I cannot say enough good things about the AMAZING young woman who wrote the following blog from the Daraja Academy campus. Her last blog was written as she evacuated her London School of Economics dorm-room en route to Kenya. She certainly is there now, and I wouldn’t even try to count the number of elated “info-blasts” my wife Jenni has sent me from Nanyuki describing her accomplishments and aptitude. Below, she shares one of the most insightful perspectives of the school and its students than I have yet to hear. I sincerely know that Daraja Academy is a better school because Olivia Capra is there. – Jason Doherty
Habari! These three weeks have flown by as I have tried desperately to savor each remarkable African sunrise and sunset; each day I find myself wishing my stay here would be six months instead of six weeks. I’ve also come to the consensus that Daraja Academy plagues you with a sort of “reverse writers block” where you have so many words and emotions swirling around in your head, so much you want to describe to those back home, that you don’t know where to start. Hence, my excuse for why I have waited three weeks to write my next blog. Pole sana, (very sorry)
My first day was everything I expected… for the first thirty minutes. Breakfast consisted of awkward glances at the new volunteer, and I stared into my porridge thinking “come on Olivia, when have you ever been shy, start talking!” As soon as Jenni introduced me to the girls, they all turned to acknowledge me, and then started cheering and clapping when she announced I would be here for six weeks. It was beyond the warmest welcome I could have envisioned, even though on the inside I was thinking “I hope they still feel this way in six weeks!”
Since that first day, it has been nothing but warm welcomes. Whether in Daraja or downtown Nanyuki, there is this aura of openness and invitation to any visitors and anyone will smile and wave, even the Masaii herding cattle on the side of the road. Where else can you see an interaction between extreme cultures without any remnant of hostility or ulterior motives? There has also been some funny interactions, like when Jenni, Kayla, and I were driving through Nairobi, and managed to bribe our way out of the routine police check points with a bag of candy we had just purchased. Or yesterday I had to move Mad Cow, the female cow, out of the way so I could get into my house. I don’t do that everyday in London!
Each day I am with the girls when they are not in class, teaching women’s empowerment and meeting in small, intimate settings. I have begun to create a picture of what it is like growing up in East Africa as a fifteen/sixteen year old. I spent my time preparing for this trip this past year comparing the U.S. to Kenya, affluent to the destitute, and now I see you can not draw those stratified lines easily. Here the innate way the girls speak to each other is unique, they do not exclude or separate, they know their tribal differences and religious segregations but to them this is no reason to divide. In group they show an unconditional love for one another by laughing and talking with whoever is in the chair next to them, and as they roam about their duties on the weekends you never see the same two girls together for very long. Unification comes easy.
Sharing, however, does not. Friendship to us back home in the Bay Area means you share your heart, as a close friend you are expected to share your feelings, and I am sure it would take hours if one were to flip through the yellow pages under “Psychologist”. Here there is a silence, an underlying knowledge that to share too much is to be weak, to show emotion takes away the strength you exude. The battles they have fought in childhood are rare among even the old and wise in developed countries, and while it has molded them into driven, hopeful young women, it has also carved a harder shell in which I am finding it hard to break. Silence should not be the only option. It has become the reason women are “second class citizens” in Kenya, the reason inequality of opportunity and treatment is darkened and defined over and over. My hope is that these 26 women learn the power of “no”, the power of “yes”, and the power to speak up and find their voice.
Daraja is developing fast and finding a careful balance between teaching and preserving tradition and initiative. It is not a “U.S.” school located outside Nanyuki, it is a Kenyan school full of builders and teachers who have fought their battles as well and stayed in their homeland to invest in the youth of this generation. They are a perpetual encouragement for the girls to be prideful of their roots, and to dream big. My time with the teachers has been an extreme learning opportunity for me, as I look at Kenya as an infrastructure I am studying to develop, they help complete this vision by sharing the cultural challenges and responses.
As my days here continue the world from my eyes has ceased to be black and white. While the obvious states my life has been filled with perpetual opportunity, support, and resources, and theirs intertwined with battles and poverty, the right answer no longer lies within the “esteemed” red, white, and blue. For where I am weak, they are strong, where I find joy in certain things, they know it is a conscious choice to live their life in joy. Where I find faith in my country because it’s Obama standing at the podium, they raise their flag every Monday morning in song and prayer because they find faith in Kenya, the country. They are not oblivious to what it lacks, to how it has failed them or challenged them as girls trying to become women, they simply choose to spend their energy on cherishing the hope that exists. As we star gaze in our nighttime small groups, the girls often share with me their dreams of seeing the U.S., Great Britain, and many countries whose existence to them merely lies in their history textbooks. Contrary to what we might think as proud Americans, these girls yearn to travel but do not want to call these countries their home. To them, there is only one place that will be home, one place that will let them praise God loudly, sing and dance the traditions their tribe passed on to them, and give them the abundant opportunity to use their education and passions.
