Kenya: Meet Priscilla Nduku - the Kenyan Rising Talent in World Scrabble

Mpesa Foundation Academy student Priscilla Nduku prepares her scrabble cards at the school's auditorium on February 1, 2019.

Made 'in the image of God in his likeness' man is quite a complex creature with so many characteristics and needs, possibilities and limitations. You can view man in so many ways!

That's why over the centuries, so many Non-Profit organisations (NGOs) have been founded to meet the various human needs.

Apparently, no one had ever thought of any specific initiative to touch souls in greater need. But where would you find a person who is never in search of necessities sometimes in life?

This void has been filled in a marvellous way by Safaricom. The leading communications company, through their Mpesa Foundation spent about Sh3 billion to erect a state of the art, coeducational and residential high school offering the Kenyan national curriculum since 2016.

Driven by leadership, entrepreneurship, technology and innovation, this revolutionary project serves talented but economically disadvantaged students with demonstrated leadership potential.

Annually, the mixed boarding school - located in Kiambu County, admits a maximum of 200 students; two girls and boys from each of the 47 counties alongside six others from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) countries.

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With over 400 students in its current set-up, the academy, that was officially opened by president Uhuru Kenyatta in October 2018, does not only boast of first class academic facilities but also sports, arts and culture amenities - all for the service of the needy children.

Who doesn't know that work without play makes tom a dull boy?

A spacious indoor sports hall, outdoor facilities for athletics, hockey, swimming, squash, basketball, handball and volleyball, a music centre and a 500-seater auditorium complements the school's motto - Thinkers, Doers and Leaders!

Here, students are involved in sports programmes on a daily basis supported by a team of coaches. The school recently hosted a 19-nation Badminton tourney that ran from February 28 to March 2.

Seeing is believing! We set out a journey to this much-publicised school on a Thursday evening. From the Nairobi city centre, we arrive in Thika town about 30 minutes later thanks to our chauffeur's mastery of the busy Superhighway but, unsure of its location, we find ourselves in Thika town eyes gazing for a sign post that would direct us to the 100-acre academy.

Fortunately, we bump into the yellow-coloured school bus with the academy's name painted in black that guides us to our destination just like the biblical magi who were led by the star to baby Jesus.

After undergoing a tight security check by the vigilant guards at the glancing gate we find ourselves at the reception. On our left, it is a beehive of activity as students busy themselves on the pitches after a long day in class. A tall, pretty girl descends the stairs of the administration block.

"How are you young lady," I pose. "I am fine, everything is fine here," she responds before her teacher, Mr Anthony Maina Ngunjiri joins us.

"You are all welcome, are you the ones who had booked an interview with Priscilla Nduku, a form three student playing scrabble?" asks Maina.

To our surprise, she is the young lady staring at us with a glittering tablet in her hands. She had been waiting for us upstairs until she spotted the writer with a camera hanging on his shoulders and a notebook in his left hand.

"I will take you around the school before you settle down for a tête-à-tête with her," says Maina.

"I don't like physical games," notes the 14-year-old Priscilla as we set the stage for the interview.

For novices in this indoor sport, scrabble is a word board game where two to four players score points by placing tiles bearing a single letter onto a board divided into a 15 by 15 square cells.

GAINING POPULARITY

Invented by the Americans in the 1930s, the game has since been sold in 121 countries available in 29 languages.

So how did Priscilla - emanating from a humble background get attracted to this game of thinkers?

"I decided to play scrabble because I wanted to be mentally sharp. This game entails reading the scrabble dictionary a lot. It wasn't that easy in the beginning because we had to master those words in categories," discloses Nduku who joined the school in 2017.

"It's through frequent reading that you'll master the game to be able to beat the best."

"The other challenge I faced was criticism from my schoolmates who would say that scrabble players do not want physical games but want to scramble for food in the dining hall."

"My classmate, Hannah, really inspired me, she is a good scrabble player that she could beat me but I never gave up as I saw I was improving a lot."

Having started playing the game as a Form One, Nduku has featured in local tournaments, one she says gave her a niche in the discipline.

"If you are in top positions you are given a tough opponent making the competition stiff but the secret is to keep on living your dream."

Kenya prides itself in producing record-breaking world class athletes, the star-studded Harambee Stars for instance are bound to feature at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Egypt from June among many outdoor achievements saved in the rich archives of this nation.

But how many indoor games have brought medals recently? Probably few if not none! For Priscilla - an orphan, winning a gold medal in a world scrabble tournament will write off the life struggles that have never switched off her dreams.

"I want to play scrabble as far as at the university level and win medals in international competitions," adds Priscilla who is motivated by scrabble experts whenever they visit the school for inspirational speeches.

The major reason that pulled us towards chasing her for an interview was how she managed to beat veteran players at the world English-speaking scrabble championship held in Dubai in December last year.

"Priscilla did very well scoring 100 points and managed to beat several rounds because in international standards we went for 23 rounds and she managed to beat 13 rounds which was commendable being the first time at international level," her coach Anthony Maina says.

MASSIVE SUPPORT

"Despite facing veterans in the game from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Hong Kong, she did not shy off beating those who've been in the game for so long.

"Generally the trip was tremendous because it was the first time we were representing Kenya as a team in this junior championship. We've to thank the school for facilitating two kids and teachers to a tune of more than one million shillings.

"This shows how the academy is ready to give an impact to learners and also help in extra curriculum activities," offers Maina, a trained coach in the game.

Maina believes that with such massive support in games, the school will not only churn out scrabble stars like Priscila but also upright persons in the society.

"We want to be a world class stopover in scrabble because we've the facilities and the support is there," he alludes. "The most fortunate thing with this school is that students who join are ready to learn, they are innovative, creative and such values are well manifested in our scrabble game for creativity will give you words that give high scores.

"Scrabble also helps one to be responsible, it helps us to inculcate our culture and mission of the school to produce world class leaders."

After the Dubai experience, the game has suddenly attracted interest among students, the number keeps increasing occasionally.

"Most students did not play the game in primary school but they've since developed interest and that's why we've the facilities to coach them and instil passion in the many who are getting attracted after seeing that it comes with such rare opportunities.

"Playing scrabble helps the child to sharpen his or her skills in language especially English because it deals with how you create new words from whatever your opponent has already laid on the board," explains Maina.

His final remarks? "I would encourage more students in other schools to begin playing scrabble and see it as a game like any other not shy off because it's mentally rigorous hence of importance after school.

"When playing, the child is relieved of pressure that was in class by being creative here and on the flip side, he or she is improving in the English vocabulary.

This thinking logically helps in life skills that one can solve any problem in life because you've been doing this while playing scrabble."

For her part, Nduku has hailed her coach for his positive drive towards this little achievement whilst promising to put more effort to achieve her dreams.

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