Age is nothing but a number: One woman’s story of her pursuit for higher education in her 70s

By Ndinda Malonza and Reuben Omulo

Going back to school years after retirement is embarrassing, a waste of time and money.  That is what Janet’s family told her when at age 71, she enrolled for an undergraduate course. However, Janet focused on her dream and now 79, she is graduating with a Masters’ degree in Development Studies.

In this story, Janet narrates the challenges and triumphs in her quest for education.

Being the only educated girl in the family

Janet was born in 1938 in Muthumo village, Machakos in a family of 18 children; 12 girls and six boys – at a time when girls were supposed to get married, while boys went to school. But Janet was different, while her 11 sisters got married, she chose education.

Her father, an SDA missionary had donated a piece of land to build a church and a school, Muthumo Primary School where Janet began schooling in 1948.

She successfully completed class four, which when compared to today’s education would be class eight, and was set to join an intermediate school. But there was no intermediate school in that region. Her father got her a slot at Karura SDA church in Kiambu.

She started her intermediate school in 1951 and attained her Kenya Primary Education Certificate. Janet still remembers her favorite subjects in primary school. “Bible, History and English, were my favorite subjects,” she says smiling.

Janet’s exceptional performance at primary school landed her an opportunity for further studies at Kamagambo Teachers School in Kisumu, and in 1958 she began Form one. After studying for four months, she moved to the teachers training section, which she completed and got a P3 qualification.

Being the only woman at the workplace

Upon completion of her studies at Kamagambo, Janet was posted to teach at her former school, Muthumo Primary school, which had since been renamed Miwani Primary school. However, there were hardly any women in the workplace at the time.

“When I reported to work, I found that all teachers there were men. They surrounded the kiwanja (field) and asked who I was and what I was doing there,” says Janet. “They would sit around and watch me conduct my PE lesson. Then they would follow me after school, and that scared me,” she remembers.

Changing jobs and getting married

Janet informed her father about the incidences and requested him to organise for a transfer. Instead, he got her a bicycle and a servant to take her to school and bring her back home. But the intimidation did not stop. This was too much for Janet to handle, and after one month she transferred to Karura SDA School as a teacher and head of dormitory.

She got married in 1963 and immediately left her teaching job. Three days into marriage, she got a job with Posta Kenya as a clerk. She later got a job with Flamingo Tours Company as a director, where she worked until retirement.

Retirement and the quest for higher education

Retirement marked a new and important beginning for Janet. “After retirement, I started feeling like there was something missing. I had been blessed with a good job, a husband and children, but I still felt like something was missing,” she explains. “I loved education and I had never gotten a chance to further my studies,” Janet continues.

In 2008, Janet travelled to Bugema University in Uganda to visit a friend. Being in a University aroused Janet’s curiosity, and she visited the admissions office with an application. However, since she had no certificates, the admission could not be processed.

Janet decided to look for her certificates. But, this was not easy because when she attended Muthumo Primary School and Karura SDA, no certificates were being issued. The two institutions did not have a record of her education. Luckily, Kamagambo was able to get her records.

When she presented her certificates in Bugema, she was told she qualified for a degree course. In 2009, at 71 years old, Janet enrolled for a degree course in social work. “My children said that I was going to embarrass them with my poor English and my grandchildren laughed at the idea,” she recalls. “But I was determined, so I continued with my studies,” says Janet.

This was a challenging time for her. She could not keep up with the tight university schedule, and for the first two weeks, she spent most of her time in the wrong classes. Soon she settled into her studies, graduating in 2012. “That was one of the best days of my life. I had known I could do it but people had not believed me. When I graduated, I proved them wrong,” she says.

After graduation, Janet returned to Kenya and began working as a social worker with the SDA church. But her thirst for higher education had not been quenched. “In 2014, I started thinking about doing a Master’s degree. I could see how my first degree had changed my life and I wanted bigger things,” she says.

Enrolling for a master’s degree

After visiting a number of universities, Janet chose St. Paul’s University.

Going to class with young people wasn’t easy for Janet, in fact the first time she went to class, the whole class burst out in laughter.

She narrates some of the questions her young classmates asked her. “Why are you in class at your age? Who will employ you? Don’t you have children?” Janet however, says that her classmates’ attitude did not deter her from her goals.

Janet looks back at her journey to get higher education as one that has been challenging but extremely fulfilling. She says she has made friends, visited new places and learned a lot. “I know how to use a laptop. I would never have learned that, if I never went back to school.  People see me working on my laptop and they are surprised,” says Janet.

Apart from her social work with the church, she runs an initiative that trains women groups on development issues. The initiative runs in Makueni, Machakos and Kitui.

She testifies how prayer has kept her going. “Prayer indeed opens doors. When everybody tried to keep me from going back to school, I prayed and God made it possible for me,” she says.

Her final word: “Women, please don’t get contented just because you are employed and married. Keep moving to the next level, whatever your age. You can do it!”

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