Next week, we are having a birthday party for all the girls whose birthdays have taken place in the term so far, complete with decorations, party hats, cake, and possibly a few games of “Honey I love you, will you please please smile?”- which they love! Hopefully Andy will grace us with his opera voice again, and the girls won’t go into a 5 minute giggling fit at the sight of my dance moves this time! We are also working on reforming study hall, WISH classes, and I am starting to understand the details behind the development side of Daraja, and how fundamental water sourcing is. It is an exciting place to be, Daraja Academy, I feel so fortunate to be here, and I will write again next week and let you know how everything is going!
I have been volunteering at Daraja Academy for 8 months now (since October ’08). I started out just cleaning and doing some simple renovations, but I’ve now moved onto teaching and doing anything else that is needed of me. I’m just as passionate about this school now as I was when I first arrived here, but I’m always amazed at the energy level of our short term volunteers. Not just the energy that they possess, but also the energy they create amongst our students and staff.
Every volunteer brings their own talents, experiences, and personality to Daraja to share with our girls and our girls love it. Whether it is a four-day soccer camp/painting water-color landscapes of the campus, playing improv games, or writing poetry. Our students give it their best effort and have a blast doing it! And our students share right back.
Our girls are able to open up to our volunteers and share their life stories—the funny, the sad, the everyday occurrences that make these girls special. It really touches the volunteers who have been here. They form close friendships so quickly; it truly is amazing. And it’s truly a heartbreaking sight watching two best friends say goodbye. They may have only known each other for a week or two, but it has felt like years to them. Though it is a sad moment, both are happy to have had the other in their life, knowing that they will never be the same afterwards. It is especially remarkable knowing that without Daraja Academy they would foreverl be distant strangers.
Yes, I have been at Daraja Academy for quite some time. Yes, I am very homesick. Yes, I miss my family, my girlfriend, my friends. But no, there is no place I’d rather be. This is a special place with wonderful people helping incredible girls achieve a brighter future. Daraja means bridge, and I am but one bridge. Will you be another?
I will post this with out any edits. Sarah, is on safari with her mom and Claire in the most National Geographic-esque part of Kenya – the Maasai Mara, which is the Northern 1/10th of the Serengetti Plain. I will Publish her entire Email, as-is and let her own words speak for themselves. The fact that an 18 year old young woman from California can feel such a strong connection, makes the entire project and its identity as a “bridge between cultures” just feel right. -Jason
Hey! I just wanted today to say “Hi and that I miss you Jenni, and the girls a lot!”
I was wondering if I could do one last BLOG post because during the last days
I didn’t describe very well what was the most valuable. If you could relay this
message on to the girls that would be great. I will email more stuff
when we get to a better internet and computer.
Hi Girls! I miss you a lot already! I think about you a lot. I can’t
wait to hear how you girls are doing in school (and with football).
When I get back to America I will send you letters! We are currently
in the Maasai Mara and I know you girls would love the animals we have
seen (lions, cheetahs, rhinos, elephants, giraffes). I know you girls
may be having a hard time right now, but I don’t want you to be sad
because it will make me miss you more than I already am (which is a
Keep up all the hard work you are doing and know that I love
you all so very much and I can’t wait to be back! If you ever need me,
just ask Jenni how to get ahold of me for my information!
I love and miss you girls!
Thanks for sending this. Jenni, I miss you a lot too. I will cover any
expenses from the girls wanting to contact me! Words cannot describe
How did the past few days go?
Love and miss you!
Hello from Daraja…again! The past few days have been great! I finished the soccer (football) classes which were extremely successful. The girls were into every game and put in more effort than I see in the states. I have still not gotten used to the time difference and waking up at 2:30am or 4:30am is not the best for energy, but the sounds outside are unlike anywhere else. We have had some rain, but far form the amount we need. The river rose only a little after about 1 hour of heavy rain over three days. The food has only gotten better and Ruth, the cook, continues to shock me with the numerous ways she cooks maze, rice, beans, and vegetables. The children of the staff are so, so cute. They loved it when I kicked the soccer ball straight up into the air.
I could not have imagined the soccer classes going any better. The first day, the girls worked on passing, which after practice over the four days, the girls only used the inside of their foot, not their toe. The second day went just as well, except the second class was cut short by the rain (not a bad thing, great in fact!). Each day before I was on the field, the girls would already be juggling and trying to beat their record from the previous day – passion you cannot teach.
