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Bringing Hope to Africa's Largest Slum

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It's 5 a.m. in Nairobi Kenya's Kibera slum -- the largest slum in Africa, where I was born and lived for 23 years.

My little brother, the youngest of the seven children in my family, is crying. He is hungry. He has not eaten since lunchtime yesterday, and even then, it was only a pinch of cooked corn flour -- which my father measures out at each meal so that we do not use too much.

I leave our ten square meter room at the sound of my brother's cry. This sound is my alarm clock. I must leave very early to go to the Catholic nuns to wait in line for the distributed foodstuffs.

I am the only child in this line, along with other poor women trying their best to care for their families. Always, I bring whatever food I was given back to my family, and then go to search for my own food in the garbage.

My mom, despite our suffering, was always proud. When we were kids she used to tell us to rub our lips with oil so that they would shine as if we had eaten something.

My father used to abuse her and keep our family hungry -- spending our little money on alcohol. Resisting, my mother taught me about gender equality.

As the first born in a poor family of eight, I was responsible. A child-adult. I began to sell peanuts on the road starting at age seven to put my siblings and myself through school. Despite my best efforts, two of my sisters had to drop out of school after becoming teenage mothers.

My dreams to change my community grew from my own personal experiences. The first time I ever had extra money -- 20 cents in 2005 -- I bought a soccer ball and started SHOFCO, one of the first youth groups in Kibera founded and run by slum residents.

With no funding, but with faith in people's abilities to change their own lives, I expanded this group, working with thousands of people on AIDS education, female empowerment, microfinance, sanitation, and community health work.

After seeing many women's lives crushed like those of my mother and sisters', I especially dreamed of finding a way to change the position of women in my society.

In 2007, I met Jessica Posner when she was a junior at Wesleyan University studying abroad in Nairobi. Jessica worked with SHOFCO and myself on a theater project in Kibera and became the first white person in living memory to actually live inside the slum itself. Jessica was also moved by the struggles facing the Kibera community, especially the plight of women and girls.

When political violence erupted in Kenya in December 2007, I was at risk because of my reputation as a community leader. Back in the United Sates, Jessica helped me escape to Tanzania, and then encouraged me to apply to Wesleyan because I had always talked about my own dreams of getting a college education.

When I came to Wesleyan, achieving what I thought impossible, Jessica and I began to work together to make our dream of changing the options available to women a reality.

Together, we co-founded a nonprofit, Shining Hope for Communities. We use an innovative, two-step community-driven model to combat gender inequality and extreme poverty. We link free schools for girls to holistic community centers that provide residents with the most essential services unavailable elsewhere.

In August of 2009, we opened The Kibera School for Girls -- the first free school for girls that now provides 67 vulnerable students with a high-quality education.

However, simply providing accessible education is not enough to change the value society places on women. The second step of our model provides the community-at-large with desperately needed services. The tangible link between a school for girls and desperately needed community services for all creates a unique social incentive structure, as the community learns to associate desperately needed services with an institution dedicated to girls' education, increasing the value placed on women.

Already, we have provided community-run infrastructure such as sanitary toilets and showers, water, health care and education, gardens, gender violence support groups, microenterprise for HIV positive women, youth empowerment programs, literacy/computer training, and hundreds of jobs.

This week, we will open the first community health clinic locally run at the executive level. Our impact has mitigated local deficits in education, sanitation, health, food security, and technological job skills. Together, we bring diverse perspectives to combat the cycle of poverty. We demonstrate every day that everyone deserves to live a life of dignity and hope.