This post originally appeared as a column in the Wesleyan University paper, the Argus.
Growing up in the Kibera slum of Kenya, I dreamed of starting a school and a health center for my poor community. It was just a dream with no hope, but I kept my vision intact and never gave up.
My dreams grew from my personal experiences; my surroundings were my best teacher.
I remember how I hated the informal “schools” that I went to, along with my seven siblings. At school each morning we stood stiff—aware that any wrong move would result in immediate beating. As the teacher entered the room, we greeted him with “Good morning, Teacher,” and throughout the day, choruses of “Thank you, Teacher” could be heard. Our instructors treated us as if were not people, often beating us until we bled for simply giving an incorrect answer.
It angered me how they would justify these punishments through the Bible:
“Even the Bible said a child must be beaten to be a better person,” Mr. Mwangi, the teacher I hated most, used to say.
These experiences made me detest going to school. I was not taught to think for myself, nor was I ever told that my thoughts and ideas were valuable. All I was taught was to memorize, recite, and fear what might happen if I got something wrong. I will never forget the day Mr. Mwangi whipped me with 20 lashes because I wrote a love letter to my classmate. I was in 4th grade, and had just learned to write. I innocently penned, “Dear Mary, I love you.” This simple note almost cost me my life. While the teacher was writing notes on the blackboard, I was busy looking at Mary. When he faced the blackboard to write, I tried to drop my letter into Mary’s bag. Mr. Mwangi caught me red-handed.
“Stupid dog,” he shouted. “Kennedy, what are you trying to do?”
My heart jumped into my throat and I stared at him as if I was a statue. He forced me to kneel down in front of the class and read the letter aloud. When, at first, I refused, he slapped me so hard that I saw stars in my eyes. He accused me of being rude and not respecting the teacher. He then took the letter from my hand and read it to the entire class. Everyone laughed at me, and Mary cried in front of the class; I felt terrible seeing Mary cry. My punishment for writing the letter was twenty strokes on my backside and suspension from school. For two weeks, I was unable to sit down on a chair.
These are the kinds of punishments many kids endure in Kenyan schools. And in such an environment, any normal human being will come to hate school—there is no reason to keep struggling for an education amidst the extreme difficulties of poverty and abuse.
My life experience in Kibera motivated my dream to build a free school for women. Mary was one of the five girls that in a class of 40 boys; the ratio of girls to boys was grossly disproportionate. When I walked down the streets of Kibera, I would see little girls playing in the sewage, and I knew that too often these little girls were forced to trade their bodies for food simply to survive. And so the school I dreamt of would not only be accessible to both boys and girls, it would provide students with love and care, and a curriculum that would inspire them to love learning. This school would encourage them to believe in themselves, and would nurture them to become future leaders.
In Kibera, I also dreamed of establishing a heath center, after the wife of my dear friend died while giving birth in the slum. I will never forget that night. It was around midnight when John knocked on my door. His wife, Akinyi, a young girl of 16 years, was giving birth. According to John, Akinyi’s labor pain started around seven o’clock that night, but no one knew anything more. The pain became more serious around midnight, which is when John came to knock on the door of my shanty. John asked me to help him carry his wife on his back to the nearest hospital, which is 45 minutes from Kibera. But there was another problem—you must have money in your hand to receive any treatment at the hospital, and we had none. We left for the hospital anyway. By the time we were halfway there, Akinyi had passed out. And that was the end.
That night left me with many questions that had no answers. But what if we had had a community health center? Then Akinyi and thousands like her would not have to die.
My dreams became a reality when I was accepted to Wesleyan. I had never even thought that college of any kind would be an option for me. At Wesleyan, I have been able to work with students, faculty, and staff to make these dreams come true. In the summer of 2009, I co-founded The Kibera School for Girls along with Jessica Posner ’09. This is the very first free school for girls in the slum providing a superior, creative education, daily nourishment, and a refuge from the pressures of the slum.
The school that I dreamed about is open. For the first time in my community, children love school so much that they even want to go to school on the weekends. This summer, with the support of the Wesleyan community and Newman’s Own Foundation, we will build the Johanna Justin-Jinich Memorial Clinic of Kibera—the very first accessible health clinic in Kibera.
Because of my Wesleyan education, girls like Akinyi, Mary, my mother, and my sisters will lead much different—and much better—lives.