Daraja wants to change the fate of the Kenyan girl child living in material poverty. Daraja’s selection committee travels Kenya seeking girls who will use an education to lift their families and communities. Girls who exhibit academic excellence and leadership. Girls who embody the values found in Daraja’s WISH program: Integrity, Strength, and Hope.
But how does Daraja know which girls—from the hundreds who apply—will become the next generation of community leaders? The Daraja selection committee conducts an in-person interview with each potential candidate.
THE INTERVIEW Jason Doherty, a Daraja founder, invites you to imagine sitting in a small, sparsely furnished room in Kenya with other professional educators. A tiny girl enters the room to begin her interview. She confidently shakes your hand and introduces herself as she settles into a school desk set at the center of the room. Imagine the emotions of the selection committee as you read Jason’s retelling of Mary’s interview from last week. (Mary’s name has been changed for privacy.)
Violence and Abandonment “I was only 4-years old, but I still remember my mother’s screams.” Mary’s lyrical voice held the attention of all six adults on Daraja’s interview panel. Mary is small, more like a child than a teenager, but she exudes a powerful confidence with her arms extended and her palms down on the table. She never broke eye contact.
Mary grew up in a tiny village along the dirt road that links Lake Turkana in Kenya’s arid north with the rest of the country. Most of the time, the three pastoralist tribes of that region live in a delicate peace. That peace was broken during a large, well-planned cattle raid in 2008. Mary’s father was killed along with a number of other men from her tribe. All of the village’s livestock were stolen.
“Everything changed in my life. Then, when I was nine, I heard my mother negotiating to marry me to a man I knew was in his 50’s. I was scared and angry, so I ran to my uncle.” Her uncle notified the police, who arrested Mary’s mother. When she was released, Mary’s mother disowned her five children and left the village forever. Mary and her siblings moved into her uncle’s home even though he was already caring for 5 other children. It was Mary’s uncle, a stooped old man in his 60s, who brought Mary to her Daraja interview. Even from across the room it was obvious the man had a gentle soul.
Learning English “You know,” Mary said with a smile and raised eyebrows, “my first time getting on a bus was to come to this interview.” For a girl who never left her village, her English was remarkably good. We asked how she learned.
“I first heard English when some young women came to our village to teach us about washing. They asked, ‘do you wash?’ I said yes, but I didn’t. I didn’t even have soap.” She told us she used to peak through cracks in the back wall of the village movie theater, a wooden shack built around an old TV and VCR. “The movies were usually Indian fighting movies. I didn’t like them, but I learned English that way.”
Why Educate a Girl We then asked Mary the question every potential Daraja student gets asked: Why is education important to a Kenyan girl?
“For me, I want to be a doctor. So many girls are circumcised, and they end up having many problems. People in our area don’t know anything about health. They don’t wash their hands. They go to the toilet, they eat, they drink water with their hands from the river… and there are people upstream washing cloths!” She finally breaks eye-contact, both angry and sad as she ends her statement.
Overcoming Adversity Mary is a problem-solver: the embodiment of determination. She told us about using sheep’s fat as a lotion to keep her skin from cracking and about crafting makeshift pencils out of popsicle sticks and bits of pencil lead borrowed from friends.
When asked what she would do to stop the livestock raids she said, “I would take all the cows and goats and sheep, put them into a sufria (pot), cook them up and feed the people. Then I would teach them to grow crops. People don’t steal crops.”
Staying Focused on Education Daraja has granted scholarships to a handful of girls who amazed us during interviews, but who didn’t stay focused on their education once admitted. I asked Mary what she would do to make sure she didn’t get caught up in drama and lose her focus.
She was quiet for a moment, and when her response came it was profound. “I must listen to my heart and not listen to my mind. Your mind will say, ‘Listen to your friends, be naughty, sleep all day.’ But your heart will say, ‘Do you want to become a doctor? Now go do it.’”
And did I mention that she is 13?
Yes, she will be joining a school that provides everything she needs including soap and pencils. She will be joining Daraja Academy.