According to his birth certificate, Huthefa Abdullahi Maalim was born on September 23, 1999, in Moyale Sub-County Hospital, in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. In fact, he isn’t sure when or where he was born, only that it was somewhere in the vast grassy plains of southern Ethiopia, where his father, a nomadic pastoralist, herds cattle. He is the seventh of his father’s 13 children, and only the third to have made it through secondary school. His parents didn’t attend school; they are illiterate. “Where I am from, people don’t really care about schools,” he said. “They care about cows.”
It was a warm day in June 2019, and Huthefa, having traveled two days to get to Thika, a town outside Nairobi, was sitting at the front of a classroom, where he faced a phalanx of Americans who would decide his future. He was a fan of American TV shows—whenever he could afford it, he would spend 40 Kenyan shillings, about 40 cents, to download a season of Heroes or S.W.A.T. on his phone—but this was the first time he’d actually met Americans. Come to think of it, this was the first time he’d spoken to white people.
“Where I am from, people don’t really care about schools. They care about cows.”
He sat ramrod straight; he had managed to squeeze his tall frame into the small plastic chair. His pink dress shirt looked freshly ironed. His leather shoes were polished to a high gloss. More than anything, he wanted a university education—an American university education—and he believed he deserved to be accepted into KenSAP (Kenya Scholar Access Program), one of Africa’s most successful college-access programs. Now he just needed to convince these Americans in their blue jeans and sneakers to agree. He had attended primary school in Moyale, on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia, he told them, but tribal clashes often forced his family into hiding. He recalled the violence of 2012, when tensions between Garri Somalis and Borana Oromo exploded into war. “The bullets were coming, and everywhere the children and women were running,” he said. Homesteads were burned; shops and schools were looted; women and girls were raped. Huthefa, about 13 at the time, saw his neighbor beaten to death by a mob.
“If you are Somali, but Borana is your native language, and you are all Muslim, which side views you as the enemy?” one of the Americans asked.
“In this place where I come from, the people, they are fighting for survival, for pastures, water, land,” Huthefa said. “In this place, you are fighting for life. Anyone can be shot. No one is safe.”
This was the first time he’d actually met Americans. Come to think of it, this was the first time he’d spoken to white people.
When it wasn’t war that interrupted his schooling, it was poverty. Again and again, at Chogoria Boys High School, Huthefa had been sent home because of unpaid fees, sometimes for weeks at a time. (Huthefa’s school fees amounted to 60,000 Kenyan shillings a year, less than $600, a huge sum for his family.) Nevertheless, he had graduated first of 225 boys in his class, earning the school’s highest grade on Kenya’s secondary-school exam, the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (K.C.S.E.).
“Please,” Huthefa said as the interview ended and he stood up to leave. “If you educate me, you educate not only an individual but also a society.” If he received a university education, he would return home to teach his people to live in harmony, he said. “I will ask them, ‘Must you die for the land? Must you fight over a piece of land that cannot ever be yours in any real sense?’”
Since its founding in 2004, KenSAP has helped more than 200 high-achieving, low-income Kenyan high-school graduates gain admission to America’s most selective universities. Harvard has taken 23 KenSAP students. Yale, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Williams, Colby, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Tufts, M.I.T., Wesleyan, Cornell, Amherst, and Smith have taken many, too. In every case, KenSAP students have been given full financial aid.
KenSAP has become a model for a growing number of not-for-profit college-access programs in Africa. But few can match KenSAP’s record. In the past 14 years, every one of its students has been admitted to college. Approximately 97 percent have graduated. Many KenSAP scholars have gone on to earn Ph.D.’s or medical degrees. One was named a Rhodes scholar. Most have returned or plan to return to Africa, where they have fanned out across a host of fields, from medical research and renewable energy to government, private equity, consulting, teaching, and philanthropy.
For American universities, KenSAP serves as a talent scout, helping them recruit students from some of the most remote places on earth. “The talent pool out there is enormous,” said Jake Kaufmann, Harvard College’s director of financial aid. “But imagine not being able to tap into 80, 90, 95 percent of the talent of young people in the world because you just can’t get to them.”