We have really practiced dribbling, only a few of the girls really knew how to dribble, a vital technique in soccer. However, once I showed them some moves and how to use all parts of their foot, they became naturals. I also taught them soccer tennis (tennis on a volleyball court, but with your feet). They absolutely loved it. When it was time to switch classes, they did not want to leave. The first times they tried were hard because you really have to communicate with your team about who is going to the ball and you also have to watch how hard you hit the ball, the two areas I though the girls needed the most help. But after some practice, they began calling for the ball and watching their weight of the pass and I noticed in the game that instead of playing kickball, which happened the first day, they settled the ball and passed on the ground.
The third day, we began with juggling, passing, and dribbling again, but I could already tell the girls had improved and really wanted to get better. We then worked on shooting. At first, the balls were too high or off to the side, but after practicing, the majority of the balls went into the net. The girls loved to play goalies against one another. On the last day, we just practiced all the previous drills, but we had a contest of which girl has the least number of goals scored against them and they absolutely loved it!
The culmination of the four days ended in a full-length, 90 min, 11 vs. 11 game. Prior to the classes, many of the teachers were commenting that one group had all the good soccer players and they would win. Although they did win 1-0 off a free kick in the last ten minutes, the game was much closer than I, or any of the staff thought. It was back and forth. The girls put in so much effort. They go to every ball. Fight until someone falls over or is completely exhausted.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the classes or the game turning out as well as they did!
As the girls were on mid-term break while I taught the soccer, they also had a lot of free time for other activities. One night we watched a taped game from the WUSA in 2001. It was the final between the Bay Area CyberRays and the Atlanta Beat. The girls never heard of either team or the league, but as soon as the game began, they chose a team to cheer for and were more excited than I was when I watched the game live in 2001. When the game went into penalty kicks, every time a goal was scored or saved, the girls jumped up and began screaming and cheering like I have never seen. Another night, we played improv games, which the girls loved, but had a very hard time with. It was a different manner of thinking for them. They were mostly concentration games. One in particular, you had to hold hands and pass a hand squeeze around the entire circle. Sounds easy to us, however, after numerous tries the girls struggled to pass it around the entire circle. This new manner of thinking, although difficult for the girls, will immensely help them in their way of thinking.
I have really gotten to know the girls and on Tuesday, they had their WISH class (Women of Integrity, Strength, and Hope). It was a truly amazing experience. I learned more about the personal lives of the girls and where they came from, who they are, and who they want to become. Most of the girls want to be doctors, however; only a handful will actually become one. Others wanted to be singers, lawyers, teachers, or accountants. The majority only want to have a few children because they want to work for most of their life, which is only practical with just a few children, unlike the families they are in, with as many as 9 other siblings. The girls also spoke about their primary schools. Most found it fun and enjoyable as there was less pressure than there currently is in secondary school. Many of the girls had to leave their home as early as 6am in order to walk miles to their school. The girls also shared when they began cooking for their families, many were around 5th or 6th grade, but a few began at 2nd grade, which is about 7 years old.
The girls also had to come up with 3 pieces of advice to give to a primary school student. Here are a few: “Never give up. Be disciplined. Work hard. Be self-confident. Believe you can do anything. Avoid bad company. Be attentive. Improve talents. Respect Elders. Be wise in your choices.” Many of these were repeated multiple times. Through WISH, I also learned that a few of the girls did not have either parent any more, whether though AIDS, a hit-and-run, or Meningitis. Until the WISH experience, I didn’t understand where the girls had come from and how different Daraja is for them.
The Daraja experience has been unbelievable. I wish I could stay all summer and I will definitely be back! The girls are amazing as are the staff and teachers. Although I don’t see the poverty and dire situations the girls have come from, I see the difficulty they have here and I can’t compare it to anything. The girls have lived off the land all their life, none of them have been out of Kenya or even their home village (except for Daraja).
This trip has been more than I wished for and I can’t believe it is almost over. I would recommend coming and getting to know the girls any day!
From the moment my daughter Sarah and her classmate Claire presented their proposal to volunteer at Daraja, I knew it would be a unique learning experience for them. They both posses a strong desire to help others, and were eager to share their particular skills with their “sisters” in Kenya. However, I also suspected that these two California teenagers would learn more from twenty-six Kenyan young women than either could have imagined.
As our time here at Daraja comes to an end, I’m reminded of Harper Lee’s words in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A wise and compassionate Atticus explains to his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Although our time here has been short, all three of us have begun to understand life from a Kenyan’s perspective. In doing so, I have personally begun to view my own life through a different lens.
As volunteers, we have been blessed with the opportunity to witness the strength, intelligence, grace and humor that each of these students possess. We have also experienced the wisdom and care that the entire faculty and staff demonstrate on a daily basis. Life on this campus, while at times challenging (water rationing may be a concern in California, but it is nothing compared to how rain dependent this region is), is filled with hope and beauty.
