Sometime in early July of 2010, I wandered into the principal’s office of St. George’s Secondary School in Kayafungo, Kenya, with a proposition. I wanted to write with his students, no strings attached. All I needed, I said, was some students willing to engage with me. I didn’t even require a classroom; I could work out the logistics on my own so I did not take up too much of their time. The principal greeted me with the reply of “impossible is nothing,” and I knew I found the right place.
I visited St. George’s earlier in June and found myself enveloped by the atmosphere of community and focus on success that St. George’s encouraged. Outside of classroom doorways, teachers papered the smooth concrete block walls with student work: a cartoon depicting a corrupt Kenyan policeman by the Form Three door, an essay about HIV/AIDS by a Form Four classroom, a poem about school rules by the main office. I was impressed. Yet in all of these moving pieces of writing, not one that I read included the use of the word “I”. Coming from my background, where personal reflections and feelings are ingrained as crucial from a very young age, I could not help but wonder how a lack of personal narrative within their educational system affected the self-perceptions and motivations of the students. My questions catalyzed the idea for this project.
To paraphrase the mission of SWSG, the utilization of lessons learned from strong women to encourage young women to become strong women themselves is intimately connected to my goal for my project in Kenya. I wanted my Kenyan students to tell their stories in their own words which could then serve as an inspiration for others. At my first workshops at the schools in Kayafungo, I already knew that the students would transform this program into something completely different than I envisioned. I wanted the finished product, the book Till Human Voices Wake Us, to be theirs in the truest sense. The students sensed the opportunity for real ownership and agency, hungrily jumping on each writing prompt with fierceness I seldom witness in my college classes.
Since we needed to move fast, I devoted the time we spent together to discussing topics, brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and peer editing. The students wrote after each session concluded. As each student began to read his or her works aloud, I watched the program morph into mini-therapy sessions. Some students touched on serious topics: “As I approached home, I realized that there was a total silence that had befallen the whole place…” wrote my student named Hawaa. “…My dear papa was lying down… He had been murdered… Unable to utter a word, my knees surrendered to the ground.” Others, such as a girl named Patra, touched on the universal theme of love: “Loving is not how you forget but how you forgive, not how you listen, but how you understand, not what you see but how you feel, not how you let go but how you hold on.” This group of students was never asked to fully disclose their personal experiences and was enthralled with the concept of the freedom to share. I found myself unprepared for the level of investment from the students and how they would shape their writing assignments to fulfill unmet personal needs. Their stories truly highlighted how underneath, we all experience the same fundamental human emotions, allowing anyone to read their stories, feel deep connections, and learn from their experiences.