Let me tell you something; I'm never going to turn down an invite to Africa. That’s just the 100 percent blackity-black truth. So when she left I said to my roommate, “I’m going to create a curriculum, you’re going to organize our fundraising efforts and we’re going to pitch it to her and see if they’re interested in us bringing this program to Kenya within the next 12 months.” I created the curriculum. My roommate facilitated our fundraising efforts. We pitched the idea to the director of the school. They loved our idea and invited us to come a year to the date of our initial introduction.
I was in Africa for fewer than 24 hours before I thought to myself, “I won’t be able to go directly back to L.A. when I leave here.” My 10-week trip to Nyahururu, Kenya to implement the curriculum I designed called “The Free Girl Initiative” at Pan African Christian Education (PACE) High School was such a dramatic contrast to the work I had been doing with the homeless community in Los Angeles leading up to this trip. I was certain I would need a spiritual, emotional and mental revival before I could return to the constant striving and disconnection from 'community' that I felt in L.A. In Los Angeles, the palm trees can almost make the homeless-lined streets of downtown seem unreal. Like, "it’s too beautiful here for these people to be homeless. This is not real." But homelessness in L.A. is very real, indeed. But in Kenya, there's nothing at all that can make the poverty pretty. It's sobering. It's grey. It's a perfect reminder of our first-world privilege. It's just the kind of experience that makes you question the “Why?” and “How?” of what you’re doing with your life.
We flew into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi; the only international airport in Kenya. Before leaving the city, we rode passed Kibera, a shanty town inside of Nairobi that is actually considered one of the largest slums in the world. If you have never been, you can't fathom what it looks like for close to a million people to literally live on top of each other in little shacks. Nevertheless, this is Kibera. This is what true poverty looks like.
After leaving Nairobi, we had to drive three hours out of the city into rural Kenya, where we would be staying at a mission for the duration of our time there.Photo: The Expeditioner
I remember making lofty plans and setting big goals about what I intended to accomplish while there. But when I got there, I was the one that would never be the same. Every single day I had to check my American-ness and my Western-ness at the door before I went to serve those girls. Every single day I was reminded of how fortunate I am to have very basic things I never spent much time thinking about, such as hot water, floors made of ANYTHING but concrete, windows that are constructed with materials that keep the elements outside, not having to worry about illnesses such as malaria, having enough food to feed my family and whether or not I would have access to free public education.
Although gender parity (the index used to measure the relative access males and females have to education based on their enrollment in a given stage of education) has been reached in Kenya’s primary education system, data shows that enrollment remains low for girls in secondary education, and that literacy is low for adult women compared to men. This is likely due to the failure to promote and retain girls in secondary education [Kenya EFA Assessment, 2014, the Government of Kenya (Draft report)]. There is little emphasis put on mentoring girls into leadership roles and patriarchy produces a social construct that still instructs girls to never intentionally do better than the boys; “Because you have to marry them… and who wants to have a wife that is smarter than them?” That’s the reason why I created “The Free Girl Initiative” curriculum through the work I do through my organization, “The Free People Project.” I wanted to provide a counter narrative for the girls at PACE High School and give them new ideas of what their futures could look like instead of allowing their parents’ histories to dictate their realities.
Of all the reasons these girls have to fail, paying their tuition should not be one of them. And believe me when I say that at schools like PACE, where the goals are large but the resources are often slim, they NEED to have all their students paying fees or they will have to make choices about who can stay or go. The curriculum that I created deals heavily with deconstructing the ideas of beauty, instructs on what it looks like to create plans for actualizing goals versus simply dreaming, and it also puts a great deal of time into redefining their ideas of feminine versus masculine as it pertains to leadership roles, authority and power.PACE High School girls involved in The Free Girl Initiative, Doing Yoga for the first time. Photo: Ebony Janice
I didn’t move back to L.A. when I came back to the states after my first time in Africa. I genuinely couldn’t process poverty in the richest country in the world after being in Kenya for 10 weeks seeing people with so little being so grateful. But I have been back to Africa several times. This is the work that I’ve continued to do there and will continue to do – taking the ideas of “The Free Girl Initiative” to Johannesburg and to Cape Town, South Africa since those few months I spent at PACE High School a few years ago. Because I have seen the impact of bringing tangible resources to Africa in conjunction with innovative instructional materials and empowering curriculums, I've recently launched a new initiative to raise money to support the tuition of several high school aged girls at PACE Schools in Nyahururu, Kenya. The initiative is centered around a hand drawn picture of Beyoncé at the Super Bowl with one of her hands in a Black Power fist with the words “Beyoncé Knows” hanging above. Because clearly, Beyoncé knows something.[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="700"] @EbonyJanice in #BeyonceKnows t-shirt. Photo: Ebony Janice[/caption]
I have been very inspired by the work around equality for women that I’ve seen Beyoncé promote in pop culture through her own brand of feminism. First with her song lyrics, “Who run the world? Girls!” And a few years later chanting, “Ok, Ladies, now let’s get in formation.” I believe that Beyoncé knows that in order for girls to actually run the world (in a decidedly patriarchal society) we must get information. Girls will run the world when they have equal access to education. That's why a portion of each “Beyoncé Knows” shirt that we sell is going directly towards the tuition of a girl at PACE High School. The goal is to sponsor the full tuition of at least 25 girls this year. I’m still idealistic enough to believe that we can change the world.
So we shall.