December 30, 2010
One has a baby; she was raped during the election violence of 2008. One ran away from home for five months from her abusive guardians, having to repeat a year of school. One has lost four out of her six close family members in the past year. Yet these girls have the incredible fortune to be at Daraja Academy, a free secondary school in Kenya started by a couple who live near me in California. This school has changed the lives of the students in the most drastic way: most of them would otherwise be at home, possibly married or even pregnant, and now they have the chance to get a full education and go on to having a successful job. Daraja Academy provided the perfect opportunity to work on one of my gap year goals: to learn how to most effectively affect change in the world. With the help of everyone in the Daraja community, I built a shed out of adobe bricks for the Daraja shamba (garden), and this project – which became my main focus during my two months there – served as a smaller case study of how to make change in a community. So, by experiencing the creation of change through the Shamba Shed project and through Daraja Academy, I got some ideas on the best ways to go about impacting the world that I will remember as I become a Morehead-Cain Scholar and continue life beyond.
Although I enjoyed working on the Shamba Shed every day, the best and most rewarding days by far were those when the Daraja girls and other members of the community would help with the project. We kicked off the project by celebrating 10.10.10, recognized worldwide as a day for climate change activism and work, by hosting an adobe brickmaking festival at Daraja. By the end of the Shamba Shed project, we joked that not a single person on the Daraja campus had avoided getting muddy by working with adobe: the students, the volunteers, the group of Danish students, the teachers, the children of teachers, the administrators, and even the cooks. When we finally celebrated the completion of the structure with a final plastering day and a big carrot cake, everyone on campus reveled in the success of the project. Ruth, a Daraja cook, even dressed up nicely for the day.
By spending so much time with Ruth and the other people in the kitchen, I gained respect for how much of an effect Daraja has on the entire area around the school, not just on the students. Jenni and Jason, the two founders, are the only non-Kenyan staff (except for the volunteers and the volunteer coordinator). Teachers, administrators, and all other staff members come from all over Kenya – even very locally. The two men who we employed to help build the Shamba Shed are from the Kikuyu tribal town nearby, as is Alice, the gardener. Alice’s connection with Daraja allowed her to use the students to help build a community chicken coop for a group of women in her village. When I would run around Daraja and stop and talk to people (with my limited Swahili) along the way, everyone knew of Daraja and regarded it fondly. The presence of this school employs many people, and even without Jenni and Jason, it would be a completely self-sufficient institution within the local area.
While in Kenya, I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a story of missionaries coming in and trying – mostly ineffectively, or at least with much contention with the community – to change the beliefs and culture of an area. Over and over, through literature, history, and through personal experience, the necessity to work with and within a culture in order to create change has become clear to me. Certainly, an outsider in a community can be a catalyst, as I might have been with the shed, or as Jenni and Jason might have been with Daraja, but working with the community to make change, and ultimately making it more of their project, is far more effective than barging in without an understanding of the culture.
Perhaps the most challenging part of my months in Africa was feeling as if I were not doing enough. It’s hard to be in a place that needs so much compared to American standards, with girls who have been so neglected in their lives, and know what to do. My working on the shed every day, mostly with only the two hired men, sometimes made me feel as if I were not spending enough time with the girls, and not working enough for the school. One day, however, I stood knee deep in an adobe mix in the four-foot deep holding pit, and Ruth, one of the Daraja cooks, squatted next to me to talk to me. “It’s amazing what you’re doing,” she said, “Not only what you are building, but that you are showing all the women that we can do anything.” I proved to the girls, and to everyone else at Daraja, that even an 18-year-old-girl can lead construction on a shed, or do anything else, with the help of their community. The Daraja girls have a class called WISH, where they learn to be Women of Integrity, Strength, and Hope. Though my work my not have been directly with the girls at all times, I was exemplifying being a woman of WISH for them. The power of leading by example often takes a back seat to active leadership or teaching, but I hope that by being an example for the girls, I made as much, if not more, of an effect that I would have by assuming a more active role.