Harvard has taken 23 KenSAP students. Yale, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Williams, Colby, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Tufts, M.I.T., Wesleyan, Cornell, Amherst, and Smith have taken many, too.
Every student who receives an “A plain” (the highest score) on Kenya’s secondary-school exam is invited to apply to KenSAP. Last year, only 0.05 percent of those who took the K.C.S.E. received an A—315 students out of 660,204. Of those who completed KenSAP’s application, about 80 made it to the short list. From there, the list would be cut to 20.
“I might not be the best student to apply, but I think I am most deserving,” Huthefa wrote in his KenSAP application. Huthefa had one of the lowest scores among applicants: 77 points, an A-minus, below KenSAP’s minimum requirement of 79 points. Still, his case was compelling. He came from one of the poorest parts of the country, where finishing secondary school was a feat. He had graduated top of his class. He’d stood up to teachers and students who discriminated against his high school’s minority Muslim population. And there was no doubt he was deserving. “For Christ’s sake,” said John Manners, KenSAP’s co-founder and co–executive director, “he lives in a mud hut with no running water.” During his interview, Huthefa had displayed an easy confidence and charm, despite his halting English.
The debate began as soon as Huthefa left the room. “His answers were terrific. Just terrific,” said Manners. “I mean, the kid thinks.”
“He’s struggling with English,” someone said.
“I think he’s going to struggle on the S.A.T.,” said someone else. “It’s going to be hard getting him in.”
“Look, he was No. 1 in his class coming from the most marginalized area of the country. How many other kids have lived that life? He had bullets raining down on him.”
“We’re going to have to convince a college that he can make it.”
“What’s the point of our work if we don’t accept a student like that?”
“What’s the point of our work if we can’t get him in?”
“I’m sorry—if we can’t get him into a college, then we haven’t done our job. Period.”
“Look, he was No. 1 in his class coming from the most marginalized area of the country. How many other kids have lived that life? He had bullets raining down on him.”
For John Manners, the admissions process was always agonizing. Every applicant deserves to be accepted; that’s how he saw it. He couldn’t stop thinking about Alphania Muthee, who had grown up in the slums of Nairobi and witnessed her brother being murdered during Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. During her interview, Alphania awed the KenSAP team with her charisma and composure and jokes. At Starehe Girls Centre, one of Kenya’s better state schools, which she attended on scholarship, Alphania had graduated top of her class. Only later did Manners learn of the trauma she still suffered from her brother’s violent death, and how the image of him in an open casket replayed in her mind.
Faith Ndanu was another applicant who affected Manners deeply. She was soft-spoken and timid, or so he thought until he discovered that she was a committed feminist who worked to empower girls in her community, fight sexual harassment, and promote sexual reproductive rights. Her own house had been a “war zone,” Faith wrote in her KenSAP application. “It was a harbor state for violence, sorrow, silenced women and poverty.” After her father abandoned the family (“The last time I saw him was in Class Seven when he promised to buy me shoes”), she and her mother lived with an alcoholic stepfather, who beat them half to death, burned their clothes, and hollered slurred insults. Winning a scholarship to Vanessa Grant Girls’ School had been a godsend, she said; now all she asked was that she might continue her education.
Manners felt vested in KenSAP’s applicants, as if they were his own children. “This is so hard. Dammit, this is just so hard,” he kept repeating.
Manners started KenSAP in 2004, almost on a whim. He had a long attachment to Kenya, going back to the late 1950s, when, at age 12, he lived there for a year while his father, a professor and founding chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis University, conducted field work among the Kipsigis people of the Rift Valley. In 1969, recently graduated from Harvard, Manners returned to Kenya for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer, a period that at his 50th college reunion he would recall as “among the most enjoyable and formative of my life.” He was assigned to teach at Kaplong Boys Secondary School, a former missionary school in Kipsigis territory.
Alphania Muthee grew up in the slums of Nairobi and witnessed her brother being murdered during Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence.
Manners went on to work for nearly 30 years as a journalist. “I spent my whole career angling to get back to Kenya,” he said. It was on assignment in Kenya that Manners and his friend Mike Boit, one of the country’s most well-known athletes, hatched a plan to help a few Kenyan runners win scholarships to top American schools. Boit had attended Eastern New Mexico University on a track scholarship, and he and Manners believed that coaches at elite U.S. colleges might be receptive to recruiting Kenyan athletes.
