Kirimania Murithi's three mothers traveled halfway around the world on their first airplane trip to attend his MIT Commencement last Friday.
Dressed in traditional Maasai tribal finery, Elizabeth Njiru, Kanugu Mbaya and Faith Anampiu beamed with pride as Mr. Murithi marched across the stage to receive the SB and MEng degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. Ms. Njiru is his birth mother, Ms. Mbaya is the midwife who delivered him and Ms. Anampiu provided a home for him when he attended the Alliance High School in Nairobi, which accepts only Kenya's most gifted students.
"I call them all mother," said Mr. Murithi. "They are all very special to me."
The Kenyans' trip to the United States was made possible by Jean Snyder of the Back Bay, Mr. Murithi's American host mother, who requested shortly before she died in 1998 that funds be set aside for the women to attend his graduation. Her husband, Arthur, a retired banker, made sure her wish came true.
Mr. Murithi, who has six siblings, had no conception of the United States or MIT before he came here. A bright child, he traveled from his home in a remote area in Kenya's Rift Valley 15 miles from the village of Ntrukuma to attend a one-room primary school in Nanyuki. His father and his older brother are cowherds roaming the valley with their animals seeking water and land for grazing. There are no telephones, electricity or other modern conveniences in the area.
The first person in his family to attend school and the first to wear shoes, Mr. Murithi excelled academically, scoring the highest grades in the Laikipia district. That made him eligible to attend the elite Alliance High School.
The 14-year-old boy and his father made the trip to Nairobi to arrange for living quarters. After two days of futile efforts, they found themselves in a kiosk run by Ms. Anampiu. She noticed that the father seemed agitated and inquired about the problem. He explained that his son would have to return to the Rift Valley with him unless they found suitable quarters. Speaking Swahili, she said, "That's not a problem. He can stay with me."
Mr. Murithi, a country boy in the big city, his English limited, devoted himself zealously to his studies. When he graduated four years later, he was the top student in the entire nation of 30 million residents. "No one ever got the marks I did," Mr. Murithi recalled proudly.
The story was irresistible: he was herding cows with his father back home when the news of his academic achievement broke and the newspapers featured the story prominently, with photographs.
After reading about him in the paper, a woman in the US embassy urged Mr. Murithi to apply to top colleges in this country, includingHarvard and MIT. Approximating his birth date to complete the applications ("we don't celebrate birthdays; people are struggling to survive"), he was accepted at all five schools to which he applied. When a US businessman visited to recruit him for his alma mater, hetold Mr. Murithi he attended Harvard only because he had not been accepted by MIT. "That made up my mind," said Mr. Murithi. "I was going to MIT."
He arrived at 77 Massachusetts Ave. in 1995 with two pairs of pants, a shirt, a T-shirt and no sense of what to expect. The food made him sick, the climate did not agree with him, he could not understand the professors, there were no other Kenyan students, the MBTA mystified him and the customs confused him.
"I had to deal with everything myself," he said. "The food really gave me trouble. I ate pizza and it took me three years before I could eat it again, I got so sick. I'd ask directions and nobody would pay attention. I had a heavy accent and people did not understand what I was trying to say. I got winter depression, pneumonia and bronchitis. I was struggling in school and I wanted to quit."
He was homesick and miserable and missed his family. He wanted to return to Kenya but did not want to disappoint his mother, who had supported his decision to come to the United States. He wrote to his sister describing his plight. "I said that it was too difficult, that it was killing me," he recalled. His sister wrote back: "Mother says you may come home if you wish." That relieved the pressure. "It was amazing," said Mr. Murithi. "That was all I had to hear. I had an option. I settled down. I started relating to the professors and my fellow students. I was recovering."
Dean Arnold Henderson Jr. helped him through his winter blues and stayed in touch during the entire six years. Kate Baty, coordinator of the Hosts to International Students program, introduced him to Betsy and David Draper of Beacon Hill and the Snyders, his host families, and provided support and a sympathetic ear. Betsy Draper, then MIT's Baptist chaplain, took him to the supermarket, bought him a backpack and taught him about Thanksgiving, Santa Claus and locked doors.
Mr. Murithi bought sweet potatoes and goat meat and began cooking at home. He acquired his first sweater and the appropriate student wardrobe. He did better in school and felt less lonesome. It paid off last Friday.
After graduation, Mr. Murithi plans to work for several years in the United States ("I've been poor forever; I want to make some money and help change some lives back home") before working toward a PhD, hopefully at MIT. Eventually, he intends to return to the Rift Valley as an educator and build an American-style ranch, using modern technology for irrigation. Following the family tradition, he hopes to raise cows.
"It's terrible for a man to live without cows," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 13, 2001.