The “bridge” that is Daraja School is one that I hope to cross many times in the years ahead, and I encourage others to become part of this special undertaking in a region of the world so in need of our gifts. And yes, you will most likely receive more in return than you could ever imagine.
A week has passed by since my arrival. The first day at Daraja felt a little fuzzy. I was tired, sick of plane and car rides and frankly nervous as twenty six girls stared at me as we entered the dining hall. The next day, Jenni took us into Nanyuki (the local town). We visited a local bakery called La Boulangerie (Sp?) and drank mango juice (yum!). I thought the name was pretty funny. Afterwards, we visited two grocery markets, both catered to foreigners. The first grocery market was a mixture of a 99cents store and a supermarket. They sold everything from bedding to chips. After exiting the store, we were approached by two little boys begging for money. Later, I learned that they snort glue or even garbage to make the begging a little easier.
The fun part of the trip was watching Jenni. She walked confidently through Nanyuki and everyone seemed to know her especially a group of guys selling pirated movies!
Over the last four days, Sarah (Montgomery) and I taught soccer and art classes. The girls were divided into two groups: the “A’s” and the “B’s” groupings, and we both shared an hour with each group.
CLAIRE’S DARAJA ACADEMY ART CAMP!: I started off with drawing exercises that focused on looking… For the first class, I set up a still life. I don’t think many of the girls liked it, so for the second class, I asked different girls to model for the class. They seemed to enjoy it a little bit more. After that class, I changed the curriculum around based on their skill level and what I thought they liked. On the third day, I took the girls up to Jenni’s house which has a panoramic view of the whole campus. We worked on landscape drawing and watercolor. That was the first day I started to spot their creativity.
Every painting had bright and cheerful colors; one of the girls actually put a hippo into their painting! In the afternoon, during the second class, it rained, so we moved inside to Jenni’s living room. I think that was the first class I felt comfortable. They tried to teach me a Kikuyu song (the same song we danced to the night before) and laughed at my pronunciation. In return, I tried to teach them the only Chinese song I know. We didn’t get passed the first line, but it was still fun. I think what also helped was the music, after Beyonce was turned on, everyone was singing “to the left to the left”, even Andy.
On the third day, I focused on perspective drawing and mark-making. I think only about half of the students really got the idea of perspective, but it went better than I thought it would. For the mark-making part, I passed out animal books and ask them to pick an animal and draw it. After that, I asked them to outline the animal and encouraged them to make different marks on their animal. The animal drawings are AMAZING! I got really excited by the results, so I decided to challenge them more by doing self portraitures. I think it was a little too hard.
Overall, I think the girls improved; I definitely can spot some talent. Most of the girls were not exposed to art, so they struggled with it for the first few days.
They are also developing a sketch book habit. I was so excited when I walked into class one day, and they were voluntarily drawing in their sketch book. Also, the girls began to open up to me which was great because I definitely enjoyed the classes more. In the first day of class, everyone was so silent, but thankfully, by the end of the last class, they were talking, singing, and picking songs from my iPod. Personally, I struggled with the communication. Some of the concepts like perspective were really hard for me to put into words. Also, being a relatively shy person, it was nerve racking to stand up and teach.
At night, Sarah and I truly built a bridge with Daraja and the girls. Saturday night, we started off with a name game (which I failed miserably and got out in the first round), and afterwards they taught us a Kikuyu dance. On top of that, they performed a Massai dance and a skit. We also did an improv night, but I think Sarah is going to talk about it more in her BLOG.
The food here is amazing. I think that is one of the things I am going to miss most about Daraja Academy. I have gotten used to eating Uji for breakfast, and last night I had this amazing pancake like dish (sorry I forgot the name). Trust me it was delicious!!! YUMMY!
I definitely thought this trip was way too short. Just when I started to get the hang of campus, I realized we were leaving in a few days!!
It is even worse when students come up to Sarah and I and tell us that they thought we were staying longer, and to watch them shake their heads as we tell them that we are only staying for a few more days. It’s weird. I know we are in Africa, but when I am at Daraja, it doesn’t feel like Africa. Only when we step outside of campus do I feel like we are in Africa. I think part of the reason is because Jenni and Jason built a family called Daraja, and when I am inside that family, it feels like home. Daraja is an experience I will never forget, and I thank the Daraja family (the students, faculty, administrators, cooks, guards, and children) for making it memorable.
[STRAIGHT FROM THE SOUL OF THE FOUNDER OF DARAJA - CLAIRE, THANK YOU! I TYPE WITH TEARS IN MY EYES. YOU HAVE MADE DARAJA BETER BECAUSE YOUR HEART HAS BEEN ON CAMPUS AND BECAUSE YOU ARE, YOU!]