Jenni and Jason, in a similar way, treat the girls like they would like them to treat each other, and anyone else who they meet. One of the first things that someone visiting Daraja Academy will experience is a hug from almost every single girl on campus. This is not a characteristic exhibited by all Kenyans, but rather an environment created by Jenni and Jason. They give hugs to all the girls, each other, and even the other staff members. Though it may be a small gesture, it contributes to how cared for and loved the girls feel at Daraja, and makes a difference on campus.
My second lesson about changemaking is that it need not always be active; leading by example holds power too. I discovered that the Daraja girls, and all Kenyans, hold America as the ideal in their eyes. Each change and each development in Africa seems to be headed towards the goal of being like the United States. If we want to cause a global change, therefore, countries seen as role models must be the first to make steps towards that change. I used to think that a good way to combat climate change would be to start with the developing countries, and to direct their development in a more environmentally conscious direction. However, after teaching a couple of seminars to the girls about climate change, I noticed that though they had some interest in it, the more pertinent goal for them was to improve their quality of life (with America as the symbol of a good quality of life, of course). We cannot tell people in Africa, per say, to keep building with mud and sticks, when they see how nice our houses are when they are built with wood and concrete. We must be moving in that direction before we ask them to do the same.
Daraja Academy could not have been a more perfect place to discover my final lesson on changemaking: the incredible power of education. One of my favorite moments at Daraja happened after a long afternoon of brickmaking with about ten of the girls who came down to help during their sports period. “This is so cool,” Alice A., one of the students, said to me, talking about construction with adobe bricks, “I’m going to show this to my family at home.” The Shamba Shed, thus, served not only as a useful structure but also as an educational tool. It demonstrated a new way of natural building to the girls, which is completely feasible all over Kenya and possibly even a career option.
Before Daraja, these girls had no opportunities. None of them would be in secondary school, most would be at home, and most would never have a change to use their brilliance and their joy to have a positive impact on their country and the world. They are all smart – many capable of going to American universities – and deserve to have the opportunity that education gives them. Daraja has only been around for two years, so it wont have a graduating class until 2012, but I can’t wait to see what some of the girls do after Daraja. Leila wants to be a pilot for Emirates Airlines, Maureen wants to be a journalist, and Esther wants to start her own school like Daraja Academy to, as she wrote, “change other peoples’ lives just the way [hers] has been changed.” I believe that they can all accomplish those dreams, when there would not have been a chance without education.
It is remarkable to see the impact of education on a larger scale, too, across all of Kenya. When Alice, the gardener, grew up in the rural town next to Daraja, school was one and a half hours away – running. Of course, the kids could not make it to school with any shortage of food in the family, or with any injuries. Now, there are at least two schools within a 30 minutes walk. Everywhere you go in Kenya, from the coast to the Maasai village near the Safari preserve, to these tiny rural villages next to Daraja, you see children in brightly colored school uniforms walking to and from school, shouting “HOW ARE YOU! OWAHYU!” when they see a mzungu (white person). Seeing how primary education has transformed Kenya and taken such a presence in the country inspires me. It will be exciting to see how this generation of educated children grows up and what sort of changes come in the country, and beyond that, what changes will come when all children go to secondary school. It’s a hopeful prospect.
On my final night at Daraja Academy, I read the girls’ stories about life before Daraja, which they wrote during a volunteer’s workshop in the summer. “There is a pattern which everybody has to follow, a pattern of joy and peace, a pattern of tears and sorrow, a pattern in which you bring change to what you have because you are the source of energy required to attain all that is best,” Lillian wrote. “All in all, God lifted out love that now I can sing and stand out amazingly with no fear and I can speak in front of people with my futuristic voice that glitters and shines at the daytime,” said Benny. Anastacia wrote a quote that makes me cry every time I read it: “I will live to be remembered.” I certainly learned about making change – through education, leading by example, and through working with the community – but that’s not enough. More importantly, these girls have given me the inspiration to do so. I, like Esther, want to change peoples’ lives the way the lives of the Daraja girls have been changed.