As we reflect on this year’s amazing milestones, we can’t help but go back to square one: What types of girls enter the Daraja gates? Who were they before they were freshmen at Daraja? Every girl seems to have her own story of absolute determination. We’ve highlighted Fatuma A, an approaching senior at the academy.
Life before Daraja:
Fatuma’s father was the center of the family, holding a government job and often hosting family and friends in their home. Unfortunately, he passed away when Fatuma was only four years old. With his death, the financial support of the family dissipated and many of the their “friends” disappeared as well.
Fatuma’s mother struggled to maintain jobs and was forced to sell bread and tea in the evenings to support her children. This meant that Fatuma and her brother were left to fend for themselves in the evenings growing up.
The primary school that Fatuma attended lacked funds and had limited school facilities. The teachers would frequently not show up for classes and, knowing Fatuma’s smarts and leadership abilities, often left her to teach the class.
During her admissions interview, Fatuma admitted that she wants to better her situation because she hates asking people for money. She said if she didn’t get into Daraja Academy, she would have helped her mom start a business in order to come up with school fees.
Today at Daraja Academy:
Fatuma aspires to be an ambassador due to an inner desire to travel and passion for current events. During her first week at school, she asked staff members for newspapers so that she could stay updated on world news. She is inspired by Michael Ranneberger, the former US Ambassador to Kenya, and aims to help people with similar problems to hers, to fight against child abuse and to help create environmental awareness.
Despite being from a small town in rural Kenya, Fatuma has a keen global outlook and a hunger to understand the world beyond her borders.
This is not a normal Daraja Academy update for me. In all honesty as the school has grown, I have written fewer and fewer updates for the website, even though it is something I truly love. However, after reflecting on the events of November 20th, 2012, I feel a deep need to do just that.
One week ago Daraja’s pioneer class completed three weeks of grueling tests and in doing so, four years of secondary school. These 25 young ladies have set a standard of excellence, not only for future classes at Daraja Academy, but also for every person who has gotten the chance to know them personally. They have worked so hard. They have grown physically and emotionally, taking risks culturally as well as with their hearts.
And there I sat at dinner, after they had taken their tests and before they embarked upon their post-secondary school lives, I watched each of them stand and express what their Daraja experience has meant to them. I watched an incredible team of supporters, made up of teachers, garden workers, cooks and more – smiling and nodding in agreement, aware and caring for each young woman. As I watched the tears well up, it occurred to me what exactly the magic of Daraja is…
Four years ago 25 interviews were conducted across Kenya. 25 girls that had just finished their primary school education, who deeply wanted to continue their schooling but simply did not have the support to do so… and they gained support.
Over four years a web of support grew, and it grew faster than anyone could have expected. Sponsors from Northern California to New York took personal interest in the student’s lives and stayed in constant communication with them as they grew both inside and outside of the classroom. Grandmothers and granddaughters made crafts, sisters created Daraja-specific giving circles, while high school Daraja clubs held concerts and informational fundraisers.
The support for this pioneer class was not just an international phenomenon. As people around Kenya began to learn about Daraja Academy, a following of supporters grew nationally as well. Nothing demonstrated the support behind the girl’s success better than “prayer day”. Held two weeks earlier, mainly for friends and family, three area chiefs and the District Educational Officer chose to attend Daraja’s small gathering rather than dozens held at other schools. Amazingly, two Olympic medalists and a world record holder also drove the 4 hours from Nairobi to lend their love.
The 12 kilometer world record holder Lineth Chepkurui has been a staunch supporter of Daraja Academy since the 2011 Bay to Breakers and she spread her “Daraja Fever” to a few of her friends. 1500 meter Gold Medalist Nancy Jebet Langat and 5,000 meter Silver medalist Eliud Kipchoge accompanied Lineth to Nanyuki so they could also wish the test takers well.
So it took me four years to realize it, but finally at that commencement dinner it became clear what the magic was that attracted all of this support, and that magic was hope. The girls dared to hope when they applied to Daraja and they continue to hope today. Our world is so full of discouraging stories that the chance to support a group of students like those at Daraja, to provide them with hope, in turn provides us with a little too.
At 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 20, Daraja’s Form 4s sat for their business exam, the final of twenty exams. Two and a half hours later, Daraja’s teachers and administration convened outside Exam Room 5, and entered the room just as test administrators finished collecting the papers. “You’re done,” said the administrator, and a loud cheer erupted from both students and staff. Nasibo, a Muslim, led the girls in prayer; then Teacher Mwambura lead a Christian prayer. (Daraja is not a religious school, but respects the importance of religion in Kenya.) His prayer quickly turned to lively dancing, singing, clapping, and shouting, and after this cathartic release of energy the girls lined up to hug their teachers and administration before heading off to lunch. Teachers and students alike shed tears as they exchanged hugs of gratitude. Take a look here at this post-test celebration:
“How does it feel?” was everyone’s question as the girls ate. Leila said, “It doesn’t feel like I’ve done all twenty exams – it feels like there are more coming.” At one point during lunch, Maureen needed her peers’ attention, and called out, “Form 4s!” only to be rebuked by shouts of, “We’re not Form 4s anymore!” The dining hall was filled with the buzz of excitement, relief, and pride, as girls ate small portions of githeri (saving room for a big dinner).
