There is little more that I love than learning new things. I haven’t always enjoyed sitting in a classroom learning, but after about four years out of grad school, I found I did miss that, too. So in 2012, I began taking classes to earn a couple of graduate certificates over at Northern IL University. The courses were unlike anything I had taken in quite some time, including a theory course – which was a struggle for this concrete individual.
This theory class, though, took me down a path of learning I never could have anticipated – all the way to Kenya. During the course, our professor brought in folks to speak about projects they were involved with (this was a feminist theory course, so the projects were all feminist in nature). One night, the two people who joined our class were Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno. Originally from Kenya, they had moved to the States in an effort to give their boys a better life.
The project they were in class to share with us was the Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls (JAMS) – a school they had founded in Kenya. Girls in Kenya face many hurdles to education (not having school fees; needing to work to help pay for needs at home; if something happens at home, the girls are the ones held back; not having access to clean water or feminine hygiene products during menstruation; in the case of one primary school nearby, the girls were sent during school to fetch water for the teachers to drink; and many more obstacles). Teresa had a dream to open up a boarding school for girls where at least half of the students would be there on scholarship – a school good enough for the richest and open to the poorest – where these girls could get an education that would quite literally change the trajectory of their lives.
The project caught my attention and settled right smack dab in the middle of my heart – I wanted to get involved. I’m pretty sure I talked about nothing else for weeks after. When the course ended, the class met at a local restaurant for dinner and to celebrate finishing the semester. One of the other women in the course was telling me about a fundraising idea she had to raise money for scholarships for the school in Kenya. I confided in her an idea that I had – to teach memoir, create a collection, and use the proceeds for scholarships. I hadn’t shared the idea with the professor because I assumed she would think it was a silly idea – so when this woman turned to our prof and said, “You have to hear this,” I’m fairly sure my cheeks burned bright red.
But she loved the idea. So much so that I was in her office that next Monday speaking with the school’s founders about it – who also loved it. We even figured out an internship for the next semester where I would create this curriculum. A year later, I spent three weeks at the school teaching that curriculum, collecting the memoirs with the girls’ permission (they all wrote a short memoir, but only those that wanted to participate would end up in the book – all but one student granted us permission), and learning so much.
I will have to write another time about my experience at the school because that deserves its own attention. I will say this, though – I have never witnessed such hard working students in my entire life. To say these girls were inspirational is incredibly inadequate.
This last Monday, I met with Teresa. I was able to return to her the handwritten memoirs (which have been typed and edited). We spent a couple hours double checking the spelling of every name – it took a couple hours because as we went through them, Teresa filled me in on where the girls were now (the young woman, I should say by now) and gave me even more background on just how far many of them have come. These women are living proof of the difference an education can make.
We are now at the point of typesetting and creating a cover, which means we are getting so much closer to being able to hold this published collection in our hands. I can’t wait to see it.