Kenyan village boy’s boarding pass to cum laude degree

09 April 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Supplied. Voice Munashe Makado. Read time 9 min.
Long-haul journey from Kenya to UCT – BSc graduate in computer engineering (cum laude) Willie Macharia. This photo was taken during a Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program year-end function hosted in Smuts Hall.
Long-haul journey from Kenya to UCT – BSc graduate in computer engineering (cum laude) Willie Macharia. This photo was taken during a Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program year-end function hosted in Smuts Hall.

From village boy in Murang’a County, Kenya, to computer engineering graduate (cum laude), Willie Macharia learnt early that life is not simple. He still has the boarding pass for the flight that brought him from Nairobi to the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a reminder of where he started – and how far he’s come.

Like many 2019 graduates affected by the COVID-19 lockdown in March and April, Willie has been denied the chance to enjoy the full graduation experience in UCT’s Sarah Baartman Hall. Nonetheless, his story is inspirational.

His academic journey started at Gatumbi Primary School where early promise should have ensured an easy ride to a prestigious high school, Njiiri boarding school in Kigumo. But there was the small matter of fees. As a top performer, Willie was able to secure his first term’s high school fees through the local member of parliament (“My mother didn’t sleep the night before she fetched the application forms”), but the stipend didn’t cover textbooks, stationery, bedding or anything else.

Grabbing opportunity

Arriving at the school one morning, a week after first term had started, Willie’s parents went off in search of the mandatory items. That evening they found him still waiting at the school gates where they’d left him.


“They’d promised me they would come back before the end of the day with all the required items.”

“They’d promised me they would come back before the end of the day with all the required items.”

He never asked where the money had come from, and he’ll never forget that magic school admission number: 10587.

At Njiiri he committed to work hard, so hard that “it would be difficult for the school principal to send me home [because of] school fees”.

After the first term’s exams Willie was third in his form (class). He told himself he’d be first next time. During the holidays he remained at school to study, with the help of a mentor.

By form four he was school president and representing the school in maths, biology and Kiswahili. Although he’d been rejected for the Equity Group Foundation’s Wings to Fly programme for outstanding young scholars some years before, he took a chance and reapplied in fourth form.

Lucky break

This time, he was chosen. Wings to Fly provided all his needs and he was able to wipe out his R17 000 fee deficit. More than that, he was mentored as a young leader.

The scholarship was a springboard for the young man; he attended leadership conferences and had access to development counselling and mentorship. In 2014 he attended a week-long leadership conference at the Multimedia University of Kenya in Nairobi. It was his first trip to the capital.

“We were taught the art of ethical and transformative leadership,” said Willie. “Many influential Kenyan leaders shared their personal experiences. I felt motivated and inspired.”

Chief executive of the Equity Bank Kenya, Dr James Mwangi, shared a personal story to embed the lesson that the young men should never forget where they came from.


“I felt motivated and inspired.”

“After getting his first job, he bought his mother a solar panel, to demonstrate to the village the power of education,” Willie recalled.

It was managing director of the Equity Group Foundation, Helen Gichohi, whose pithy challenge really struck him: “But then, who said life is simple?” she said to the young men.

Her words would return to Willie often in the “dark, dark days” at UCT.

In his final school term, top performers like Willie were offered Equity Bank internships before starting university in September. He’d scored 80 out of 84 points, becoming one of Njiiri and the district’s top students. His first Equity Bank salary was spent on the family’s Christmas celebrations where his high school performance was toasted.

Spreading the money

At just 18, he saved half his salary and used the other half to help his family and provide mentorship to local primary and high schools, providing transport and catering.

“The urge to give back to society was growing in me.”

As a bank official he learnt about work ethics and skills such as public speaking and adulting. He was also accepted to Moi University in 2015 for a BSc in electrical and electronics engineering. But his savings dwindled quickly and survival became a struggle.


“I was paying my own rent and some days I didn’t eat.”

“I was paying my own rent and some days I didn’t eat.”

He dropped out without telling anyone and returned to Equity Bank as a junior IT officer, trained in computer troubleshooting, installing operating systems and working with printers.

