Every morning, Donald Smith, an 83-year-old American, reports to his small red carpeted corner office within Daystar University’s administration block at Athi River - advising students who have sought his help.
The octogenarian spends the rest of his day overseeing different aspects of the university’s activities, mentoring students and guest lecturing in some of the classes.
Thousands of Daystar students go about their daily routine passing the tall , elderly but smartly dressed man in the corridors, not knowing who he is.
Smith and his wife, Faye, are the founders of Daystar University – Kenya’s first private university that was born on the couple’s verandah and living room in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo.
The institution started off with 35 students who the Smiths trained in communication before officially moving to Kenya in 1972 as the environment in the southern African state became hostile with the fight for independence.
To date, more than 5,000 graduates have gone through the university, having been trained in various fields and disciplines at Nairobi’s Valley Road, Mombasa and Athi River campuses.
Return to Kenya
After running the university for more than 15 years, Smith handed over the leadership mantle to the first Kenyan in 1979, and stayed on for two years before moving back to the United States.
But the octogenarian recently returned to Kenya and Daystar, which he says is the passion of his life.
“We have not been totally out of touch, but have always come to visit in the 30 years we have been away,” said Smith in an interview.
Athi River, the place he dreaded for years is now his home and he loves it. “I have never imagined living close to wildlife, but here I interact with them every day” he says. “There is a place next to where we live, where I go, when it rains, to check which animal has passed by.
Recently, I found a leopard’s footprint then a cheetah’s.” Smith’s detour to the college he founded nearly 50 years ago was by invitation from the board.
“It was not an easy decision to make, but I am glad to be back and living closer to my daughter, Julisa Rowe, who lectures music and drama at the university,” says Smith.
Julisa, who was educated in Kenya, is also an actress and script writer for the television show “Briefcase” and lives with her husband, Bill Rowe, and their two children in Nairobi.
Smith also believes his son, Vance Smith, a Lenana School alumnus, will be back soon. He says Vance, a professor at Princeton University in the US, was happy with his parents’ decision to return to Kenya.
“This is home for us and we know he too will be back also,” he says. The university management says it was keen on Smith’s return and went all out to make him comfortable, including arranging for a big plush office. However, Smith, a modest man, opted for something small and sedate.
“We prepared a large office for him, but he declined insisting that he wanted to be close to the students,” says Rosemary Kibuthu, a lecturer and alumnus of the university.
Rosemary first met the Smiths in the early 1980s when she was a student pursuing her second degree and has since grown fond of them, often referring to them as mum and dad.
The Smiths’ have spent a large fraction of their lives doing missionary work – having dedicated their lives in 1950.
“Before we were married we both agreed that we were going to commit our lives to missionary work in other parts of the world, but neither of us knew where,” he says.
In 1952, the couple moved to Africa to a school in Zululand that was looking for teachers. It fit them perfectly. From the onset, they were convinced that South Africa was the place to be, but apartheid stood in the way.
“It was unacceptable to us that we taught African students, but had to live in an exclusive white area,” says Smith. After three and a half years, the government took over all mission schools claiming that the missionaries were preparing Africans for a life that the Apartheid government did not allow.
The government introduced Bantu Education for Africans, which Mr Smith describes as one that ‘prepared them to be servants and play a subordinate role to the whites.’
The couple was invited to continue teaching at the government school, but declined because of their opposition to apartheid.
They were then given a chance to start a publishing house in Johannesburg, which produced a monthly Christian Magazine titled “Our Africa”.
Instead of bringing in qualified people from outside South Africa, the couple opted to train 10 friends, from the missionary school, who had agreed to join them in Johannesburg.
“All the work at the magazine was done by staff that had no experience; I had worked on a daily newspaper so the group assumed that made me qualified. I think we pulled it off despite all our ignorance and inexperience and the magazine succeeded.”
The magazine soon became the fourth largest publication in circulation in Africa, reaching as far as Khartoum, Sudan. Its sponsors were, however, not happy that the publication was being run by Africans.
At the time, African countries were gaining independence and the Apartheid government did not want people to know about its policies.
Things got worse one early morning when the managing editor, Motsoko Pheko, was arrested and charged with communism under the Suppression of Communism Act, of 1950. The Smiths contested his arrest and he was released.
Fearing a clash with the law, the sponsors decided to shut down the publication forcing the Smiths to move to nearby Zimbabwe, on the invitation of friends.
“It was difficult at that time because from having a successful publishing house we had nothing to move North and to start life all over again.”
On arriving in Zimbabwe, the couple was offered a job at Rhodesia Christian Press.
Smith says he wanted to continue publishing because journalism is something he always enjoyed and offered them an opportunity to further their missionary work.
Based in Bulawayo, the Smiths once again trained a new workforce and turned the publication into a successful enterprise in a couple of years.
It was the numerous requests that Smith got to train people around Zimbabwe and the travelling involved that saw his wife and two children suggest that he establishes a central point from where to train.
In 1966, Smith began training students from his house as he pursued a second Masters degree and PhD at the University of Oregon in the US – giving birth to Daystar University.
That decision divided the publishing house into two, the publishing arm run by Pheko in Zambia and the training centre by the Smiths in Harare.
The couple used their verandah and living room as classrooms and the guest cottage for accommodation before renting space nearby, where they established the first international media institute.
In 1969, the institute enrolled 35 students from 20 nations for an intensive six weeks graduate credit in collaboration with Wheaton College in the USA.
In 1971, the college had expanded with a large student population that needed a larger facility. It was at this point that the couple decided to move to the East establishing what would become Daystar University.
“Truly the beginning of Daystar University was in 1971. This was the first time we were able to give credits for the studies done with us and then it just kept growing from that point,” says Smith.
In 1972, most countries had imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe making it hard for foreign students enroll at the college. The Smiths opted for Kenya and two years later moved Daystar Communication College, as it was known then, to Nairobi.
Two years later, Daystar started offering fully accredited Bachelors and Master’s degree courses in collaboration with Messiah College in Philadelphia, US.
Smith is pleasantly surprised that what started 46 years ago as a simple training institution has grown into one of the leading universities in East Africa, offering more than 58 degree programmes.
Before he left for the US, the Smiths had left the institution in the hands of Prof. Stephen Talitwala, Dr James Mageria and Dr James Kamunge among others.
“I believe we gave a vision, but they took that vision and expanded to build a university on the foundation that we had established,” he says.