Initially, KenSAP’s recruits came from Kenya’s Rift Valley Province, where the Kalenjin tribe is renowned for producing many of the world’s fastest distance runners. Boit, relying on his stature as a national figure, went door-to-door asking school principals to recommend top students. The first year, after Boit persuaded six students to take part in the experiment, Manners flew to Kenya to lead an intensive five-week college-prep course. His only relevant experience was having guided his daughters through the college-application process. He brought along a few S.A.T. study guides, drilled the students in vocabulary and test-taking strategies, and helped them with the admissions process. Of those first six students, five were accepted to competitive U.S. colleges with full financial aid. Three got into Harvard. “We couldn’t believe it,” said Manners.
“Their idea seems obvious now, sitting here,” said Robin Worth, Harvard’s director of international admissions. In fact, the challenge of recruiting African students from indigenous schools had long frustrated Worth. In the early 2000s, on sabbatical from Harvard, she spent a year volunteering as a teacher in rural Ethiopia. “I came to love the African continent, saw all the promise that was there, and realized that U.S. colleges had no inroads there to identify talent,” she said. Back then, there were almost no Africans at U.S. schools. The few who attended were, overwhelmingly, wealthy graduates of private, international high schools in their capital cities. In Zimbabwe, in 1999, an American named Rebecca Zeigler Mano had started the United States Student Achievers Program (USAP) to identify and steer high-achieving, low-income African students to the U.S. But USAP was a drop in the ocean as far as admissions officers were concerned. When Worth learned what Manners and Boit were doing, she responded enthusiastically. “I could see that we needed more ways to get these talented kids in the pipeline, or at least on the radar,” she said.
“I came to love the African continent, saw all the promise that was there, and realized that U.S. colleges had no inroads there to identify talent.”
Huthefa was back home in Moyale when he got the call from KenSAP letting him know he had been accepted. “Thank you!” he shouted. “Thank you!” He threw his hands up in the air jubilantly. Then he wept. “This was my only hope,” he said.
A few months earlier, his father, Abdullahi Maalim Abdirahman, had told him that attending university was a waste of money. “You’re a grown man now,” Abdullahi scoffed. “You are able to work. There is no need for a university education.” But now that Huthefa was destined for the land of abundance, his parents saw things differently. “Allah has opened a door for you,” his mother told him. “You must pass through.” His father would sell a cow to buy Huthefa a laptop.
Huthefa didn’t know anyone who had been to America. From what he’d seen on TV, however, he had a good idea of what the place was like. “All Americans are rich, extremely rich,” he said.
It was hard to prepare KenSAP’s students for life in the U.S., to make evident the disparity between the idealized America they imagined and the one they would confront. No matter how much Manners and his team tried to present a truthful, sober view, the reality always came as a shock. The students were never prepared for the alienation and loneliness and disappointment that would inevitably come. They couldn’t fathom how hard it would be.
“Allah has opened a door for you,” his mother told him. “You must pass through.” His father would sell a cow to buy Huthefa a laptop.
One afternoon last September, a KenSAP alumnus named Nephat Maritim came to Thika to speak to the newest class of recruits. The crowd murmured approval as Nephat described how he had gone from being an ordinary Kenyan with “no real prospects” to earning a B.A. from Harvard and an M.S. from Northeastern University. Now back in Nairobi, having spent a few years working in government relations for One Acre Fund, a not-for-profit that trains and provides loans to small-hold farmers in East Africa, he was thinking of running for public office in Kenya. What made America valuable, he told his audience, was the opportunity to develop your passions and potential without fear of failure. “You guys will realize one day that in America it doesn’t matter what field you study,” he said. At Harvard, he had completed a concentration in African and African-American studies, with a secondary in French and Francophone studies. “The real value-add for me was learning to develop frameworks and new ways of thinking about problems.”
“What was it like, living in America?” someone asked. “Well,” said Nephat, “when you are an international student from Kenya, you feel you are always walking in gum.”