Willie realised he loved working with computers. One day, while repairing a machine in the quality assurance section, he asked one of the team members there what he did.

“He said they pre-checked bank software before deploying it to the core banking system. I asked what he meant by software and he explained it to me and told me I needed to study computer science to build software.”

That stuck. When his friend Bredah Nzuki asked him to follow up on documents she was trying to send to UCT for a MasterCard Foundation scholarship, he obliged and asked if he could apply too.

“She said I could. I decided to give it a try and I applied to study BSc in electrical and computer engineering.”

The process was “long and tedious”, but he recalled Gichohi’s challenge: “But then who said life is simple?”

On 23 November 2016 Willie received an email from the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program to say he’d been awarded an undergraduate scholarship.

Big tick up.

“This was a life-changing opportunity I’d never dreamt of.”

Journey south

He later found out that he and Bredah were the only two successful Kenyan candidates. Three months later he was on a flight to Cape Town.

“I’d never flown before. It was an amazing moment and I still have the boarding pass given to me that day.”

The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program was wonderful; he was assigned an academic mentor and a mentor in Kopano Residence. He struggled in first year, not academically, but “to fit into the UCT space”.

“Some students I met said I was too dark. My self-esteem was squashed. I was afraid to ask questions in class as I thought my accent was too bad and students would laugh at me. I was only comfortable among East African students.


“I had been racially discriminated against for the first time. I was struggling.”

“My first semester was bad and I didn’t perform as well as I wanted, despite being class rep. I had been racially discriminated against for the first time. I was struggling socially.”

During the June vacation it was suggested he apply for the 2017 Department of Student Affairs Student Leadership programme, which he did.

“This was the turning point. Through the programme I met amazing student leaders who helped me rebuild my confidence. I was appointed as a faculty orientation leader and I met great people. We could share great moments, such as hiking and conversations.

“As first-year ended, I knew hope was there and a new year was starting.”

Me, myself, I

His goal in second year was to work on himself. “Just me,” he said. He regained his confidence and self-esteem.

“I started loving UCT. I met cool students who inspired me. My friends stood with me and encouraged me.”

By the end of second year Willie was on the Dean’s Merit List. “I felt I was back.”

He also changed to computer science and computer engineering. “I made a deliberate promise to myself that I would work hard and graduate with distinction.”

Willie had seen his best friend graduate cum laude and he was encouraged.


“I made a deliberate promise to myself that I would work hard and graduate with distinction.”

In 2019, his final year, Willie achieved just that: distinctions in his computer engineering major.

He was scheduled to graduate on 25 March until the COVID-19 pandemic came as another, more pressing reminder that life is not simple. And like many UCT graduates, Willie is still hoping for a postponed celebration: robed, capped and hooded and with that hard-won scroll.

Now a computer science honours student at UCT, Willie is looking ahead for opportunities in quantum computing, which is needed to facilitate new breakthroughs in a host of areas: science, pharmaceuticals, machine-learning methods to diagnose illness, and materials to manufacture for efficient structures and devices.

As for the future, there’s wisdom in the last of the six core values he learnt years ago at Njiiri School: responsibility.

It reads, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past but by the responsibility for our future.”

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Graduation March 2020

We understand the disappointment that our students and their families feel about the suspension of the March 2020 graduation ceremonies. Please know that the decision to suspend the ceremonies was not taken lightly. We congratulate the March 2020 qualifiers on their academic success. All graduands will graduate in absentia, with a confer date of 19 March 2020. Graduation certificates will be issued to qualifiers and the Registrar has communicated directly with all qualifiers about the arrangements for the issue of graduation certificates and transcripts.

Find full information, including Frequently Asked Questions, on the Graduation page on the Students website.

Our stories: inspirational graduates

Although UCT has suspended the March graduation season because of concerns about the spread of Covid-19, the news team would nonetheless like to honour those who would have been capped. We have chosen to profile a cross-section of inspirational graduands whose stories we’d like to share. To all those we haven’t been able to feature, we’d like to say: each one of you is an inspiration – to your university, your families and your communities. Stay healthy.