Can't read or write, now I own schools

Gedion Kyalo.

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Gedion Kyalo spent seven years longer in primary school and always came last in a class of 100. He was an example of what not to be. Fast forward to today, Kyalo now runs a group of schools.

It took almost twice the ordinary time for Gedion Kyalo to complete primary school because he couldn’t keep up in class.

“I kept repeating classes, sometimes only moving to the next having outgrown one class. I was always last in a class of 100 children,” says Kyalo, who went by the name Titus then.

Things got especially hard in class three where his mother was the class teacher: “My mother caned me a lot until I would nose bleed. One time, other teachers had to intervene to save me from the abuse. My life was miserable.”

“I remember a teacher once spit in my mouth and called me useless. He told me I would never amount to anything in life and that scarred me emotionally. All this only worsened the situation because the emotional abuse slowed my thinking further.”

His life took a turn for the worse in class four when he removed himself from school. “I became rebellious under the pressure to perform and grew into a truant. I joined a gang of school dropouts and learnt how to pickpocket.”

“At this time, my grandmother was taking me to witchdoctors to help me perform academically. She was concerned about my tortured school life, but we did it in secret, fearing my father’s disapproval since he was a pastor,” says Kyalo.

Today having recently won the coveted ‘Oscars’ of the education industry – the Global Educational Supplies and Solutions (GESS) Education Award for ‘Outstanding contribution in Education’, Kyalo, the founder and director of Goodrich Group of Schools and Foundation says his bleak childhood gave him the drive to make something of his life.

Saving grace

In class six, Kyalo had an encounter with the principal, Mr Paul Maingi, who was aware of his challenges in school.

“He found me as I was breaking into the store to steal a carton of milk, the famous maziwa ya Nyayo. He took me to the office and counselled me instead of the caning I was used to. He told me I would be a very successful man in life if only I could transform my life,” says the 47-year-old.

Gedion Kyalo.

He made Kyalo the class monitor much to teachers disappointment. “Usually leaders in schools are high performing students, so this created a lot of squabbles. They wondered how a ‘stupid’ boy would lead high-performing, bright students.”

He was promoted to a prefect and later the school head boy and although he did not improve much academically, he was filled with hope for my future.

He believes that his principal understood that a ‘slow learner’ is not a diagnostic category. It is just a term people use to describe a learner who has the ability to learn necessary academic skills but at a below-average rate compared to his age peers.

Unteachable and untrainable

“I was suffering from nothing medical. Till this day, I don’t write or read. I have a computer in my office that I never use. There are people who help me with anything to that effect. I was born this way. Around class seven, my father hired a tutor, which is what helped me more than anything else.”

In secondary school, everything became even more difficult. “Teachers would come to class, dictate and talk endlessly then leave. I was much older then and had to wake up at night to shave my beard. I was isolated by my classmates and my teachers started seeing me as a burden. I was a grown-up yet unable to catch up. At this point, he made the decision to change his age and name from Titus Kyalo to Gideon Kyalo on both his birth certificate and identity card to reflect that of a high school student.

“After Form Four, my late father realised I would never excel academically and pushed me to become a pastor. I wanted to be an entrepreneur so I ran away from home. I endured the 150 kilometres from Machakos to Nairobi, taking two weeks. My aunt was staying in Wangige so I started trying to locate her using vague descriptions my mother had given.”

He stayed at different houses before meeting one of his class one classmates who took him in to work at his butchery. He also helped Kyalo go to a technical school to study business administration.

“That was another low point in my life. College tutors would say my handwriting and level of understanding was similar at a per-unit level. But I always knew business was my passion and I graduated with a diploma in business.”

Cleaner to school owner

“I am better at speaking to people. So in my first job, I rose quickly to a sales manager. I am sharp at convincing (people). I cannot read or write but when you tell me something I can understand it better than anyone else.”

He was earning Sh15,000 before the company went into receivership. He became jobless and took a cleaning job, earning Sh3,900 and saving Sh500 of it.

“I lived in Landi Mawe slums in a small mabati (iron sheets) house that was infested with bedbugs, believing it was a sacrifice to realising my dream. I now realise I was punishing myself.”

Within one year he was a brand manager, simply because he had a business outlook on everything and he could advise the directors. He would hire someone to write proposals to present to the bosses.

“It was my initiatives and these proposals that propelled me in my career.”

All along he saved money with Post Bank, to raise initial capital to start a school.

“I always asked myself how I could start a global campaign to create awareness on slow learning students. Disasters like floods or fires kill instantly but slow learning kills you slowly. It eats you up on the inside and frustration, depression and suicide creep in.”

“I opened a kiosk to generate more income. I was vending tea and mandazi by day and a cleaner by night. I saved arduously all through. After seeking guidance from many school founders and managers on how to start a school without much success, I met Mrs Mutinda who could understand me since we spoke the same mother tongue. She was a huge stepping stone to my vision.”

When you trust too much

While his career has mostly been a success, Kyalo speaks openly about his failure, especially when he started his first school.

In 2008, Kyalo started a day-care centre at an abandoned house in Kileleshwa and called it Like Mother’s Home. He only had three children; his child and two other children of domestic workers from the neighbourhood.

Within a year, more people enrolled their children and he had almost 30 children. “From the day-care centre, I scaled up to Goodrich Kindergarten and employed competent people to work with.”

Goodrich Group of Schools.

His inability to speak fluent English prompted him to take his wife to an ECDE college to help manage the school. She became the pillar of management but barely two months later she passed away on the school term opening day.

“While her body was still in the morgue, one of the teachers who helped with the school’s management told people the school had closed and out of the trust the parents had for the teachers, they transferred their children. I was left with only seven.”

“I was grief-stricken at my double tragedy. I went and buried my wife and consoled myself. I started marketing from the ground up.”

Today, Kyalo is transforming the lives of slow learners through Goodrich Foundation, having overcome his own academic challenges.

“Goodrich is unique because we ensure each child is catered for individually. Each class has less than 30 children because we want every child to be given the attention they deserve. We also don’t reward by merit of who came out best but rather who improved the most. Even if it is the last child that has improved more than the first,” he says of Goodrich Schools, which have more than 1,000 pupils and 35 teachers.

The school has academic clinics every term to meet parents and children to discuss their challenges. Sometimes, he says, they even go the extra mile to find out why a child is failing, finding out what’s happening at home and addressing it with parents.

“A slow learner is not failure; the understanding, inspiration and patience of a passionate teacher, makes a difference in a child’s learning abilities to discover and unlock their full potential.”


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