A decade of support for exceptional Kenyan scholars

Every year for the last decade, some of the most exceptional scholars from Kenya have come to Wolfson College as part of the Wolfson OCS Kenya Scholarship.

Peninah Mutonga

The scholarship, a partnership between the College, The Oxford and Cambridge Society of Kenya (OCSK), and The Cambridge Trust, was launched in 2011 to enable outstanding students from Kenya, who have financial need, to pursue Masters degrees in any field of study – tenable only at Wolfson.

These are, says Nadeem Ahmed, Scholarship Secretary at OCSK, “some of the most talented and interesting Kenyan students, and yet in almost all cases with our scholars over the last 10 years, the opportunity to study at Cambridge would not have been possible without the funding support.”

For Alice Gathoni, OCS Kenya Scholar in 2013, this was certainly true.

“Growing up as an orphan, I had very limited options for anything in life,” says Alice, “even raising fees for my basic education was a real struggle. Therefore, being able to study at Wolfson without having to worry about the tuition fees, accommodation, or food was a such a relief! It gave me peace and confidence to attend classes and interact with colleagues and faculty with ease.

“The scholarship was a significant steppingstone for other opportunities, including a PhD scholarship, life-long friendships, and access to numerous networking and the benefits it comes with.”

During her MPhil in Education, Alice focused on what she found to be unstructured and chaotic educational transitions for youth with disabilities in Kenya. She also discovered that digital technologies allowed these groups to access knowledge about the outside world beyond their disability and to form ideas and aspirations about the lives they desired to live in adulthood.

“This was a significant finding at the time,” she says, “because the use of phones or any other digital technologies in Kenyan schools was prohibited. This finding provided significant insights about the agency and aspirations of youth with disabilities and are important in helping change the perspectives of educators and other people working with youth with disabilities.”

Alice has since graduated with her PhD in the same subject area and is currently a Research Fellow at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) in Nairobi, where she continues to build on her participatory research work with youth with disabilities. She’s also involved in mentoring graduate attachés and early career researchers, supporting the next generation of scholars in Kenya, and continues to volunteer with schools and organizations that support marginalised children with disabilities.

Yohana Ouma, 2019 OCS Kenya Scholar in Public Policy, had been accepted into the University of Oxford a year earlier, but could not enrol due to lack of funding. “The OCSK Scholarship enabled me to achieve a lifelong dream of studying at Oxbridge at the second time of asking,” he says.

Using a case study approach during his MPhil, Yohana studied the key factors required to ensure the successful realisation of effective participatory budgeting in developing countries like Kenya.

“The study findings are important not only because they contribute to the debate on participatory budgeting,” he says, “but also because they contribute to the discussion on participatory governance, which is increasingly becoming an area of global concern in the wake of various challenges to the long-standing modes of governance.”

A common feature of OCS Kenya scholars is that their work so frequently adds to the knowledge, understanding, and progress of Kenya itself. One of the big issues facing Kenya is the tension between development and conservation, and several OCS Kenya scholars have engaged directly with the issue.

Peninah Mutonga, 2015 OCS Kenya Scholar in Architecture and Urban Studies, focused on the challenges of architectural heritage conservation. Her study uncovered very specific tensions between urbanisation and conservation and highlighted the need for a policy framework to guide the development of historic towns such as Lamu, Kenya. Peninah is now running an architectural consultancy and teaching at the Department of Architecture at the University of Nairobi.

Mercy Kariuki, 2019 OCS Kenya Scholar in Conservation Leadership, tackled the issue for her MPhil too. “I have come to appreciate that conservation is a complex web,” she says, “and as a conservation leader, it is important to consider various viewpoints and approaches to increase a collective conservation impact globally.”

Mercy was a big part of the College during her year at Wolfson: a member of the Green Society Committee that helped initiate the idea of establishing the Society, she also represented Wolfson in the Engage for Change programme hosted by the Cambridge Hub in 2020 and was part of the African Society of Cambridge University Executive Committee.

Helen Pennant, Director of the Cambridge Trust, is particularly proud of the partnership and points to the excellent work of participants within Kenya too: “I have had the privilege of meeting some of the alumni leading this programme in Kenya which relies on the generosity of benefactors in the country.

“They have a striking vision based both on changing the lives of the scholarship winners, but also in supporting them to contribute to the ongoing development and flourishing of their country.”

Last year’s OCS Kenya scholars, Anne Waburi and Reinhard Nyandire, certainly continued the tradition of contributing to the development and flourishing of Kenya.

Anne, MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development, focused her research project on Capacity Building in Africa’s Construction Industry: a case study of Kenya. Her work looks to identify strategies to enhance the capacities of individuals, institutions, and systems within the construction industry in Kenya to ensure sustainable development.

“Currently, the construction industry in Kenya and other African countries is dominated by foreign companies,” says Anne, “especially in large infrastructure projects. Therefore, building the capacity of local construction companies is crucial in ensuring that they can independently and effectively manage, maintain and construct such projects in future.”

Despite the disruptions of COVID-19 across the year, Anne threw herself into University and College life.

“Being a member of Wolfson College has been quite an honour,” she says. “Their support and response to the pandemic were exemplary, and my living experience has been fantastic.

"I was able to undertake my studies effectively with access to all necessary resources. Furthermore, I had the pleasure of joining the Wolfson Sustainability and Conservation Research Hub.

“I am grateful for this experience, which has expanded my thinking and exposed me to immense opportunities and resources to build a sustainable future within and beyond my area of expertise. I look forward to applying my learnings as I head back to Kenya to advocate for sustainability in the built environment.”

Reinhard, MPhil in Conservation Leadership, also made a big impression on Cambridge and Wolfson. He was featured in the University’s This Cambridge Life series earlier in the year, where he told his incredible story of using social media to fight developers who threatened Nairobi National Park.

“Kenyans shared their photos on social media and journalists started to pick up on the story,” he said. “We shot a three-day documentary about the challenges the Park faced; it was aired on the news which spurred online petitions demanding accountability. We even began trending on Twitter. The message was clear: ‘Save Nairobi National Park.’

“The people won; politicians began to take notice, the legal system intervened, and the fencing and building issues stopped.”

By adding his expertise and insight to the College, both as WCSA Green Officer and member of the S&C Hub, Reinhard has contributed to the College’s ability to tackle sustainability issues, too.

“I have loved every experience in Cambridge and the OCS Kenya Scholarship massively contributed to me getting the opportunity,” he says. “Wolfson College, with its diversity and staff friendliness all the way from the College President, the Senior Tutor, and the Wolfson College Students Association shaped my global perspectives a lot, view of life and onto strategically positioning myself for my current job. I am proud to be a Wolf”.

These are exceptional stories. And there are set to be many more of them, too, after the partnership was renewed in 2021 for another five years. The value of the scholarship has also increased from £30k to £40k annually, with additional funding of £5k paid by the College if necessary.

Dr Susan Larsen, Wolfson College Senior Tutor, said: “It’s a great privilege to partner with OCSK and the Cambridge Trust in bringing so many remarkable students to Cambridge. It’s a delight to work with them while they are here and it’s a source of immense pride to follow their accomplishments after graduation as, in keeping with the College’s mission statement, they continue to fulfil their potential and transform society for the good of all. I look forward to many more years of productive collaboration with OCSK and the Cambridge Trust in bringing the most promising Kenyan students to Wolfson.”

Find out more about scholarships and awards at Wolfson on our dedicated webpage.

This story is taken from the latest edition of The Wolfson Review. You can read the entire magazine online now on The Wolfson Review homepage.