Kenya: Starving in Pursuit of a Degree, the Tales of Poor University Students Going Hungry

Mr Josphat Kati, a third-year student pursuing an undergraduate degree in education at Moi University, is the fifth born in a family of seven children. He is the only one at university. His two younger siblings are Standard Eight candidates, while the older ones are either married or have dropped out of school. Mr Kati was lucky to find a sponsor who paid for his secondary education. That is how he ended up securing a slot at the university.

“I come from a humble background. Both my parents brew and sell liquor to survive. That is what they have raised the seven of us with. Usually, when they get even Sh500, they will send it to me, then I have to wait for another two weeks or three before they get some more to send. In between, I have to survive, sometimes foregoing meals,” Mr Kati narrated.

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Kenya, his parents’ business was hit hard by the containment measures put in place by the government.

With hardly any money coming from his parents, he said, many are the days he has slept hungry.

“I had hoped that Helb (Higher Education Loans Board – which gives loans to students) would be disbursed once my cohort resumes session,” he said. “But I am yet to receive the disbursement.”

In the same institution, Levy Wekesa is also struggling. The last meal he took was breakfast, and at the time of interview, he had just come out of a two-hour class that needed his “utmost concentration” but could he hardly concentrate.

“It is not easy to learn on an empty stomach,” said the 21-year-old orphan and the last born in a family of six children.

These are but a few of the students going hungry at Moi University.

But just how dire is the situation, for an institution to reveal that its students could be starving?

The situation has been “exacerbated by the pandemic and the delay in disbursement of Helb”, Dr J S Ayieko the Moi University dean of students told the

n on phone.

On Sunday, March 7, his office sent out a memo asking students in dire need of food to come forward. He noted that some students have been going without food, sometimes for days.

“This is to request all students to send details of anyone who is starving to the dean of students through class reps and student leaders. The details to include their names, registration numbers, telephone number, hostel name and room number,” the memo read.

“It was meant to be an internal memo but it somehow found its way to the public. For the better part of Tuesday, March 9, Moi University was trending, with the topic being the hunger that had hit the institution of higher learning.

On Twitter, Kenyans expressed concern, with most requesting those with relatives enrolled at Moi University to check on them and send them money.

Before the memo was released, Mr Wekesa explained, the students were using hunger memes as a coping mechanism.

“The humour in it helped us cope, but it was essentially a cry for help. The memes eventually got to the dean’s Whatsapp account, and he realised the seriousness of the issue when students started fainting in lecture rooms and hostels due to hunger,” said Mr Wekesa.

The student has always depended on his grandmother, who took him in as an infant when his parents died. Unfortunately, the grandmother died in 2019, and since then, he has not only been “a child of no one but also his own parent”, responsible for his own livelihood both at school and at home.

“I have always survived on Helb loans, but Helb is yet to wire cash into my account. I was sponsored in high school, but the sponsors said they could not pay my university fees. Apart from relying on Helb loans to pay my fees, I also apply for bursaries. My elder siblings sometimes chip in with money for upkeep, but they also have families and young children in school, so they are financially constrained,” said Mr Wekesa.

The university banned cooking in hostels and advised students to eat in the cafeteria instead. According to Mr Wekesa, the food sold in the cafeteria is too costly for a student “who is struggling, like myself”.

“At the cafeteria, we pay Sh40 for ugali and kales. Plain rice costs Sh40, and beans or green grams cost Sh20. Most of us can now only afford one meal a day. When there is no money, you stay hungry,” he said.