University of Cambridge

Making the Impossible Possible

"I learned I was not, as most Africans believed, the victim of my circumstances but the master of them." – Legson Kayira

One of the things my Christian faith has taught me is that with God nothing is impossible. I live by 4 Ps – Prayers, Planning, Perseverance and Persistence. Hence one of the words that are not in my dictionary is 'impossible'. I seldom use it. Ditto words like providence, destiny and fate. Anything I want to do, I do it irrespective of any obstacles by using the 4 Ps.

To me, nothing is impossible if you have a clear goal and vision. The legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali, once said "Champions are not made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision."

Anytime I remember the story of the award-winning Malawian Writer, Legson Kayira, I am inspired. The facts of Kayira's early life are legendary: a Tumbuka born and educated in Nyasaland (now Malawi), he walked 3,200 kilometres to North Africa seeking opportunities for further education.

Like Martin Luther King Jnr., Legson had a dream. He wanted to be like his hero, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th American President, who had risen from poverty to become President, then fought tirelessly to help end slavery. He wanted to be like Booker T. Washington, the foremost black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who cast off the shackles of slavery to become a great American reformer and educator, giving hope and dignity to himself and to his race. Legson's dream spurred him on a journey fuelled by his determination to get an education.

Like these great role models, he wanted to serve mankind, to make a difference in the world. And to realise his goal, he needed a first-rate education. Legson knew the best place to get it was in America.

When he was 17 years old, he sought his parents' blessing to go and study in America. His illiterate parents did not know where America was but reluctantly gave their blessings.

His possessions were meagre: five-day supply of food, a Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, small axe for protection, and a blanket. Legson eagerly set out on the journey of his life. He was going to walk from his tribal village in Nyasaland, north across the wilderness of East Africa to Cairo, where he would board a ship to America to get a college education.

After five days of trekking across the rugged African terrain, Legson had covered only 25 miles. He was already out of food, his water was running out, and he had no money. To travel 2,975 miles more seemed impossible; yet to turn back was to give up and to resign to a life of poverty and ignorance. Legson turned to his two books, reading the familiar words that renewed his faith in himself and in his goal. He ploughed on.

By January 1960, fifteen months after he began his perilous journey, he had travelled nearly a thousand miles to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He was now growing stronger in body and wiser in the ways of survival. He remained in Kampala for six months, doing odd jobs and spending every spare moment in the library, reading voraciously.

In the library at Kampala, he came across an illustrated directory of American colleges. One illustration in particular caught his eye – the Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington. He wrote immediately to the school's Dean explaining his plight and requested for a scholarship. The Dean at Skagit was so impressed with Legson's determination that he not only granted him admission but also offered him a scholarship and a job that would pay his room and board.

Another piece of Legson's dream had fallen into place, yet more obstacles awaited him. Legson needed a passport and a visa, and to get a passport, he had to provide the government with a verified birth date. That's not all. To get a visa he needed the round-trip fare to the United States. Again, he picked up his pen and paper and wrote to the missionaries who had taught him since childhood. The missionaries then helped to push his passport through government channels. However, Legson still lacked the airfare required for a visa.

Undeterred, Legson continued his journey to Cairo believing he would somehow get the money he needed. Fortune smiled on him when, upon hearing his story, the students of Skagit Valley College, with the help of local citizens, $ sent 650 to Legson to cover his fare to America.

In December 1960, more than two years after his journey began; Legson Kayira arrived at Skagit Valley College. Carrying his two treasured books, he proudly passed through the towering entrance of the institution and began his studies.

But Legson Kayira did not stop once he graduated. Continuing his academic journey, he became a professor of Political Science at Cambridge University in England and a widely respected author. His first book was the autobiographical 'I Will Try' (1965), and he has written four novels: 'The Looming Shadow' (1968), 'Jingala' (1969), 'The Civil Servant' (1971), and 'The detainee '(1974).

Like his heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington, Legson Kayira rose above his humble beginning and forged his own destiny. He made a difference in the world and became a magnificent beacon whose light remains as a guide for others to follow.

Legson's story shows that with faith, determination, a dream and a vision, we can achieve anything in life and rise to the top.

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