Hi everyone. So nearly five years ago, I moved into Kibera, the largest slum in Africa while I was studying abroad in Nairobi, a long way to go for a girl from Denver, Colorado.
I did not spend my time in Nairobi making out with giraffes. Soon after I arrived in Nairobi, I found myself in Kibera. I was introduced to a young social activist named Kennedy Odede who was born and raised in Kibera, working to make change from within. If everyone could just imagine this with me for a moment, Kibera is an area about the size of Central Park, but in this area there are over 15 million people living without access to services of any kind.
No roads, no health clinics, no sewage systems, no access to education. In Kibera, life is bleak. 66% of girls will be forced to trade their bodies for food simply to survive by the time they are 16. One out of five children won’t live to see their fifth birthday. Life expectancy is 30 years of age, compared to 60 in the rest of Nairobi.
But here I met Kennedy. Kennedy was the oldest of eight children, born and raised in Kibera. His mother had him when she was 15 years old. Kennedy had a job in a factory, earning a dollar a day, which made him lucky, but one day he was able to save 20 cents and start a movement within the slum by buying a soccer ball and bringing young people together to talk about these issues, to perform theater in the streets, to talk about gender violence. Kennedy was especially committed to the struggle of women and girls because he saw his mother as she endeavored to put food on his family’s table.
In Kibera, seven out of ten women will experience violence, and contract HIV at a rate 10 times higher than their male counterparts. Devastating statistics. Kennedy had a dream. He wanted to change his community, but he knew he couldn’t do it without an education. So I told him, as I was a junior at Wesleyan, that he should apply.
And he said, “Well, what are they going to say? I have no formal education. How will I get in?” But Wesleyan said yes and gave Kennedy a full scholarship. He graduated last weekend as the class speaker with honors — Thank you. And as he said in his speech, it doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is where you want to go. So while at Wesleyan, Kennedy and I had an idea.
We know that when you invest in women and girls, communities like Kibera change. Women invest 90% of their earnings in their families, paying for education, for healthcare, changing economies, making places like Kibera transform. So we started the first free school for girls in Kibera. These are our amazing students. Our school started three years ago with the vision to serve the most marginalized and at risk girls in the slum providing them with a superior education, that would not only protect them from rape and abuse, but would also provide a pathway out of the slum, creating the next generation of leaders.
Our school is incredibly hands on. Thank you… Our school serves girls like Diana. Diana’s father lost his ability to walk when he was a child because his family could not afford to take him to a health clinic when he had an infection in his leg. Now Diana is thriving.
Our students go to a school that is incredibly creative. We have theater classes, we have yoga and we have girls in preschool who are setting gender goals for their community. Goals like “I want every girl to go to school” “I want everyone to know” – my personal favorite – “that girls are smarter than boys.” I remember meeting a group of our second grade students on the street a few weeks ago, after they had interviewed a business owner in the community, and I asked, “What were the questions you asked? and one of our second graders raised her hand and said, “Well, I asked him where he got his startup capital,” and I thought, wow, I didn’t learn that word until a few years ago.
I can’t believe that I heard that from a second grader. But it’s bigger than that. We thought, what if we could not only have a school for girls but change the way the community as a whole view girls and girls’ education? How might that fundamentally change a community like Kibera? So we decided, what if we could identify the highest value services and build them in connection to a school for girls, opening them to the entire community? We started to think about what does everyone want and need and how to build an incentive structure that values women and girls, and shows the entire community that benefiting women actually benefits everyone?
We started classes for our parents and savings and loan programs, helping people to start businesses and earn more money to feed and educate their families. We started a community health clinic, focused on providing high quality primary and child health care, as well as women’s health services and a focus on HIV prevention and treatment. We also started a peer educator program, empowering young people to talk to each other about the problems in their community.
We started community centers that offer services targeting every demographic in the community. One of our most powerful is a committee of community members committed to ending gender-based violence. This program was started by a father at our school after his 4 year old daughter was raped. Her perpetrator was arrested, but three dollars was enough for the police to wipe his name from the records completely. He worked with us and we fought for two months to get this man arrested.