Bay Area Actress Helps Boy From African Slum Find His Dream

"One chance, one goal." It’s a slogan that wafts through Kibera, the three-square-mile urban slum in the city of Nairobi, Kenya. The adage refers to the very few opportunities in Kibera. Sewage runs through the streets, homes resemble rusted houses of cards, and education is a dream very few dare to imagine.

But amid the squalor, Yema Khalif Manyanki harbored the loftiest of dreams --  he wanted to be a movie actor and even more far-fetched, he wanted to go to a university. He acted in skits in dirt lots, and got somewhat OK grades in school. But Kibera didn’t let go of many chances easily, even to big dreamers.

"It makes it difficult to aspire to do great stuff in life," Manyanki said on a recent day in Tiburon.

One chance, one goal.

While Manyanki clung to his dreams of going to Hollywood -- Hollywood somehow came to him. A production of the movie "Lost in Africa" showed up to film in Kibera -- with Africa’s largest urban slum serving as an authentic backdrop. Manyanki landed a bit-part playing a hotel receptionist. But the chance for a few seconds of screen time turned out to be the second-most important opportunity the film would bring him.

He struck up a friendship with the film’s star, Connie Nielsen, the Tiburon-by-way-of-Denmark actress who had also starred in films like "Gladiator." She saw something likable in the affable, vibrant young man.

"When you asked him what his plans were for the future" Nielsen said, "he just had that one dream of going to college. And I said I would see what I could do."

It turned-out the actress wasn’t blowing smoke. She had been genuinely moved by the filth and poverty she’d witnessed in Kibera. The images followed her, stalked her conscience.

"It was just intolerable to me to leave that," said Nielsen, "and go back and pretend I hadn’t seen what I’d seen."

Back home in the Bay Area, Nielsen worked the phones -- finally landing a scholarship for Manyanki at San Rafael’s Dominican University. She invited him to come and live in her home while he went to school.

Manyanki’s mother sold the family’s radio to pay for his final exams so he could get into Dominican. As his plane to the United States lifted into the sky he began to sob, overwhelmed to leave behind his family, friends and even the pitiful slums where he’d grown up.

One chance, one goal.

At Dominican, Manyanki took the opportunity served to him and devoured it. At first his lack of English was a barrier, but not for long. He made the dean’s list four years in a row. He hosted two radio shows, founded a campus soccer club, became a student ambassador -- pitching the university to prospective students -- and was elected student vice president.

At home in Tiburon, Manyanki called Nielsen "mom" and she referred to him as her "son," folding him into a life that included her four children.

"She’s like a mother figure," said Manyanki. "So she’s the mother from a different country."

In the meantime, Nielsen set out to help others in Kibera. She founded the Human Needs Project to bring clean water, job training and computer access to Kibera residents. She started the Road to Freedom Scholarships to bring education to young people, moving students out of the slums and into a boarding school.

"Right now we’re educating 17 girls and two boys," Nielsen said. Manyanki, she noted, was the first student in the program to graduate from college.

Last weekend, as Dominican University held its graduation ceremony, Nielsen stepped past the rows of students in caps and gowns and onto the podium. She introduced the undergraduate commencement speaker - the student chosen to speak and represent the hopes and experiences of his peers. Manyanki stepped to the stage to the thunderous cheers of his classmates.

"Four years ago I left my family, my friends and culture, and everything else in Africa just to pursue higher education in America," Manyanki told the crowd of 3,000. "These are blessed days, not only because we are graduating from college, but we are alive." In the audience, Nielsen beamed.

Manyanki said he eventually plans to move to Southern California to pursue his acting career. But first, at Nielsen’s counseling, he’ll next re-up for grad school. But no matter where his trajectory leads, Manyanki said his path will forever be beholden to the bolt of chance that somehow struck him -- even in the middle of a slum. One chance, one goal.

"I tell her every day she’s my hero," said Manyanki. "By the things I’ve done at Dominican, all the achievements -- that’s my appreciation and that’s my love to her."


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