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28 October 2014

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You are in: Manchester > Features > People > From the slums with honours

From the slums with honours

Sammy Gitau has come further than most. Scratching a living in the slums of Nairobi, he found a leaflet amongst the rubbish and began a remarkable journey which led him to being honoured at the University of Manchester.

Sammy Gitau in Kenya

Sammy Gitau: helping children in Kenya

About 300,000 people live in Mathare, the oldest slum district of the Kenyan capital and for Sammy the chances of escaping that life were slim.

The chances of him ending up on a course at Manchester University studying International Development were even slimmer.

But in 2001, whilst working on community projects in the slums, Sammy stumbled across a leaflet decorated with the University’s name in a pile of garbage.

Graduate: Sammy Gitau MSc.

Graduate: Sammy Gitau MSc.

In it, he read about references to Kenya and details of a course based at the University's 'Institute for Development Policy and Management (IDPM).’ And his dream of helping Kenya's slum community began.

Six years later, after establishing a community centre in his homeland and converting cargo containers into classrooms, Sammy will now receive the Masters’ degree he dreamed of - here in Manchester.

"This may be the end of the first part of my journey, but it certainly isn't the end of the road,” he said.

Adding: "It is the hope and the trust in the eyes of my people that strengthens and ensures me of great success in future.

"I have big plans for the centre - I hope to expand the project into other areas of Nairobi. Who knows, it be may a model which can be emulated across Africa.”


Sammy’s childhood in Nairobi was unimaginably hard. Aged 13, Sammy became his family's breadwinner when his father, who brewed illegal alcohol, was killed in a hammer attack.

"It caught my eye. And as I was reading it, the most interesting thing was the word 'Manchester.' And, of course, Manchester United is like a religion"

Sammy Gitau on finding the University prospectus

After he was beaten by angry mobs for thieving he became a drug dealer in 1997, hitting rock bottom when he overdosed on cocktail of drugs soon after.

"After the drugs put me in a coma, I remember hearing hospital staff telling me I was going to die and when you are dying, you make a deal with God,” said Sammy.

"You just say, get me out of here and will do anything. I will go back and stop children going through the same kind of life as me.”

Drawing on his experiences, Sammy established a community resource centre to helping young men to come off drugs and which also lobbies for fresh water and an electricity supply.

One of the resource centres in Mathare

One of the resource centres in Mathare

Impressed by what he was achieving, a group of wives of local and international officials helped Sammy to convert cargo containers into classrooms from which he could teach skills to disenfranchised youngsters, such as carpentry and computing, tailoring and baking.

It was while he was working on the project that he stumbled across the University prospectus in a skip full of rubbish.

"It caught my eye," explained Sammy. "I took it and as I was reading it, at first the interesting thing was the word 'Manchester.' And of course Manchester United has become almost like a huge religion all over despite being just a football team.

"But as I started reading it, it was talking about allowing me the opportunity to share development issues with people from all over the world and especially from third world countries.

"I felt this was the right course, this was what I wanted to do."

It was only after talking to EU officials visiting the project, that he was encouraged to apply to the University of Manchester to enrol on the International Development course.

Yet even after he was accepted, Sammy was forced to take on the UK immigration service, which after hearing about his limited schooling, refused to believe he was a genuine student. The ruling was overturned seven months later.


Sammy's University programme director, Dr Pete Mann said: "I found it humbling to teach Sammy - it really is a remarkable achievement.

“In class, he was reflective, thoughtful and creative - a very successful student.

“A development project or agency can only benefit from one who has witnessed so much adversity yet brings such intense spirit of endeavour on behalf of others."

Sammy Gitau's outreach work helps more than 20,000 people in Kenya with programmes ranging from drugs awareness to sprucing up the streets.

He receives his MSc in 'Management and Implementation of Development Projects' on Thurs 13 December 2007

last updated: 14/12/2007 at 11:23
created: 12/12/2007

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