Had he stayed in South Sudan, Dani Abud would have remained just another one of the hundreds of thousands of faceless children whose futures remain dimmed by almost five years of a raging and devastating on-and-off civil war.
Unlike many of the hopeless children still stuck in the just-reconciled country, the only home they know, Abud was lucky to find an escape, one that redeemed and simultaneously placed him on a new path towards a better life.
It started in 2014, when a Kenyan soldier left on assignment for South Sudan. He did not want his identity revealed due to the sensitive nature of the job. The soldier would stay there for nearly two years, as part of the Kenyan mission sent to keep peace in the young warring country.
It was during this time that he met Abud. The soldier told me, “I instantly noticed Abud’s brightness when I first talked to him. I was touched by what I saw”.
“When I met him, he was staying with his aunt in Wau, a city northwestern of South Sudan. Whenever war broke out, which was often, Abud would stay in the Kenyan military camp or run to neighboring regions”.
Even while in South Sudan, Abud was estranged from most of his immediate family, including his parents, painfully separated by the chaos of war.
The soldier also told me, “He has parents but he last saw them eight years ago”.
Abud, the fifth born in a family of ten children, has met just five of his nine siblings. The rest were born after his parents went away, which is why he doesn’t know them.
The war did not just rip apart Abud’s family. It almost destroyed his education too.
Abud, in a recording I listened to, said getting an education in South Sudan had become impossible. The violence, fear, aggression, and all the other distressing characterizations of the civil war meant he had to run frequently, which, in turn, meant he couldn’t go to school daily.
“I suggested to his aunt that he comes to university in Kenya,” the soldier said, “she was very receptive of the idea”.
But war broke out again soon after the discussion, and Abud and his family fled once again. The soldier characterizes the chaos that sprung out at that particular time as being worse than ever before.
He says, “I realized he might never be able to finish school if he stayed there. I had to bring him with me”.
He returned to Kenya in 2016, and Abud followed him in May of last year.
Both Abud and his aunt were extremely pleased with the idea of him studying in Kenya. Abud describes the soldier as ‘family’ and also calls him a friend, in spite of the broad age gap between them.
Abud, now 15, scored 393 marks in KCPE, despite starting school in Nairobi in the middle of second term last year.
“. Other pupils and teachers could not understand me properly. I had to work extremely hard, especially at learning Kiswahili “Abud said.
He learnt Swahili in less than two years, despite lacking even basic knowledge of the language when he first came to Kenya. In KCPE, he scored 73 marks, an A-.
Abud does not have a specific secondary school he would like to join. For him, having a stable, peaceful home and being able to get a proper education are enough.
But he has a dream; to study technical engineering, and perhaps one day return to help South Sudan, his home.
On the day the results were released I happened to wind up at Riara School, the source of the top pupil nationally.
The pupil, a slender, well-mannered girl almost towering over her mother and grandmother, had scored 453 marks, making Abud’s 393 marks appear lackluster by comparison.
While the top student bears all the qualities of people that go on to achieve massive success later in life (super hardworking, intelligent, disciplined, polite), just like Abud, I also wondered how fair the whole exam system is and whether it is fair to even compare these two types of pupils.
One who has had all the advantages and privileges a child could ever dream of, and the other, raised on war, terror and pain.
The top student’s grandmother is a renowned and successful entrepreneur, and both her parents, a lawyer and financial analyst, do considerably well financially, I would guess. Coming from old money, and living and studying in a high-priced uptown neighborhood, she’s probably never had to struggle in life, likely doesn’t even know what struggle is.
She was brought up by strong and smart women, her well-educated entrepreneurial grandmother and her equally well-educated lawyer mother. They have likely molded and mentored her to take over the world.
I couldn’t help but wonder—if Abud, (or any of the other millions of children with difficult childhoods) grew up with the same advantages, might he have been the best pupil countrywide?
Are we, maybe, predestined to lead a certain sort of life, good or bad, before we are even born? Are our paths written for us the moment we are born into the environments and families we end up in?