Award-Winning ex–Kenyan Education Champion calls on UN Chief to Lead the Way

Ameer Keshavjee in his consultancy room, a donut shop in NW Calgary where he meets an average of 5 students a day. Photo courtesy Richard Hardinge

Ameer M Keshavjee, a former Kenyan and winner of the Sovereign’s Medal, the highest Canadian award for volunteerism conferred by the Governor General of Canada, has called upon the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres to take the lead in making free post-secondary education a basic human right. Keshavjee was speaking at the Award Ceremony held at the historic McDougall Centre in downtown Calgary on 31 October 2019 where the Honourable Lois E Mitchell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, presented him with the honour on behalf of the Governor General of Canada.

A product of apartheid South Africa where he was a victim of the racist educational laws, Keshavjee has always championed higher education for its transformative potential in changing the human condition. ‘Money is not the issue,’ he exclaims. ‘There are about 93 billion dollars in unutilized scholarship funds in North America,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately, students in most cases do not know how to tap these funds.’ Keshavjee over the last 32 years has made it his business to help students access these resources and this he has done as a one-man civil society initiative purely as a volunteer.

Operating out of a NW Calgary donut shop, where today he is a regular feature if not a fixture with his picture on the wall, Keshavjee sees on average 5 students a day, counselling them how to make their applications more attractive to good institutions of higher learning. Over this period he has met some 40,000 students through personal meetings, lecture sessions, telephone guidance, and one-on-one consultations. Most of these encounters have been in community halls, gurdwaras, temples, churches, mosques, jamatkhana halls, shopping mall concourses and coffee shops. In recent years he has turned more and more to internet contact. In January 2020 The Calgary Herald named him one of the city’s ‘20 Most Compelling Individuals’ — an annual award given by the newspaper to those who have contributed most significantly to civil society. Keshavjee’s remit goes beyond his city. He meets students from all parts of the world including the Caribbean, South Asia, East Africa, Southern Africa, Middle East and Central Asia.

His journey in this endeavour started with his own predicament in South Africa where he was denied the right to medical training even though he managed to gain admission to one of the top institutions in the country — Witwatersrand University. Given the difficult political conditions in South Africa then he had to leave university and help his parents run the family businesses. In 1962 his family emigrated to Kenya where Keshavjee helped to put many of his young siblings into school. Kenya was then experiencing a transition from colonial rule and Keshavjee experienced some of the challenges faced by people in the country. Soon after his arrival in 1963 he joined the Ismaili Youth Union as a member later becoming its National Chair. In this capacity he succeeded in mobilising the youth to participate in nation-building activities. Over the next decade he held important positions in the Aga Khan Councils at various levels as well as in the Aga Khan Education Board of Kenya where he was a National Member.

Keshavjee also served on various committees, most notably as Secretary of the Kenyan Business Advisory Services set up by the then Minister of Commerce, the Hon. Dr Gikonyo Kiano, and chaired by veteran industrialist Habib V Keshavjee. Together Keshavjee and his uncle travelled upcountry and held small workshops with novice African businessmen, teaching them the rudiments of the distribution trade including bookkeeping and stock management. Keshavjee also worked with Kenya’s Minister of Finance, Hon. James Gichuru, in compiling his book Kenya – a New Nation to attract foreign investments into the country. Asked in a telephone interview from England what he felt about his Kenyan experience, Keshavjee responded ‘Kenya was a wonderful learning experience. The country was new. Everyone was in the mood of learning and experimenting and what we see now is due to sound education, Kenya has produced some outstanding human resources which are being deployed not only locally but also in other parts of the world’.

Ameer Keshavjee receiving the Sovereign’s Medal from the Governor General of Alberta The Hon. Lois Mitchell

With regard to his contribution in the field of higher post-secondary education over the past four decades, Keshavjee highlighted some of the problems faced today by the youth in many countries. Speaking about Canada he referred to the conundrums that young people face: ‘Many do not know what particular field they wish to go into. They do not read as much today as kids did in the past. Consequently, they do not know what to write in their vision statement to get into good institutions’. Others do not have the basic grades. Some, according to him, are very bright but feel despondent at not having the requisite funds. It is here where he steps in and helps students to ‘get organised’. He does that by training students to write good mission statements using appropriate language, underpinned by critical thinking, and based on the changing global landscapes. He also explains to them about the type of students universities are looking for today and, more importantly, the type of resources that remain untapped and how students can gain access to them. Many of the students he has helped in the past have joined important global institutions and now play a pivotal role in civil society in their countries. Keshavjee’s help extends to the most marginalised in society. He sees education as a major lever in extricating human beings from the ravages of poverty. ‘It is a critical instrument for human transformation’, he says reassuringly.

As for the future, Keshavjee has a vision. The corporate sector in any country is always looking for good human resources and needs to train people for specific needs. Students need education to make a decent living, to get on the property ladder, and to get started in life. Parents have a concern that their children should not be held back in their education career for want of resources. Governments need help as they cannot pull this through alone. Keshavjee feels that if good schools could extend their educational offering by two more years, they could provide bespoke courses to prepare students for specific positions in industry and in the corporate sector. Thus, students would live at home where the costs are less prohibitive, the corporate sector could finance these schools and students could come out of these schools with a guaranteed job and with no (or a very small) debt burden. This would give students a better chance of starting to earn, paying tax and contributing to society. It would be a win-win situation. ‘But we have to make a start’, he reiterates.

Keshavjee recognises the challenge this poses and plans to discuss this issue with the Education Minister in the Alberta Government. He feels that Canada could play a leading role in this field and that the push can be both from the top, through the UN, and from the bottom, where the government could mobilise civil society and have everyone aligned to a common purpose. In the meanwhile he continues to see around five students a day but would like to see the mentoring process institutionalised so that someone can continue this service after him. ‘I do not want it to become a commercialised venture. I want it to preserve the core principles with which I have worked.’ Asked what these are, he smiles: ‘Compassion and care for the most marginalised in society.’

Keshavjee goes out of his way to help each student who reaches out to him regardless of colour, gender or creed. ‘Each of these individuals has the potential to change the world. And who knows someday one of them will!’ Keshavjee says optimistically, adding that ‘it is our duty to help them get on in life, and, the more we do, the greater will be our investment in the future’.

By Russell Harris MA (Oxon) – Translator and Author