The Storm Before the Calm - Reflections from the Founders: Part I of II
By Jason Doherty
I remember the door closing behind Tina* as she walked out of the room where we were holding interviews. Linnet, on my right, stared at the table, her hands balled in tiny fists – the little frame that carried the world class runner to world records felt small for the first time today. Victoria tore the sheet of paper from the stenographer’s notebook with her interview notes scrawled sparsely across it. She was shaking her head.
We knew her story. The need was tremendous; the brains were clearly there. Since entering school in the 1st grade, she had NEVER finished below position 1. But, there was also A LOT of fear present. The family is large and the family is poor. Sometimes after school and almost every weekend, they pluck tealeaves on other people’s land.
“Tina, what are the hours you pluck tea?” I ask.
Barely audible she replies, “6am to noon on weekends. Then they take the tea to the factories.”
I’ve seen the valleys in her area where verdant tea plantations hug the steep walls, so I dig deeper, “how much tea are you able to pick during those hours?”
“I can pick 10 kgs,” and everyone at the interview table, save Linnet who grew up in the region, audibly gasps because we are talking to a 13-year-old miniature person who may be 5 feet tall, but cannot weigh more than 100lbs. 10kgs is nearly to 25lbs., a quarter of her weight.
* Name changed as the girl is currently on the list of those who may join our Class of 2021.
In our near decade of existence, Daraja Academy has taken girls like Tina, perhaps not so withdrawn, but close. There is risk involved. Raising the “near” $3,500 for each student’s annual expenses at the school is really hard work… and we have to raise that amount 120 times to break even. Every girl we choose is discussed at length. We have learned the hard way, that while certain girls like Tina sprout wings and soar, others are crushed by the fact they are now one of many girls who were first in their class and regress, shrinking to a girl even more quiet and more reserved.
Year in and year out since we interviewed Daraja’s pioneer class in 2009, I have broken midway through the student selection process. Physically exhausted and emotionally raw from hearing so many stories of intense, undeserved struggle, I fall into a funk and generally it’s triggered by a Tina-like interview; a girl that deserves a chance, but a girl who is unable to cross the finish line alone. She needs us to believe in her so much that we will take a risk and fill in the blanks for her that she was unable to say. But I want it MY WAY and I want it to be easier.
Every single person who sits in on student interviews, whether they admit it to themselves or not, wants to hear from the prospective student, “I will be a leader and fight against the issues that my area faces because I’m strong. I will combat FGM, early marriage and ALL injustice.”
When you don’t hear that, yet you know about the hardships any of these young girl have faced, it requires you to either say, “No, not a Daraja girl,” or “there is something deep inside her, that I haven’t seen…that she hasn’t seen, but can be drawn out by 4 years of WISH class, 4 years of counseling etc.” The only problem with gambling on that unseen strength is there is another, very deserving girl who WILL NOT GET THE CHANCE to go to school.
It’s hard, it hurts and it haunts you – not only for student selection, but for as long as you choose to reflect on her and every other interviewee.
This year, the annual journey to my low point was exacerbated by a unique circumstance. I know that Daraja Academy is a dream and that we sacrifice for our dreams. We make choices—some bare amazing fruit and some haunt us. But, in January of 2018, I traveled to Kenya without my family and it has been extremely hard to be away from my wife and 2-year-old son for 1-½ months. However, it was Thomas’ words that broke me as we were saying goodbye that night, “Daddy, I miss you. I want you to come home. Daddy, I need you.”
Cue the little voice in my head. “What are you doing? Who are you to judge these girls? How can you begin to rank one over another? Even if you take 30, there will be girl #31. Why are you doing this?”
And after more than a few tears in the dark, that last question is generally is the punctuation mark that ends the doubt—not necessarily the low mood, but it starts the turn around, because the only thing I have never doubted and know deeply in my soul, is the answer to, “why are you doing this?”
And the answer is: because nobody else is. To all of our knowledge, only Daraja Academy traverses the country, expending time and resources to find the most needy, most deserving and most likely girls to effect change in their homes, communities, and country.
Even world class athletes like Linnet Chepkurui who sat in on that day of interviews and brought Tina, do not cross the finish line every race, but they also do not quit. Similarly, every student that Daraja Academy provides a scholarship to may not meet our expectations, but most of them do and we will not stop searching the green valleys of Western Kenya or the mud huts of this country’s north or any other corner, because magic is out there and the truth is the truth.
These girls need and deserve an education.
Regardless of how many girls we take, there will always be more who are not in school—until they are out of school by choice, rather circumstance—there is more work to be done.