Mary Favour (Class of 2015): Ambitions to build a better future | Aga Khan Academies

Mary Favour (Class of 2015): Ambitions to build a better future

For a while, getting an education was a process for Mary Favour. She would rise early in the dark – at 4:00 am – and make the long trek to school on foot with her three siblings, arriving at around 6:30 am each day. By the time they returned home to Mombasa, it was 7:00 pm. The rest of the evening was spent helping their mother around the house and finishing their homework. 

It wasn’t easy, Mary recalled. 

“My sisters and I grew up with a single mother,” she said. And resources were tight.

When the electricity bill wasn’t paid, the Favour children would study under the dim glow of a kerosene lamp or by candlelight. Between the four siblings, they had only two school uniforms each and counted on Mary’s academic record for school supplies.

“We got awarded books if we topped the class,” she explained. “Sometimes we’d get textbooks, other times we’d get storybooks or novels. It was an incentive that the teachers had to motivate students.”

A new opportunity at the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa

Despite the obstacles, Mary said her mother was determined for her to succeed. She pooled her resources to give Mary a much-needed laptop in grade 9. By then, things had begun to turn around – Mary had received a full scholarship to study and live at the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa as part of its Talent Identification Programme, a programme that provides students from more disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to attend the Academy on full scholarship. She would graduate in 2015 and go on to study at the University of Toronto in Canada, also on full scholarship.

Now a second-year student at university, Mary hasn’t forgotten her difficult upbringing or her roots. In fact, the struggle to get an education early on has instilled in her a strong desire to give back to her community and help others like her get a shot at a better life.

“Six years of growth, skill and a good education” at the Academy was “a gift,” Mary said. “I want to [give] a gift to someone else.”

In particular, she’s learned the importance of independence, humility and sacrifice – lessons she put to use during her Academy days.

Mary joined the Aga Khan Academy in 2009 as part of the first batch of students in the Talent Identification Programme. While there, she participated in a range of activities, including choir, soccer and debate, with the same level of perseverance her mother had taught her. She quickly excelled academically, becoming an honors student in grade 10, and also challenged herself in extracurriculars – musically in competitions and as the assistant captain of her hockey team.

Helping others through community service

Beyond this, Mary fostered a passion for community service and activism rooted in her desire to help outsiders fit in. She led the ‘Just Say No’ initiative, a programme focused on rehabilitating primary school girls in Mombasa who had turned to prostitution in large part to support their families financially.

She worked with these girls for three years, exposing them to the same opportunities she and other students had the privilege of in their own education, including sports and debate. She hosted workshops on public speaking and art, as well as sessions with counsellors and strong female mentors, and invited the girls to perform at the Academy’s talent competition.

“The aim was to help them feel integrated into society but at the same time equip them with skills that would make their education holistic,” Mary said. The mission was especially important, she said, because of the gender gap she saw in Mombasa’s primary schools and the way in which this unfair system contributed to larger problems down the line.

“That inequality creates an imbalance that marginalizes women in our society,” Mary said.

Under her leadership, the club received three awards and became one of the most successful student groups on campus.

Supporting other students to succeed

In addition, Mary founded the ‘I Know Who I Am’ initiative,  a programme that integrates scholarship students like herself into the Academy community while understanding that they needed to “stay in touch with home and not forget their society,” as Mary explained.

“I wanted to celebrate the diversity that came with these students but at the same time make sure that they don’t lose themselves,” she said. So she ran workshops on pluralism and open-mindedness, ate food and played games the students would recognise from home and “held discussions on what it meant to be part of a community but remain true to yourself.”

In the summer of 2017, Mary interned with the Students for International Development. The non-profit organisation was founded and is run by students. While there, she worked with the Orphan Sponsorship Programme as project manager for about two months. Mary and her team focused on the Simboyi Primary School in Vihiga, in the west of Kenya. They were in charge of the remedial education project for orphans and also worked on projects to support students financially. 

After conducting interviews with some of the students in Vihiga, Mary and her team developed a means by which to help them be better equipped to reach their full potential. According to Mary, a number of the students came from families that were struggling to make ends meet. Some, she recalled, told her they only had one meal per day, which usually consisted of just ugali or porridge. Others said they didn’t eat at all. Further, a number of those who performed well in class were unable to pay for their exams and had to sit them out instead.

With Mary’s help, the organisation created a scholarship to help these students. The award, which she said covers basic health care, one meal a day, a yearly uniform and exam fees, will be able to assist 55 students during the current academic year at Simboyi. The hope is that the sponsorships will continue into the next year if budget and fundraising allow.

Real-time results and change like this mean the world for Mary, not least because she knows firsthand what it’s like to have the academic situation and resources not in your favour.

“I was a child with big dreams and no way of actualising them until I joined the Academy,“ she said. “I want to be for someone else what the Academy was to me.”

Catalyzing change for a better future

Mary believes education is one of the best tools to rid our societies of poverty, and she’s determined to be in a position to support students so they have better paths forward at their disposal than what she had. That’s why she plans on returning to Kenya after she’s obtained the necessary experience and skillset to properly give back to her country and community.

Currently majoring in human geography and diaspora and transnational studies and minoring in African studies, Mary thinks that, through the study of cultures and international development, she can better understand how to bridge the gap between rich and poor at home. Her hope is to protect the rich cultural diversity of Kenya but also contribute to changing the country so that it is better able to develop and sustain itself and compete and interact on a global scale more effectively.

“Kenya is at such a pivotal moment in the making of African history,” she said. “It has so much potential. I just want her to maximize her potential. I want to help her do it.”

Mary is uniquely positioned to kickstart such a change at home. Her pluralistic perspective on the world and passion for country could be just what Kenyans need to motivate their leaders to be better and to take action to institute real change. And if her triumphs at the Academy are any indication, Mary’s motivation may just be contagious.

By Farah Mohamed