The rest of the day was spent packing, cleaning dorms, and discussing the upcoming transition program, which starts April 1, 2013, and while it is not mandatory, most Form 4s seem excited about it, because it means that today is not “goodbye,” but, rather, “see you later.” (The transition program will allow the newly completed Form 4s to return to Daraja for a few months in preparation for whatever comes next, be it university, working, creating businesses, etc. More information will be released next month!)
Then, at 6:30 p.m., everyone convened in the dining hall, which kitchen staff had spent the entire day preparing. Tables were lined up end-to-end to accommodate seating for all 25 Daraja girls, teachers, administration, and staff. Red tablecloths covered them, each topped by empty bottles full of flowers. Former Daraja teachers – Susan and Peris – and a Nanyuki priest – Father Cyral – were in attendance. There was a prayer, and then there was food – nyama choma (grilled beef), chicken, rice, salsa, chapatti, French fries, fruit salad, and soda. As they ate, Daraja cofounder Jason Doherty asked the girls to think about their “light bulb moment” – the moment when, at Daraja, it all “made sense.” “My light bulb moment,” he would explain later in the evening, “was at prayer day, when there was so much support – chiefs from nearby villages who chose to come here; the DEO who had a million other prayer days he could be at…When you were in Class 8, you were brave enough to apply to Daraja. There were 26 girls who dared to believe in themselves. You were the best. Don’t rest on that. In a few days that won’t mean much – you have to keep trying, keep excelling.”
Here’s a look at some of the light bulb moments and/or lists of gratitude:
Nasibo: “I am grateful for the administration, teachers, Daraja staff, and last, for the Form 4s. Thank you for being my sisters. Thank you for showing me love.”
Victoria (Deputy Principal): “I didn’t know how close we were and how blessed we were until prayer day – that was my light bulb moment.”
Leila: “I am so grateful for Teacher Peris, who taught me so much.”
Nurse Jacinta: Her favorite moment was a few weeks ago, when she saw how overwhelmed the Form 4s were with studying. So, she tricked them and told them she needed them to take a break from studying to cut the grass, but instead had them meet with her in her office to help the girls relax by joking around, talking, and having fun for a little while.
Mercy: “I am so grateful for the kitchen staff and all you do for us and all you’ve done for us tonight.”
Charles (Administration): His favorite moment was on March 2, 2010 – his birthday – when the Form 4s took him by surprise and dumped water on him. A year later it dawned on Charles, and the girls, that not only was March 2 his birthday, but it had also marked the year-anniversary of the first day of classes at Daraja.
Mary K: “I love the way Daraja supports different people who have different talents.”
Myna (farm staff): He was so proud of his Daraja sisters, whom he encouraged to excel outside school gates. “It is not ever my desire to see one of our students living in the streets,” he cautioned.
Benny: “I am grateful for WISH Class.”
Carol: She explained her appreciation of Daraja’s four pillars: 1 – be accountable for the role you play at Daraja, neither neglecting nor abusing it; 2 – maintain open communication – speak honestly and listen respectively; 3 – embrace differences and treat all with dignity and respect; and 4 – each day, leave it better than you found it. Carol also compared the Daraja family to a tree, saying that the sponsors and founders were like the roots (which grew and sustained the tree), teachers were the branch (that students could lean on) and Daraja staff were the leaves.
Teacher Mercy: “Students here are our motivation. At other schools you’re often pushing students who don’t want to learn. Here, everyone wants to learn.”
Lilian: “God never gives us a wish without the ability to make it come true. When I was in primary school I dreamed of going to secondary school, and now I’ve completed it.”
The presentations of gratitude were followed by a treat never before shared at Daraja – ice cream. As they enjoyed dessert, everyone watched a slideshow of pictures of the girls as younger students. Then, the girls presented a song that they dedicated to Jenni and Jason – “Because You Love Me,” by Celine Dion. Following the song, Jenni, tearing up, said, “Working with you has been our greatest privilege. We are who we are because you loved us. If we learned nothing else we learned about love – the power of love and inspiration…We just got to borrow you for four years. Now, you’re going to bring that love back home and spread this ripple effect.”
Thank you too all of the people that are involved with this project- the inspiring students, the incredible teachers, dedicated campus staff, passionate volunteers, hardworking board members, generous donors and loyal sponsors. We did it!
