This post is for a young woman named Sharon, who is just about ready to take the world in her hands. If there is anything to be learned from her story, it is surely that we must fight to keep open the doors that welcome excellence in no matter how impoverished its source.
But first, let me fill you in on our journeys. This week we flew from Boston over the icy waters of the North Atlantic, over warmer currents of the Mediterranean and the faded glory of its Phoenician isles, past the great sands of the Sahara and the mountains of Darfur to follow the bed of the Nile into East Africa.
One night’s rest (how good it feels to sleep in a horizontal position after 20 hours!) and a quick breakfast later, we were headed to Rift Valley.
Despite quite a few efforts, I have never found a good way to describe this region. It holds aching poverty and unimaginable beauty. It’s inhabitants are famously traditional and innovative enough to be on the cusp of environmental and sustainability initiatives that draw global attention. It’s landscape shifts from sweeping green hills and fields full of sunflowers to arid, baked clay flatlands dotted with acacias and cacti. Needless to say, this is one of my favorite parts of the world.
This year our coordinator’s village has been made inaccessible by heavy flooding, so we are camped out with her in a simple but comfortable inn in Nakuru (did I mention the excellent free wifi?). Our first day of visits took us to three schools: the county’s top public boarding school for girls, a lesser ranked school nearby and the top performing secondary school in the nation.
All of the young women we visited were unique, and each was striking for her particular approach to challenges of poverty. Sauda, bright, strikingly beautiful and better yet, strikingly confident has made her differences into a source of motivation. She goes to Kapropita, the high performing public school, and while fees there are kept low by the government, she was repeatedly sent home the first year to try to collect tuition fees her small family could not pay. When I asked if there were any challenges for her, she gave an enthusiastic “no”–now that the fees are paid by us, her mother is happier and Sauda can relax.
But Sauda does have challenges. She has never known her father and prefers not to use the Kikuyu name she inherited from him. She is her mother’s daughter, a part of the Nubian community of Somali Muslim refugees who coexist uneasily with their Masai, Khalenjin and Kikuyu neighbors. The school of nearly 900 students has 7 Muslim students and sets aside a prayer room for them. They still attend Christian services and grab 5 minutes for prayers between classes at the required times. They tend to end fasts a few minutes early on Ramadan days once a year to make sure to eat before the kitchens close.
But Sauda will not be put off by being different. She unconsciously tilts her chin up when she talks about her mother, and at the close of our conversation, she sings us a heartbreakingly beautiful Somali song her mother sings to her. Sauda, our coordinator and the Headmistress are determined to make room for more girls from her community in this school dedicated to opening Kenya’s promise to all of its people.
My visit with Sharon was in no way a contrast, but it posed important questions for us and also, I think, for Kenya. We passed by people from Sharon’s home village on the road today. Forced from their homes by the floods, they had camped out in makeshift tents cobbled from tree limbs and plastic tarps by the roadside. They have little but their goats and the clothes on their backs. Women earn a bit of money by selling jars of (very delicious) wild honey by the road.
Thanks to Kenya’s free primary education, Sharon was able to attend a very good public primary school that had the great fortune to be neighbor to President Moi. When she finished with extraordinarily high marks, Moi High School at Kabarak accepted her. The school is built on a dream of opportunity for the best and brightest throughout Kenya, so Kabarak insists on pulling students from every County in the country. Unfortunately, a dispute about government curriculum and control prompted the Board to change the school’s status to private several years ago, and its fees are now accessible only for those who are well off. The patron himself sponsors 50 students a year, and there are partnerships with Kenya’s Equity Bank. Still, Sharon is the only student among the 1,000 enrolled who comes from her area.
For us, Sharon’s case is an exception. We share the cost of her tuition with the villagers with additional help from the school. She is worth it. As we wait for her to finish class the deputy vice principal expounds on what a wonderful presence she is at the school-a hard worker, intelligent and patient, a roll model for the others and a representative of one of Kenya’s most impoverished communities. He repeats these things as if afraid we will not see how special this student is. When she does come out to greet us, we are taken immediately by the openness of her smile. She tilts her head and averts her eyes slightly when we shake hands, but her humility should not be mistaken for lack of confidence. When she does speak to you, Sharon’s eyes reflect a sharp intelligence. She is proud of her school, grateful for the assistance she has received from many corners, and above all, holds a steely determination to take advantage of this opportunity.
We had to leave much sooner than I would have liked, but I promised Sharon I would write this post. Excellence comes from all sorts if families and all sorts of places. Somehow we must find more ways to ensure that, in our complaisance, we do not forget to search it out and nourish it as it–as they– deserve.