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When Serena came calling

MATOONI, November 22  — Serena Williams wiggled her hips in tandem to the vernacular music that vibrated across the small dusty school which bears her name in one of Kenya’s most arid and impoverished regions.

As the excited children belted out ballads praising their American benefactor, Williams could not help but keep smiling.

The tiny Matooni village was in carnival mood as fervent residents celebrated the opening of the school and the tennis star was moved by the welcome she received. People defied the scorching sun to walk for tens of kilometres to get to the venue cheering enthusiastically at the chants of ‘Yes we can.’

 “I am so honoured and feel so special to come out here and see all people out here and excited and happy. This is the best achievement I think have done in my life and am so excited to be a part of this. It’s a long time initiative for me and I think it’s the first of many visits I will definitely be back,” she said.

The American tennis star was on the second and final leg of an African charity mission. Initially, she was in South Africa, where she opened a new secondary school that she helped build and donated computers.

The mixed gender school, perched on a hilly slope, about 148 kilometres southeast of the capital Nairobi, is situated in an area that has the highest school drop-out rate in the country.

Because the school — accepting its first batch of secondary students in 2009 — is not easily accessed by road, worsened by recent heavy rains, Serena and her entourage were flown there by three helicopters.

Donning a black tracksuit, the 28-year-old star arrived in the first chopper accompanied by Kenyan government officials, including Education Minister Professor Sam Ongeri.

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They immediately inaugurated the school and took students through the maiden computer and internet lessons.

Due to lack of electricity, the computers were powered by solar panels but Serena promised that she would work with the government to bring electricity as well as boost educational standards.

Serena, accompanied by her mother and younger sister, pledged to open more schools for poor children, saying it was the finest achievement of her life.

“I am honoured to have opened a school named me and hopefully it will be the first of many that we can open in Kenya and bring education close to children in hardship areas. Barrack Obama went from a child in a farm to president of the United States so it’s amazing how much one can achieve through education,” she said.

"It is the best achievement that I have done in my life," Serena added.
The school’s headmaster was rightly proud.

"This lady has done a great thing for, not only our school, but the whole location," said Serena Williams Secondary School headmaster Simon Mbuvi.

"Due to geographical factors, the school has seen little growth since it was started in 1952. But through her assistance, we have been able to finish building the secondary school in just under one month ready for the intake next year," Mbuvi added.

The school which was built through a partnership between Hewlett Packard, Build African School will open its doors for the first time in January 2009.
Build African School founder Patrick O’Sullivan said; “My goal remains to take education to the world. I want people who have left the continent to be successful to come back and help the continents.”

With the introduction of free and affordable primary and secondary education in 2002, Kenya faces a crisis of managing the transitional process due to limited facilities and funds.

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The education sector cannot sustain the surge in enrolment of children leaving primary to join secondary schools because of the physical structures.

"We need more secondary schools," said Ongeri while thanking his American guest for her gesture.

“We need more secondary schools to accommodate the young boys and girls. Last year we had 8.2 million children in primary school and they need secondary schools to absorb them and building this type of school will go along way in helping them achieve that,” he observed.

The following day, Serena was at Sadili Oval where she conducted a tennis clinic for children. Young girls were beside themselves as they got a chance to hit the ball against the tennis star.

“Serena also had words of advice for young children who want to take up the sport.

“One has to be dedicated and parents play a major role. I wouldn’t have done this without my mother and father and they played a major role in this so parents must encourage their young ones.”

She should know. Born in Michigan, her parents moved to Crompton whne they wwere young and her father had decided that one of he rchildren would become a tennis Star.

Serena won her first tournament at age four and a half and by age 10, she had entered 49 tournaments winning 46 of them. She became a professional in September 1995 at the age of 14.

Because of her age, she had to participate in non-WTA events at first and her first professional event was the tournament in Quebec City, where she was ousted in less than an hour of play.

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In 1999, she women her first grand slam beating Martina Hingis to become the lowest seed ever to win the US Open.

The rest as they say, is history.


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