In her words-Newly completed Maureen’s take on her final day of high school:
I’m happy to finish my high school education and I thank the Daraja Family for making my life at Daraja a success by supporting me in every way. On the 20th I finished my last exam at 2:00. Before I started the exam I was thinking that it seemed like ten years before the test would end. When it ended I was so grateful and so excited. I couldn’t hold my tears back – I had to cry. At two when the papers were collected we had everyone come and cheer for us in the exam room, which was so emotional and exciting. People shed tears of joy. We sang, we prayed, and we hugged each other. I was so grateful.
In the evening we had a party. It was a celebration for us finishing school. We had everyone share a “light-bulb moment” and everyone shared what they’re grateful for and others gave gratitude to various groups around campus. The Form 4s dedicated a song to Ms. Jenni and Mr. Jason, and we danced, enjoyed the food, and said goodbyes to the teachers. We saw a slideshow of when we were younger – it reminded me of the memories we had when we arrived the first year. I saw I changed a lot. The way I came to Daraja is not the way I’m walking out today. I’m leaving Daraja a courageous lady who knows how to make decisions and who is independent.
Writing sponsor letters has been an important Daraja tradition for the last four years. At the end of each term, once the girls have finished their exams, they gather to prepare letters to send to their (mostly) U.S. sponsors. These letters usually include a piece of artwork created by each girl, and two photos with girls’ descriptions written on the back. The letters have many purposes – they serve to update sponsors on what the girls did that term, they are a platform on which the girls can express their gratitude for their sponsors, and they help create relationships between people thousands of miles apart, who might not meet face-to-face but who share a very important connection. “The most interesting thing about writing the sponsor letter is that you get to reflect on what you’ve done through the term,” explained Leila, F4.
The relationship is reciprocal – many students receive letters from their sponsors, too. Leila likes this, because even though she’s never met her sponsors face-to-face, she feels like they have a relationship. “My sponsors tell me about their Colorado state and what’s going on in the other side of the world,” she explained.
Betty, Form 4, likes communicating with her sponsor because “I get to know how’s she’s faring in the U.S.” Her sponsor came to visit the Daraja campus, and Betty said, “I think we became friends when she came here – we spent some time and shared some things together.”
Of course, the Form 4s will be graduating from Daraja in a few days. When asked how they feel that this might be one of the last sponsor letters they’ll write, Leila responded, “For me it won’t be the last.” Betty agrees. “I’m a little bit sad but then I know I’ll keep in contact with her after school.”
Girls at Daraja were understandably nervous before their first KCSE exam on October 26, because a student’s KCSE score determines whether she will be eligible to attend university or college, and whether or not she receives government sponsorship (i.e. loan eligibility). Without at least a B+, students are not likely to receive monetary support from the Kenyan government, making it impossible for many Kenyans to afford school costs. Some Daraja girls shed tears as they joined staff early that first exam morning for last-minute words of encouragement. However, two weeks later and after half the exams, most girls, like Monicah, feel nervous “for some [exams] still but not as much as the first day.” Mostly, the girls’ confidence has increased with the passing of each exam, and now, even though some exams seem challenging, girls are no longer scared.
Daraja girls sit for twenty exams in eight different subjects. They are all tested in Biology, Chemistry, English, Swahili, Math, Christian Religious Education (CRE), and Business; in addition, some take Geography and the others take History and Government. Nearly everyone agrees that the practical chemistry exam – one of three total chemistry exams – was the hardest. These “practical” science exams highlight a difference between American SATs and the KCSEs, where students must do actual chemical, biological, or physical experiments as part of the exam. Esther explained that, in the practical chemistry exam, “the procedures were long and following instructions was very hard and time was limited.” In fact, said, Hadijah, even though this exam lasted two hours and fifteen minutes, almost half the class didn’t finish, perhaps because the instructions were so “long and detailed.”
At the end of the first exam, most girls emerged from the testing room smiling and appeared relieved. “The tests are fair enough,” explained Monicah, whose easiest test was math because “I love math and I think I do good in math.” Of course, pointed out Emily, a test might seem easy “but we are not sure till the results are out”; still, like Monicah explained, girls “just feel relieved, free” after each exam. “We just feel we’ve done our best and we’re hoping for good results,” says Emily. It helps, too, not to dwell on the completed exam and worry about answers already submitted – explains Hadijah, “I think it’s easy when you’re not discussing it – just forget about it and focus on other things.”
The girls are wise not to spend every moment between exams studying. Rather, explained Emily, “We study for some time and then we rest and then we continue with studies after the rest – we continue alternating with the study, rest, study rest.” This tactic, which girls learned in WISH (Women of Integrity, Strength, and Hope) Class, is important because, says Esther, “You’re able to reflect on what you’ve understood and maybe go back and look over what you didn’t understand.” Daraja girls also unwind between study sessions by dancing, listening to music, taking walks, and doing basic chores around their dorms.