Were it not for Peter Tabichi, the world would never have heard of Pwani village. Or of Keriko Mixed Day Secondary School where he teaches maths and physics. Last year, Tabichi beat 10,000 nominees to win the $1 million of the Global Teacher’s Prize. He did that by giving himself (time and talent to his students) and 80 percent of his salary to the impoverished people of Pwani Village, that sits in the semi-arid part of Rift Valley. Over and above helping his students with school work and food-production projects to support the disabled, he also started peace clubs in the wake of the post-election violence that helped foster peace in the community. Peter, a Franciscan friar, spoke to JACKSON BIKO.
What’s that song on your playback ringtone?
I think it’s called “Okoa Moyo Wangu”, a Catholic liturgical song. I’ve had it for five years now. I was born in a family of believers and I have walked in faith since my childhood. This song has given me strength when times were hard. We all have strength and weakness and sometimes our weaknesses seem like they will overwhelm us and we have to lean on the divine...I hope I’m not preaching... (Chuckles)
Not at all, not at all. I’m curious; you have been on this journey of faith for years. When was the last time you felt that God disappointed you?
There are and will always be disappointments but you don’t say it’s God that’s disappointed you. (Chuckles) There have been disappointments, yes, but that’s not the time to give up because God is faithful. In times of disappointments, I turn back to him and pray. I never surrender.
How has your life changed since you won this award that came with a windfall and limelight? How has it changed you?
(Pause) Look, I don’t like talking about myself in that regard because this award was not for me but for all the students and teachers that I have worked with and continue to work with.
I understand, but how does something like this change one’s life, not only materially but you know, as a human being?
(Pause) Well. (Pause) It’s been a privilege and I thank God. In terms of attention, I have had so much of that- people recognise me, they come to me expecting to see a change, but I try to remind them I’m still the same person. I don’t have bodyguards, I don’t drive expensive cars, I still walk the streets and do the things that I have always loved. And they are shocked because people expect me to change.
What I’m sure about is that I’m not any special than many of the teachers and people doing amazing work for their communities, I have just been allowed to inspire others and do more for them.
How have you managed to stay grounded and not swept off your feet by fortune and fame?
I haven’t changed the people around me. I still maintain the same circle of friends and family, I don’t know if this keeps me grounded.
My interactions with them reminds me of who I am. That I’m still the same person; a teacher. I’m not god. I’ve also been reading a lot about people who have won the same achievements before. I read about how they handled it; the ones that handled it well and those that didn’t. And I learn from them.
What kind of difficulty have you found in this post-award journey?
The attention has been challenging. I find joy in doing, or helping in private. I have not done the things I have done to be recognised and applauded, I have done them because they are important.
Helping people in need has always reminded me of my previous challenges when no one was seeing me but I was suffering. When you help someone you are saying I’m seeing you.
One weakness though is giving talks before people, being before cameras, people reading about me, I find it so hard. I have been used to doing more and talking less. Thankfully, I have resorted to prayer during this time of attention and media.
Are you married?
No, I’m part of the religious brotherhood and in our way of life, we don’t marry.
You serve God until you die?
Everybody is serving God. (Laughs) It’s a choice and nobody is serving God more than the other. There are many ways of serving God and different people serve God in different ways. You, for instance, a writer, are serving God with your words. God created everybody for a reason and a purpose.
We all serve him in different capacities.
So you have made peace with ever not having children...
Yes, and that’s OK. For me, it’s a personal choice. God has given me peace.
You are 38 years old, still young. How do you tame the cravings of your flesh?
(Laughs) I can’t lie that I don’t have those feelings, I would be a hypocrite. I face those challenges at times but what is important is how you deal with them. I derive energy in challenges and in staying on the path I have chosen.
I believe that behind every struggle is an opportunity. Thankfully, we always have a choice between right and wrong.
Do you ever wonder why it’s you that won this award out of all other people doing amazing work like you are?
I will admit that it was a surprise. But I understand that this achievement, like I mentioned, isn’t mine alone. It’s an achievement of the community, of the teachers and it’s a privilege to be able to inspire others.
I know me winning has meaning, it wasn’t an accident. I also know I’m not the best and that there is a bigger message that is bigger than me, and individual. I have been given a voice to speak on behalf of teachers doing amazing work in the small villages.