He listed everyday slights and indignities he had faced, mostly unintended but still painful. He had been one of Kenya’s top students, but in America, he said, it was obvious his high-school education had been inadequate. Freshman year, he worked twice as hard as his American counterparts and slept half as much; he had to drop two courses to keep up. Despite Harvard’s financial aid, he was more aware of his poverty than ever before. “I was broke, completely broke,” he said. “Even the five dollars to attend a party on campus was not affordable.” He was homesick. And the food! He longed for ugali and other Kenyan staples. “At no point in my life until I went to America,” he said, “had I eaten raw spinach with balsamic vinegar.”
“I was broke, completely broke. Even the five dollars to attend a party on campus was not affordable.”
In the summer before her freshman year at Brown University, Harriet Muutu felt she might burst with anticipation. Fearing that no one in Providence, Rhode Island, would understand African hairstyles, she planned to have her braids re-done at her neighborhood beauty salon before leaving for America. She still needed a suitcase. (No one in her family had flown on an airplane.) And she was scrounging to find the money for the vaccines required for her trip (measles, meningococcal, hepatitis B). She wasn’t worried about academics: in 2017, on Kenya’s secondary-school exam, she ranked fifth in the nation.
Harriet was tiny, barely five feet tall, with cornrows that almost reached her waist, and she radiated positive energy. In the letter of recommendation from KenSAP that accompanied her college application, John Manners described her as “an indefatigably upbeat young woman with an infectiously positive attitude and an innocent, all-encompassing curiosity.” She grew up in Dandora, a sprawling dumpsite and one of Nairobi’s most dangerous slums. “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” she liked to say.
Her parents had no doubts that Harriet faced a bright future. “She is a God-fearing child,” said her mother, Irene. “Even in that place where she is going, God has prepared for her.” It was teatime and, in the family’s small, tidy living room, Irene served bread-and-butter sandwiches and a thermos of chai. Nailed to the otherwise bare walls was a poster of Jesus with outstretched palms. “God bless her that she finishes her education, and God bless her that she gets a job,” said Irene, looking at Harriet, who was smiling. “In that way, she will lend a helping hand to her siblings and we will get a house. That is our greatest desire.”
As soon as Harriet arrived at Brown University, in September 2019, her excitement dissolved into anxiety. She had finished unpacking her few belongings when her roommate arrived with a minivan full of stuff, including decorative lights, posters, a mini-fridge, a plush carpet, throw pillows, and a blue-and-white comforter that, to Harriet, seemed uncommonly luxurious. Her roommate was lovely—everyone on campus was nice—but Harriet struggled to fit in. American speech patterns and colloquialisms confounded her. Everyone spoke so quickly! The banter of cultural references that presumed a familiarity with Billie Eilish, Game of Thrones, Kwik-E-Mart, and pumpkin-spice latte puzzled her. She dreaded the campus’s so-called icebreaker activities, which seemed designed to make her look stupid. “Which do you like better,” she was asked, “Popeyes or Chick-fil-A?” Encouraged to attend Brown’s all-campus dance party, “A Night on College Hill,” she showed up in old running shoes and jeans, only to find that everyone else was wearing a dress or necktie. From the dance floor, her roommate waved. Harriet slipped back to her dorm room. “I don’t feel I am clicking with anyone,” she said.
As soon as Harriet arrived at Brown University, in September 2019, her excitement dissolved into anxiety.
In her engineering class, Harriet was humbled by the other students, many of whom had come out of New England prep schools and attended intensive summer STEM academies. They were so confident and nonchalant; they oozed privilege. “I thought because it was an introductory course, we would all be at the same level,” she said. “But at my high school, I didn’t even have a computer.” It was hard not to be intimidated. “Americans are spontaneous,” she said. “The professor hasn’t finished asking the question, and their hands are already up. It’s a skill they have learned.” In Kenya, students rarely spoke in class. “I can’t say I don’t understand what’s going on. It’s just that I have my own pace of learning,” she said. “When I am asked to speak, I feel I need to create a paragraph in my head before I open my mouth.”
By the end of her first term at Brown, Harriet was tormented by a fear of failure, which she kept hidden from her family. “Everyone back home thinks America is the land of milk and honey,” she said. “If you are not prospering, you are doing something wrong.”
