People Are Wealth


Kennedy “Mugo” Mutothori Mugo '12 delivers his speech.

Listen to Mugo's Speech

“Mutothori, uguiree kee igeranio iria mwikire umuthe?” My father would bark at me after every continuous assessment test completed in school. The phrase, translated from Gikuyu (my language) to English, means: “What grade were you awarded in the exams you just did?” Discussion about grades was the only major interaction I got with my father, who was an extremely busy man. He was rarely seen, and when at home he sat alone, in seclusion, watching political news or making calls about business. I realized early in my life, around the 3rd grade, that my alone time with him would be when he was checking my grades—the grades determined how jovial the session would be—and so I made sure I got good grades so I could get to talk about other things other than grades.

Once my father was satisfied I had done well, in the report card presented to him (where “doing well” meant topping the class and nothing less), he would then hand me over to my 106-year-old grandmother, “shosho,” who spoke no English (just like my father) and therefore required me to interpret every detail written on the piece of paper, as writing was completely foreign to her way of expression and view of the world.  She would grab the piece of paper with her wrinkly arm and then proceed to ask me a couple of questions, that went in this order: “Did you perform well in the exam and did you give it your all? Did you like the subject matter involved?”

After answering the questions to her satisfaction, she would then proceed to spit on my exam paper (or transcript) and pat it on my head repetitively for a minute or so. This whole experience was annoying to me when I was younger, especially because I hated to be spat on, not by just my grandmother, but by anyone. In school, anyone spitting on me would have easily started a brawl. I often complained to my mother, but she would always explain to me that this was a blessing ritual—that very few people were fortunate to receive (in this day and age)—and I should count myself lucky to be receiving it.

As I got older, I began to dislike these sessions more and more, because I felt that my grandmother’s actions were too traditional (even archaic), and had no space in the world that I lived in, in Nairobi. I also thought that my father did not have enough of an education to either understand what I studied in school or give me guidance. The education I was receiving was quickly alienating me from the two people I had been drawn to all my life. These two people, my father and grandmother, had achieved the least education in my family at the time—with my father having just attained an 8th grade certificate and my grandmother having never stepped foot in school—but they were the most concerned about my education and how well I performed. These two pushed me to limits I never thought possible, because it seemed they were only happy with me when I was only doing well in school—so I made them happy.

What I did not know, and still don’t know, is whether they saw a change in my demeanor towards them with every progression I made up the academic ladder. I felt smarter and even better than they were on some days, especially my father who, on numerous occasions, embarrassed me when my friends (or their parents) spoke to him in English and he could not respond.

So why I’m I telling you this story today? It is because I am a product of both “modernity” and “tradition.” My grandmother must have taken the risk of losing me for her belief in humanity—she must have seen me as some sought of cultural ambassador who would show that humanity is the same regardless of geographic location. In retrospect, I have come to appreciate the cultural wealth that my grandmother possessed and shared with me as it gave me the tools to be successful in today's diverse world that requires diverse ways of thinking to solve the problems that plague our times. She understood that diversity is strength.

I have come to realize that humanity is the same the world over, after my four-year stay with this pool of students. My friends have come from all corners of the earth and interacting with them is no different from the way I interacted with people from home. The rule book that my grandmother recited to me ad nauseum, making me remember it by heart, is more relevant today than ever. One, she always stressed the value of every human being: “People are wealth,” she said. Two, “Always remember to thank those who help you,” she said. Three, "If you wrong anyone, an apology costs nothing." This last one was her favorite.

I have been able to apply these rules in a different country—in the US, here at Middlebury—with magical results. The students (and people) at Middlebury have been such a blessing and a resource, which at times I felt that they were the most memorable part of Middlebury I will carry with me many years after I have forgotten all that I learned in class.

My experience out of class has been as valuable as my classroom education. The rugby pitch has been a place where I have made some lifelong bonds. My teammates and I have brought success to the Middlebury rugby program and moved it to the Division I level this past season. I attribute the success to the diversity of the team that brings strengths from all parts of the globe. That being said, though, we have had our fair share of losses, especially this year in Division I where we have competed with schools with student-bodies bigger than ours and with more resources. I have come to realize that life, just like rugby, throws massive losses at you that could potentially end you and the best thing you can do for yourself is to get up and get ready for the next game, because victory is sweeter with a few losses under your belt. A loss is victory turned inside out.

This was the mentality we had, at the beginning of the year, when I, along with 11 of my fellow students, undertook the gargantuan task of fundraising to build a library in Huruma slum, Nairobi, for a school that I helped co-found before coming to Middlebury. We needed $25,000, a figure that most thought impossible to fundraise. But, my faith in humanity was rewarded when my project team was able to reach our fundraising goal, through the support of the Middlebury community, and a project for peace award, a matched grant from President Liebowitz’s office to help us reach our goal. (Thank you, President Liebowitz!) I am happy to announce that my team of 12 will be going to Kenya this summer to do this project and also make a documentary about our experience there. I’m really looking forward to the learning experience.

It took me many years to understand what drove my father and my grandmother in their act of spearheading my education, and taking the risk of transforming me into a totally different person who did not understand them. Today I know why they made that decision. They had more faith in humanity than most people did. When I made the decision to come to Middlebury they were both dead, but I am sure they were as proud of me (if not more) as when I brought home my transcripts filled with the results of my schooling, when I was younger.

I can feel their presence here today. My grandmother would want me to read rule one and two from her golden rulebook and I will do just that: Thank you to all the donors here for investing in people…people are wealth.

And a special thank you to Carolyn and Greg Wheeler for investing in me. I still remember that great July 4th weekend, last summer, when you invited me to your home and put together that delicious meal that made me feel at home and loved far from home. To me, you are the best donors in the house today.