My LitWorld team has just returned from a trip to work with the girls and women leading our Girls LitClub initiative in Kenya. Join me on this journey:
We traveled many hours on rocky roads to reach the Girls LitClubs in Kisumu from our base with the incredible Children of Kibera Foundation in Nairobi: down through the glorious Rift Valley and onward towards Lake Victoria. The countryside is lush and green, there are zebras grazing by the side of the road, as well as donkeys and cows. There are sheep herded and cared for by the peripatetic Masai, who face their own challenges from climate change and encroaching humanity. Watching them move their way through their fields, yet so close to the busy roads of urban life made me think of all the ways human beings are seeking both time to reflect and exist in peace and also how we all at the same time hunger to connect.
We arrived at dusk, with the fiercest of mosquitoes to greet us, in a startled haze of surprise to land into the deeply tropical heat of the Kisumu evening, so different from the cool temperate climate of Nairobi.
The very first thing in the morning, we were on our way to visit the four schools and our wonderful partners the Millennium Cities Initiative in Kisumu, where the Girls LitClubs are, as one head of school said, "causing a ripple effect that is literally changing our schools overnight."
Poverty is extreme in both the slums and the rural areas, where there is very little to eat and where girls are routinely expected to do hours of housework from the youngest possible age; where girls frequently leave school early for shame about their menstrual cycles or torn uniforms or lack of school fees or HIV/AIDS; where in one school of 600 children, 300 have been orphaned by AIDS; where many of the ten and eleven year-old girls are the head of their households; where girls are expected to sell themselves to marriage at thirteen so their family can survive off their dowries; where their eyes and hearts and minds spring to life with the pleasure of a poem, the joy of a song, the magic of friendship.
These LitClubs, they feel like life and death work to me now. Why? The LitClubs are showing the girls that there is something to live for, that they can come to school instead of trading their bodies for food and potentially contracting the same disease that has killed many of their family members. And the LitClubs are showing the world that education, in time, is like vaccinating a child against poverty. That we are racing time to make this happen because every day a child misses school and begins to fade out, we lose part of the next generation.
Even here in our US cities, children are socially and economically profoundly isolated by poverty, which is why our LitClubs are growing around the world, from Harlem to Manila, from Nairobi to Los Angeles. LitClubs bring the world's girls into the global realm, and give them a community they can count on. Giving the children who are most at risk for despair the gift of joy in learning is at least a small way to give back to them, not what they've lost, but a way to make a new future.
A story: One of our LitClub members is the child head of a household of many children, her siblings; both her parents died of AIDS. She frequently visits the lake near her school because the men down there will give her scraps of food in the morning; in exchange for the use of her body. She goes to school after this, and then home to collect water from a distance, cook, clean and care for her many younger siblings, and go to bed in the pitch black, sleeping on the floor in one room with all her siblings breathing quietly beside her. She has told me her life is hard, but she was the first to offer me her only biscuit at the snack time we provided (it was her only meal of the day). She said to me the other day: "The Girls Club is the first place I ever felt what it must be like to be happy. I love coming here and I wish I could be here with everyone singing and reading always."
I love the line "I am here for you" I found recently in a book of Buddhist meditations. I hope the LitClubs can be a way for us all to be here for her, for the girls to be here for each other, for us to be here for them, and through this, we all exist transactionally: We are here for each other.
One Club spent months collecting tiny bits of thread so they could embroider a gift for us. What people have, whatever they have, the human impulse (even if it is not always affirmed by the culture we live in) is to give. I see it mostly in children these days. We have much to learn from them. And of everything, each person's own stories are the easiest to give, and with literacy as a tool, every person can share them.
The embroidered gift was done in the most perfect way, with care and heart. So too, the girls' stories are perfect, because the stories are theirs. But they want to tell their stories in new ways now. The LitClubs have given them that sense of sizzling possibility. Stories of going to school and staying in school. Stories of gaining skills that will allow them to learn about new ways to purify water, cultivate eggs for chickens, harvest crops, and go to college.
The girls are talking about launching an "Egg Project," where they will each cultivate an egg, hatch to a chicken and sell it at the market. They have promised me they are going to tell the stories of those eggs, and practice writing plans for their budgets for them and they can't wait to see them hatch. Stories of healthy, loving, committed relationships, friendships, connections. One of the girls said: "I never had a friend before the LitClub." All of this is possible with the tool of literacy: reading and writing set us free.
This work is an urgent flame pulsing in my heart: The time is now because the child of eleven is a child of twelve tomorrow. She has no time.
Girls from all over the province came to meet for the first time at our Girls LitClub meeting. Over one hundred girls raised their voices for education and the power of their own words. For literacy, which is the ultimate tool for protection, for health, for safety, for innovation, for knowledge, for inspiration.
Something else happened in Kisumu that day. The mothers or guardian mothers and grandmothers of the girls came together. We invited them to join us to learn what their daughters are doing in the LitClubs and to help them to ensure the girls have safe and quiet spaces at home to study and learn.
Many of the women had never held a pen in their own hands, so we took things step by step. There was lots of laughter, lots of drawing, lots of excitement. The women helped each other to write on paper for the first time.
They were so proud to be there, and to be together, united for hope that their daughters, unlike themselves, would move forward in a formal education. Yet, I hope they left feeling that they are also their daughters' great educators in how they model the importance of their own hard work and dedication and their courage in coming to this meeting, and taking up their pens, using them to create change.
As soon as they shared their stories, the room came alive. I said, "It is your own stories that will change your daughters' lives and inspire them forward." They told stories with tears: What peace means to them is that their children will have enough to eat, that the nights will no longer be so dark. In the end, we asked them to draw images of their daughters and speak out their hopes for them. Their pictures poured forth from those pens. Their stories poured forth. They want for their daughters a new world, fiercely, deeply.