By Emily Dugan
When Sammy Gitau, a child of one of Nairobi's most notorious slums, discovered a Manchester University prospectus on a rubbish tip, he kept it as a talisman and reminder of what life could be like. Like thousands of other children in the Kenyan capital's oldest slum, there seemed little means of escape. But today, Mr Gitau, who spent almost a decade gazing in hope at the precious booklet, becomes the university's most remarkable graduate.
Despite just two years of formal education, he has completed an MSc in international development project management (IDPM), and even receive a merit for his dissertation, which focused on his community projects in Nairobi. Today, as he steps out in his gown and mortar board, he will carry on his shoulders the hope of thousands of Kenyan slum-dwellers who never believed such a leap possible.
"It feels amazing as a personal achievement but also as a message to everyone - that it is possible to succeed, even when you are from a community that nobody thought anything good could come from," he said.
Mr Gitau's programme director, Dr Pete Mann, said he had never heard of someone from a background of such adversity attending the university. "We have taken someone without a first degree but I don't think we have ever taken someone without even high-school education; so it's a massive accomplishment," he said.
Attracted by the colourful crest on its cover, and the name - which reminded him of one of the city's football clubs, Manchester United - Mr Gitau could never have dreamt of the fortune the discarded prospectus might bring. Looking through the cardboard folder, he grew excited by leaflets advertising a development course which mentioned Kenya. But faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he dismissed it as a pipe dream.
The rubbish heap where he found it was in an alleyway of a middle- class suburb not far from his makeshift home in Mathare. Frequented by desperate children in search of food and scrap metal to sell, the slum is an unlikely place to forge a dream of studying at one of Britain's top universities.
With only the bare bones of an education behind him, Mr Gitau became the family's main bread-winner at 13, when his father was murdered in a gang attack. His parents had run an illegal liquor outfit, making moonshine, but after his father died, the young boy turned to drug dealing and theft to bring money home for his mother and 10 siblings.
Despite being entrenched in a life of crime, Mr Gitau turned his life around in 1997, after falling into a coma induced by a cocaine overdose. When he came to, he said he felt a duty to change, and decided to begin helping slum children who were going through the same struggles.
"When you are dying you make a deal with God," he said. "You say, 'Just get me out of here and I will do anything. I will go back and stop children going through the same kind of life as me'."
Given Mr Gitau's education history thus far, it would have been remarkable for him to reach high school, let alone a postgraduate course. For the few years when he was in school, his time was torn between the family business and his books. He would try to do homework on the same table that punters came to drink the illegal alcohol. His studies were interrupted by brawls and running errands. "I ended up sleeping in lessons, because I was up so late, and I couldn't concentrate on work," he explained.
The discovery of a course that could lift him out of poverty was one he found difficult to keep to himself. …