Before I even start with this post, let me announce to you that I have declared Kate McIlwain as the winner of this week’s challenge. Her answer to our question about what defines a leader was:
Leaders possess compassion, vision, and hope. Without compassion the leader is self-serving and therefore leads no one. Leadership without vision is stagnant. Without hope the leader cannot find strength to endure the innumerable obstacles that will stand in the way of making a vision reality.
I thought I would take off from Kate’s emphasis on hope to tell the story of a young woman I met during our recent trip in Africa. I won’t share her name here because I know that she and her colleagues at the university might well read this, and we want to respect the privacy of a woman who has encountered so much. She is a current recipient of one of our post-secondary scholarships in Kenya. After some bureaucratic turmoil that had her and her fellow students scrambling for housing at the last minute, she is doing quite well. But she had an extraordinarily long road to get here.
This young woman, let’s call her “Kenya”, showed early promise in primary school. Bright and hardworking with a strong sense of altruism, Kenya was introduced to GTL because she had the credentials to attend Karoti, a rigorous boarding school, but did not have a way to pay the school fees. Kenya’s parents are peasant farmers who had a total of five children to support.
Kenya’s time at Karoti went well. She finished with strong exam scores but not strong enough to get her into one of the public universities. So she found work teaching at a primary school. Her secondary education qualified her for what is called a Board of Governors position– a teacher paid for by parents and community members to fill the gaps in the teaching faculty supported by the Ministry of Education. BOG positions pay less and tend to be unstable, but Kenya was skilled enough to keep her job and even managed to earn enough money to send one of her younger brothers to a boarding school when his time came.
In 2008, Kenya married a man who was, himself, pursuing a university degree ,and the two of them had a plan for him to finish university and then finance her pursuit of a degree. During these years, Kenya gave birth a baby boy and supported the efforts of her husband and younger brother while awaiting her shot at college.
After that, however, Kenya’s life took a turn for the worse. The marriage ended with her husband’s completion of university and Kenya was left impoverished with a young son to look after, no familial support and no hopes of advancing her education.
It was at this point that Beatrice Mwaniki, a remarkable woman in her own right, came across Kenya at the market. To understand what happened next, you have to understand Beatrice. A mother, adoptive mother, English teacher, guidance counselor and all-around champion of the impoverished, Beatrice has a long history of taking young girls into her home and giving them a future. If you come to work for Beatrice as a housemaid, you are likely to end up a few years later a full-time student or a small businesswoman with equipment purchased through your own Beatrice-guided saving plan. Beatrice does not believe in giving up.
Beatrice had known Kenya years before when Kenya was a student at Karoti, where Beatrice teaches. Looking at the young woman, Beatrice saw a girl who should have been thriving with a college degree and a burgeoning career and was instead tired, anxious and desperately poor again. Fortunately, Beatrice took the steps to convince us that we needed to find the money to give Kenya another chance at her ambitions.
Now with childcare arrangements worked out with a friend, tuition and fees paid by GTL supporters, and living arrangements sorted, Kenya is back on the path she wanted to follow. And she has already benefitted so many. Her brother graduates from university soon, her young son will be raised by a mother who can provide a stable, healthy home for him, and the students Kenya has already inspired will be joined by many more. As Kenya wrote recently, as a successful woman “I will spend my time…reaching the hopeless people and the poor.”
We have a ways to go before we have rebuilt the world so that every child is guaranteed an education and a healthy future. In the meantime, whether in Africa or the U.S. or anywhere else, we depend on hope. And for that we depend on all the people who are there for us or might be there for us when promises fall apart.
Beatrice Mwaniki agreed to serve as our coordinator for Central Region a year ago and continues to work with us to find all the Kenyas out there who need us most. We are grateful and honored to work with her.