Claiming Her Story

Play Like a GirlHere is a part of what I said at the KGSA gala last week about the wonderful Asha. It includes three short passages from my upcoming book. If these snippets interest you, Pre-order Play Like a Girl today!

Asha’s family, like many families in Kibera, did not have a toilet. Because Kibera is not recognized by the government as an official city, no public funds go toward sanitation, and few individuals can afford to build their own toilet. It’s an issue of privacy, health, and dignity. Asha and her siblings urinated on small pieces of used polythene and threw them out on the terrace. They defecated into small plastic bags and threw them on the ground. The nearest toilet they could use was a ten-minute walk from the house and cost five shillings per use. The kids learned to relieve themselves just about anywhere they could, leaving an environment and a stench that neighbors with toilets complained about.

Asha shared a mattress with her sister Sherifa on the floor. When it rained, water came through the roof into their room. They’d fight over their shared blanket and cry from the cold.

There were stretches when Asha’s family didn’t have sufficient water. Asha got up at five, sometimes four when it was very scarce, to go find water. And that water needed to be boiled to be safe to drink.

Her stomach ached from the poor water and hunger. They ate boiled maize, which didn’t suffice. When her siblings complained of hunger, she crept with them over to their neighbor’s trash bin to pull out pieces of fruit. They sifted through the trash for the fruit, shook it off, and sucked on the remaining strings of fiber. It was the same bin he threw his feces in. One day, the neighbor asked Asha’s mother why his trash bin seemed emptier every day.

“Maybe it’s the dogs,” Zubeda said.

When she realized it was her children, she beat them for their bad behavior.

“We couldn’t help it,” Asha said. “We were hungry.”

My second son is 6 weeks old. I spend a lot of time looking at him and thinking, “Who will you be? What will you do with this crazy life?” All kids, Asha and my son alike, deserve the opportunity to dream about who they want to become. Supporting KGSA supports the belief that Asha deserves a fair shot at life, and an education is a huge part of that. We know education works. Getting girls equal access is one of the answers, one worthy endeavor of our time. We all do better when we all do better. This next section from the book is about why I think KGSA is working for girls like Asha:

The KGSA school community believes it is okay to be from different tribes and religions. It’s okay to dream of a life that doesn’t include early marriage and motherhood. KGSA teachers will chase after a girl who gets pregnant and beg her to come back and finish high school after she has her baby. They will pool rent money for a girl who is orphaned so she will not have to move back upcountry. If a girl shows up with no pen, paper or uniform, or if she is not capable of or interested in college, she will not be discarded. She will be taught. There is no waiting and no exceptions. The school felt like a haven, a team, a place to take a deep breath, a family.

“Then, slowly by slowly . . . ,” Abdul would repeat this like a refrain, in reference to the growth and change at KGSA. School buildings can be built quickly, but an effective education program for girls in extreme poverty takes time to build. KGSA, in its faithful patience, is transcending the definition of school.

Asha got to go to KGSA, and there her story changed. When I work with teenage girls here in the US, I push them to claim their agency: What do you want your story to be? I challenge them to be the main character of their stories.

Asha has been able to claim her story and be her own main character, in part because of KGSA. Here is a passage from her third year at KGSA, when she got to meet Sean Rush, the head of JA Worldwide. She clearly claims her story does not stop with being a poor kid without a toilet:

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” Sean asked.

“I want to be a journalist.”

“Why?”

“I want to be the voice of the voiceless.”

Asha’s audacity and charisma continued to inspire Sean to make generous personal donations to KGSA. He said to her, “If you finish secondary school, find me on Facebook and we will talk about your education.” She stayed in touch with him by email and began to think of him as a father figure.

Not all outsiders visiting Kibera, though, are looking for potential in the slum. Asha pointed out a group of four older white people. The man translating for them held a huge gun. They looked uncomfortable as they passed out knitted hats to kids on the street. “Why are they afraid of us?” She saw Kibera in a tour guidebook listed as a tourist attraction. “Are dump sites a destination? Are people dying of AIDS and going hungry things to gawk at? Kibera is not a tourist attraction.

Every day when I walk to school I see mzungus, white people, around here taking photos. They go to the railway to get the aerial view. They take those photos and exploit us. They make money off the photos. They want to tell the story of how poor we are, how sick we are, how dirty we are.”

One day, a famous news anchor, Lilian Muli, came to KGSA to do a segment for her show on Citizen Television. “She just looked me up and down and turned away. They come with their cameras, but they don’t care about us. We are only good ratings for them. We are so poor that we are news.”

Lilian’s Citizen crew had students staged in the library, studiously looking over books or at the computer. A second-year student had a spotlight on her while waiting to be interviewed. Classes had to stop to accommodate the crew.

The segment on KGSA aired on a Saturday night as part of a repeated series called “Strength of a Woman.” KGSA started getting calls immediately from Kenyans wanting to volunteer and donate. But Asha didn’t like the piece. “I should be the one telling the story. I could do it better. I know Kibera.”

Today, Asha is in the process of doing it better. She’s a journalist and a poet. She lives on her own, working on documentary on women in Africa. She’s helping her family cement the house she grew up in. In 2016 she traveled to Denmark and in 2017 she started her own organization working with girls and women in media. She is one example of what happens when girls are given access to education. Every year, this Foundation supports KGSA as they help girls like Asha claim their own stories and their own lives.