Back in Kenya, KenSAP’s recruits were drafting their application essays and cramming for the S.A.T. On their weekly practice S.A.T.’s they were doing better and better: about half the class was now scoring at least 1,400 out of 1,600. Manners worried about the weaker students. “I’m apprehensive,” he said. “They’re not progressing on the S.A.T. as much as we’d hoped. Every year at this time I think, This will be the year we don’t get everyone in.”
More than an S.A.T. prep course, KenSAP is a 15-week crash course on the American canon. The students watch The Godfather (“Because they can’t not watch The Godfather,” said Manners) and Casablanca, read To Kill a Mockingbird, and move through a highlight reel of American history. “What is the difference between the Constitution and legislation?,” Manners asked, unpacking Lyndon Johnson’s voting-rights speech of 1965. “Of course, Americans will know that the Voting Rights Act followed this speech—you guys don’t know that.” Discussing Winston Churchill’s 1938 speech “The Lights Are Going Out,” Manners noted the reference to “a purely Spanish quarrel”: “Do any of you know what was going on in Spain at that time? This is pretty obscure information, in Kenya at least.”
Manners and his small team—KenSAP’s co–executive director Alan Davidson and the program manager, Connor Cobb—began matching students with colleges. The students shared similar backgrounds and economic circumstances, but those who had graduated from Kenya’s better high schools had developed the skills and poise that made it more likely that they would succeed at an elite American college. Even if they didn’t get their first choice, they would likely be accepted by another good school with deep pockets. What worried Manners and Davidson were students like Huthefa, some of whom hadn’t cracked 1,200 on practice S.A.T.’s. They were “doubly disadvantaged,” to quote sociologist Anthony Jack, burdened by poverty and by the shoddy education they received at their underfunded public schools. They were also the students with the most to gain from KenSAP.
Huthefa was intrigued by Carleton, a small liberal-arts college in Minnesota, partly because Minneapolis–St. Paul is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. He was also looking at Trinity, Davidson, and Middlebury. “He should definitely go to a small school,” said Manners. “He’d be swamped at an Ivy.”
Alan Davidson wondered if they weren’t underestimating Huthefa. He lagged behind KenSAP’s top students, but he had made more progress than anyone on the practice S.A.T.’s. He was a natural leader. While any selective U.S. college would offer Huthefa a big leg up, Davidson knew that, for the very poor kids, there were clear advantages to an Ivy League school. The data showed that the more selective the school, the more likely a low-income student would be set on a trajectory of social and economic mobility.
“I think Huthefa could do well anywhere,” Davidson said one afternoon. “But I’m thinking Harvard. If he makes it to 1,400, it might be worth taking the risk.”
Davidson joined KenSAP in 2016. Whereas Manners ran KenSAP by the seat of his pants, Davidson favored a more disciplined approach that reflected his training as a lawyer. He introduced a formal budget, started a career-development program for KenSAP alumni, recruited a bigger team of interns to work as instructors, and diversified KenSAP’s donor base. He spent a lot of time thinking about how to help end the inequality and injustice that made programs such as KenSAP necessary. “When I was being interviewed for this job, I told the board, ‘You can send e-mails out to your donors bragging about how many schools you got the students into—but what counts is what comes next, after they graduate from college,’” he said.
Davidson was an ultra-marathon runner—in July, he’d completed the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Race—and he viewed his work at KenSAP not unlike a long-distance event. “I’m coming at this from an impact angle,” he said. “If Huthefa went to Harvard, even if he got B’s and C’s, he’d make something out of it. In the long run, it could really have an impact on his community. It could change his part of Kenya. Huthefa going to Harvard will have an exponentially greater impact than if a rich New York City kid goes to Harvard or even if a kid from Nairobi goes to Harvard.”
Like Davidson, John Manners was an idealist, but his idealism was tempered by age and experience. After devoting 15 years to cultivating relationships with college admissions officers and convincing them to trust him, he wasn’t eager to take a risk that might undermine KenSAP’s reputation. He was less sanguine about Huthefa’s chances for Harvard. “Alan believes we can work magic,” he said. “But I’m more familiar with the terrain.”
“Huthefa going to Harvard will have an exponentially greater impact than if a rich New York City kid goes to Harvard.”
