and a few ambitious others, college after that.

While grateful for his opportunities to learn, Wachira also admitted the shortcomings of education in a colonized environment. “Education was not education”, he said firmly in his Kenyan accent. He went on to say that schools were in place simply because the British needed a labor force, and that schools were shaped to provide accordingly. A different motivation, however, was seen from the schools run by the missionaries. Their goal was to help as many Kenyans as possible understand the Bible. The difference Wachira saw between the two Western motives, then, was that colonizers didn’t want everyone to be educated (not every job requires literacy) while the missionaries did.

Another effect of colonization was language. Wachira was educated in an English school system—as children in Kenya are today. In fact, English is the national language of Kenya today; Swahili is the dominant local tongue. With English acumen and a degree from the University of Nairobi, Wachira moved to Liverpool, England and earned a masters in Veterinary Medicine. Not quite finished yet, he went back to Nairobi for his doctorate.

As a professor and researcher, Wachira taught at his alma mater, the University of Nairobi and traveled to Australia and back to the United Kingdom to work for the African Medical Research Foundation. He then went on to shape schools, working in 2004 to transform St. Paul Theological College outside of Nairobi from a seminary to a multidisciplinary school. Today it is known as St. Paul’s University in Limuru. And to bring us up to the present, and back to the focus of this story, in 2010 Wachira became Daystar University’s Vice Chancellor.

 

Daystar started in 1964 as a non-denominational Christian communications company by a couple from Portland, Oregon named Don and Faye Smith and their South African partner, Motsoko Pheko. Don Smith had a PhD in Communications and recognized the need not just to witness Christianity to Kenyans, but to take a page from the modern service movement and teach Kenyans to witness to each other. (And now, today, it’s Kenyans teaching Kenyans how to witness to and serve other Kenyans and beyond.)

So in 1974, Daystar bought land in Nairobi to establish a campus downtown. The success of this school allowed (and required) them to expand. Soon after the downtown location was started, they built on a 300 acre plot 27 miles outside Nairobi where Daystar University’s main campus is today.

Growing in size and reputation, Daystar attracts Africans from all over the continent, and through the years has accumulated quite a list of graduates. “Right now there’s 12,000 graduates from Daystar in Africa, in 40 different countries”, said Mahin. Wachira added that they currently enroll around  4,400 students from 20 different nationalities. Many of Daystar’s graduates have gone on to some impressive positions: an employee at the BBC Africa, a head of World Relief Africa, a VP of Compassion International, and Kenya’s Minister of Communications.

The two-campus university uses its original downtown location for night classes and the back-to-school crowd. And at the main campus is where all the unmistakable signs of college life are: dorms, cafeteria, extra-curriculars, and sports (theirs are soccer, rugby, and basketball) with which they compete with area schools. I never asked about fraternities, but they are a dry campus.

Most of students of Daystar are local Kenyans, and English is the language used in class though a “lot of students come from French speaking countries”, said Mahin. These countries include the Congo, Zimbabwe, and Burundi, and this brings us back to the faces on that bulletin board in the conference room:

These glowing portraits represent Daystar’s intra-continental reach as well as their ability to offer students in need scholarships to attend:

Not every student at Daystar is African, either. South Korea has a modest population of exchange students as do American colleges, Bethel and Northwestern of St. Paul, Minnesota. We Minnesotans, then, are graced with the presence of some of Daystar’s students in return. And according to Wachira, an American from Oregon is enrolled at Daystar not just as an exchange student, but as a normal, full-time undergrad. Perhaps this student was drawn to the price tag; $5,800 covers everything for a year at this private school. But though cheap by American standards, that’s very expensive for most Africans.

From sponsors abroad, about 100 students at Daystar are currently on scholarship. When Daystar began, the whole school was dependent on donations from Americans; now they stand on their own as a center for learning—for Africans, by Africans. And more than just economic and enrollment growth, Daystar University also has achieved remarkable academic expansion. Smith founded what began as a communications school to help teach and create church leaders. Today, communications remains as its strength. “That’s their sweet spot” , said Mahin. But Daystar has expanded its academic breadth and depth to include 29 majors and nine graduate programs—including a PhD in, yep, communications.

Areas of expansion include majors in business and  economics, social sciences, performing arts, languages, and math and science. In fact, Daystar recently won a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study leishmaniasis, a parasite transmitted by sand flies.

Expansion, however, has not diluted the school’s original and main purpose. Rather, it has distributed it throughout its many different disciplines. Its “sweet spot”, the idea of becoming leaders by way of service, remains at the core of the Daystar beat. “When graduates come across the stage and get their degree, they also get a towel”, said Mahin.

This symbolizes Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, of being a servant leader:

Daystar graduate with her diploma and towel

The Daystar niche, and a significant shift from most American studies, is to have students ask, “How does this knowledge help my people?” said Wachira. One good example is well-known alum Christine Nguku. She was a well-paid anchor on television, but resigned from her job to start a radio station in her home community.

In a continent known for its difficulties in political leadership, Daystar tries to shine as a place to transform Africa. “Send young people to Daystar, learn the values of Christ, and they will avoid the corruption pitfalls,” said Pat. Besides service, Pat also gets the vibe of gratitude. As he’s travelled to Daystar over the years, young men and women from all over Africa have greeted him with enthusiasm, telling him, “Please tell the people of America thank you for helping to make my dream come true!”

Here in the U.S., this is precisely what Pat Mahin does, traveling to churches to share the mission with new congregations and maintain relationships with current donors. He says it’s rewarding to help a bright child, who never could have afforded it, have a chance to get their college degree. And he loves to show the donors this reward—either with pictures, video…or even in person. “I organize trips to go to Daystar to show the campus and the graduates to the visitors so they can see directly what the graduates are doing in the society and how they are transforming Africa.”

 

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 

If you want to find out more information about Daystar, visit their university website: http://www.daystar.ac.ke/  or their fund raising website: http://daystarus.org/.

If you or your congregation are interested in donating to the Daystar mission, call Daystar U.S. at 952-928-2550 or email Pat Mahin at pat@daystarus.org.

 

  

 
 

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