The Light of Knowledge (3/3)

The final installment of my Saint Lucia talk focuses on the light of knowledge. It is the Friends of the Gustavus Library who hosts the wonderful event, so it was fun to talk about how much I enjoyed learning in college. Ask my roommates– I spent a lot of time in the library! Many of you know the story of Abdul, Asha and KGSA well, but the crowd at Gustavus didn’t, and I am going to keep honoring them by spreading their story until all girls get equal access to excellent education globally.

Knowledge brings brightness to our days. I’ve watch my boys, since they were babies, with insatiable curiosity and a drive to learn. They are both drawn to the bookshelves in our house, and I read to them every single day. This drive to learn, this yearning for the light of knowledge, is universal, primal, and part of what makes us human. I’ve seen it all over the world.

Research for my latest book, Play Like a Girl, brought me to Kibera Kenya. I wound through the makeshift paths of the slum and found myself at Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. The school was started by a man named Abdul Kassim. After his father abandoned him and his mother died, Abdul was raised by his illiterate grandmother. On days tuition was due, she would walk him to school to make sure he didn’t spend the money on something else. She believed education was his way out of poverty. She was right. Abdul graduated college and in his spared time, to honor his grandmother, wanted to give back.

He noticed the boys in Kibera would not let the girls play on the soccer pitch, so he started a girls soccer team. Without any girls’ teams to play, they took on the boys. At first they lost badly, but eventually came the day when the girls beat the boys. Beating them at soccer made them realize maybe they deserved everything the boys got. When a few of Abdul’s key players got pregnant and Abdul learned they were having sex with men for money to buy food, he realized this was about more than soccer and asked how he could help. They said they wanted to go to school but couldn’t afford high school tuition. So Abdul started a free girls school for his 11 players. Within a few years they had a beautiful two story building with 130 students and were sending girls to college. 

This is Asha. Asha’s family could not afford tuition, so she dropped out. It was assumed that she would get married as soon as she started menstruating. For her, this was at age 10. She knew that was too soon. She wanted to learn. 

Asha’s family did not have a toilet. She shared a mattress with her sister Sherifa on the floor. There were stretches when Asha’s family didn’t have sufficient water. When her siblings complained of hunger, she crept over to their neighbor’s trash bin to pull out pieces of discarded fruit. One day, the neighbor asked Asha’s mother why his trash bin seemed emptier every day. 

“Maybe it’s the dogs,” Zubeda said.

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

All kids, including Asha, deserve the opportunity to dream about who they want to become. We know education works. Getting girls equal access to knowledge is one of the answers, one worthy endeavor of our time. We all do better when we all do better.

Asha talked about the first day of school, how excited she was to learn. She sat in awe as girls raised their hands and answered questions. She had to ask the girl next to her what biology meant, but she quickly caught up and became head of her class. 

When KGSA opened, they had one donated book. A girl would copy the book onto the board, and the girls would copy that into their notebooks. Eventually they filled the library with old, donated books. The library gave hope. Then, eventually, they got 100 e-readers donated, and it was a game changer. Instantly, they all had access to a world of knowledge— textbooks, the Bible, the Koran, and novels galore. That access brought dignity and light. 

KGSA believes it’s okay to be from different tribes and religions. It’s okay to dream of a life that doesn’t include early marriage and motherhood. Teachers will chase after a girl who gets pregnant and beg her to come back and finish high school with 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. For Asha the school felt like a haven, a team, a place to take a deep breath, a family.

At KGSA, Asha’s 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. The story does not stop with being a poor kid without a toilet. 

At KGSA, Asha wanted to be a journalist to be the voice of the voiceless.

Today, she is a journalist and a poet. She lives on her own, 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. Asha has access to knowledge. That light helps her claim her own story and her own life.

My parents invested deeply in my education. Passionate feminist nuns raised me in grade school and high school in rigorous and lively classrooms where justice came first. I was steeped in the classics, my teachers supportively nudging, “the truth went that way!” 

My time at Gustavus was rich. I’m still in touch with several of my professors here. I finished the pre-med program, majored in theology and minored in history. I spent a lot of time in the library here at Gustavus. After gymnastics practice and dinner, I’d climb to the quiet third floor and settle in with my books until closing time. I loved learning. Just like Asha, I loved the feeling of getting an education. It brought my dignity and joy. It gave me power and expanded my world. I love libraries and what they stand for. I’m with bell hooks in believing that “one of the most subversive institutions in the United States is the public library.”

I had master teachers in both my graduate programs. In seminary, I had a professor who taught a course on God, Evil and Suffering. He handed back a paper to me once and he said, “This is very good.” I thanked him, but he repeated it three times until I made eye contact with him and he could sense that I accepted the compliment. “This is really very good.” I was wrestling with truth, and he acknowledged my grappling. I had a writing professor in my MFA program who read a sentence of mine back to me. “Can you feel it?” He asked. “Do you hear it? This sentence is complete.” It was a great compliment. He was telling me I was a writer. If you can write one great sentence, you can write a great book. My teachers took me seriously and shared a cannon of knowledge that I will continue to benefit from. I am immensely grateful. 

I now enjoy being a life-long learner who tries to share the light of knowledge with my children and my students. With my students we ask big questions like Who is God? And Why is there suffering? At home my young boys ask me everything from “What is time?” To “What is the last number?” To “When the earth is really old will we all finally be kind to each other?” I learn from my students. My children are raising me. 

Who nurtured learning in you? Who helped you access knowledge? How could you, in a spirit of gratitude and hope, share the light of knowledge with others? 

On short, cold days of Advent waiting, we remember that God loves us enough to come here to this places as a vulnerable baby, to dwell among us and be our light. Emboldened by God’s unexpected, game changing move to dwell among us, we can venture out into the world to share Lucia’s spirit of service. We can cultivate gratitude, share hope and seek knowledge in a way that grows, reflects and offers the light that fills the world and brings new life.