The disagreement was made moot on October 18, when the S.A.T. results were announced. Huthefa had scored 1,280; Harvard was out of the question. He would apply to Middlebury, in the early-decision round. With a 16 percent acceptance rate and an average S.A.T. score of 1,400, Middlebury, too, was a reach for Huthefa. On the other hand, Manners had a long-standing relationship with the school. Middlebury had accepted nine KenSAP students, all of whom had done well. As he sat down to write his letter of recommendation, Manners felt confident that Middlebury would see past Huthefa’s S.A.T. score. “In our minds,” he wrote, “a student who has scored this well on the K.C.S.E. from this background has no provable ceiling on their abilities … ”
On December 9, Huthefa was leaving evening prayers at the mosque in Moyale when a message from Middlebury’s director of admissions popped up on his phone: “Welcome to the Class of 2024!” Huthefa sprinted home through the back streets of Moyale. “I am going to America!” he shouted as he burst through the door.
Of the 21 KenSAP students who applied in the early-decision round, 17 were admitted with full financial aid. Alphania Muthee, the student whose brother was murdered during Kenya’s post-election violence, was accepted at Harvard. Faith Ndanu, who had struggled to escape her abusive stepfather, was going to Smith College. A few months later, the remaining four students were accepted in the regular-decision round.
This past May, Harriet completed her freshman year at Brown. It hadn’t been easy. She had never worked harder, but she was pleased with the results. “Bittersweet,” she called it. She felt like herself again.
“I wish I had known it would be overwhelming—that it is supposed to be overwhelming,” she said. “You think being away from your home, from the only place you’ve known all your life, from the people you’ve known all your life, from the smells, the food, the language—you think you’re going to be O.K., but, honey, you’re not going to be O.K. I wish I had known that. I would tell myself it’s O.K. to go through this process. But you will get through to the other side and it will be O.K.”
Harriet was one of a small number of mostly international students who had stayed on when Brown’s campus shut down in response to the coronavirus. She had nowhere else to go. But that time alone, watching the flowers emerge from the dead land as winter gave way to spring, gave her the space she needed to process her experience in America. She felt ready for sophomore year.
She spent the summer at Brown studying linear algebra and reading a stack of books. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was first on her list. When the school year re-started, she would serve as a minority peer counselor, a paid position mentoring first-year students of color. And as the newly elected treasurer of the African Students Association, she would work with the Black Student Union to demand that Brown’s curriculum include more diverse perspectives. She was thinking of pursuing a joint concentration in computer science and economics.
Meanwhile, back in Kenya, Huthefa was trying to practice patience. He wouldn’t be starting college in September, after all; at best, if coronavirus-related travel restrictions were lifted, he hoped to start his freshman year at Middlebury in January 2021. Confined for the summer to cramped quarters in Moyale with multiple generations of his family, Huthefa watched American news on his phone, unnerved by the discordant images of smoldering storefronts and protesters in handcuffs, the blurred videos of police beating Black men.
As a Somali, Huthefa had experienced institutionalized racism. On a visit to Nairobi, he was detained by police and charged with “suspicious behavior,” though he’d been doing nothing more than sightseeing. They stank of alcohol, the cops who handcuffed him; they took away his phone, accused him of terrorism, locked him in a filthy prison cell, and demanded a bribe of 50,000 Kenyan shillings. But that was Kenya. How could something like that happen in America? Listening to The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah decry the “looting of Black bodies” by American police, Huthefa wondered if he had misjudged the U.S.
Huthefa watched American news on his phone, unnerved by the blurred videos of police beating Black men.
“I am worried I am going someplace where people see me as a criminal, where I will be hanging by a thread,” he said. “Knowing that Middlebury is not even 5 percent Black, that is my biggest fear.”
Still, Huthefa couldn’t help but feel that only in America would he become the person he wanted to be. “My life has always been regulated,” he said. “Here, if I shave my hair, I am deemed irresponsible or abnormal or rotten. Here, it is sinful to go on a date. There are guidelines about everything. But in America, there will be open-mindedness; I will decide how I want to live.”
Nina Munk, a 2020–21 Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, is a journalist and the author of several books, most recently The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty