The Power of One

One Girl Can helps young women stay in school in sub­Sa­ha­ran Africa. Joy Pecknold trav­els there to learn more.

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O n the drive out of Nairobi’s Jomo Keny­atta In­ter­na­tional Air­port around mid­night, I see groups of hye­nas, wilde­beests and ze­bras scat­tered along the me­di­ans. They’re stat­ues, but in the dark­ness they seem al­most real. Most tourists come to Kenya for sa­faris, but I’ll be fol­low­ing Lotte Davis, co-founder of Van­cou­ver-based AG Hair, on one of her vis­its to learn about the five schools and 193 stu­dents she sup­ports through her char­ity, One Girl Can.

Af­ter a brief nap, I catch an­other flight with Davis to Masinga, a small ru­ral vil­lage 150 kilo­me­tres north­east of Nairobi. When we land, we drive along dirt roads that are best suited for off-road ve­hi­cles and pass cat­tle ema­ci­ated by a third straight year of drought. At the Masinga Girls Sec­ondary School, we are greeted by hun­dreds of stu­dents singing in Swahili: “Our vis­i­tors are glit­ter­ing from their foot to their head.” They sur­round us and put tin­sel gar­lands around our necks. I’d take an­other 20-hour flight just to hear that song again.

As as­sid­u­ous as they come, 66-year-old Davis has mas­tered the art of con­dens­ing a cou­ple of days’ work into half a day. Be­fore lunch, she’s al­ready met with the head­mistress and new schol­ar­ship stu­dents, checked on build­ing projects and con­ducted a 2.5hour work­shop about con­fi­dence and ca­reer plan­ning. That’s when the girls learn her rea­son for be­ing here.

Davis was born in South Africa and grew up in the midst of apartheid, wit­ness­ing seg­re­ga­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion and vi­o­lence. “I think I have an in­nate sen­si­tiv­ity »

to in­jus­tice,” she says. “I re­mem­ber be­ing four or five years old and lis­ten­ing to how some peo­ple were spo­ken to and treated dif­fer­ently.” She im­mi­grated to Canada in the ’60s and built a $30-mil­lion pro­fes­sional hair com­pany with her hus­band but knew she wanted to do some­thing that would em­power girls, es­pe­cially in Africa. See­ing her two daugh­ters leave home was the tip­ping point. “One day, I went down [to their rooms] and there was noth­ing left, and I wept un­con­trol­lably. I thought, ‘The best thing I’ve done in my life is over.’ That was the day I started look­ing for or­ga­ni­za­tions in Africa.” In 2008, she re­turned to her home con­ti­nent to get in­volved with girls’ ed­u­ca­tion. To­day, be­cause of ex­treme poverty, poor gov­ern­ment fund­ing and gen­der dis­par­ity, sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa has the high­est dropout rates of girls in the world.

Back in Nairobi, we catch a morn­ing flight for Malindi to visit Ganze Girls Sec­ondary School. Here, One Girl Can’s lat­est project is build­ing two sci­ence labs—with­out them, the girls who dream of be­com­ing doc­tors wouldn’t have a chance. There we meet 17-year-old stu­dent Re­hema. She’s a B stu­dent and ex­celling at math but is fre­quently sent home be­cause her fam­ily can’t af­ford to pay the school’s fees. Her fa­ther lives in an­other city and con­trib­utes $12 a week of his car­pen­ter’s salary to his fam­ily of nine; her mother makes $12 a week at the mar­ket and col­lects fire­wood for the school to help de­fray fees. The Kenyan gov­ern­ment only sup­plies teach­ers and some text­books; sec­ondary-school tu­ition can cost $500 a year per child.

When Re­hema is not in school, she has to fetch wa­ter twice a day for her fam­ily. We fol­low her on the 90-minute re­turn trip to the near­est wa­ter source. On the way back, she makes bal­anc­ing a full 18-kilo­gram jerry can on her head look easy, while the rest of us are merely bur­dened by the scorch­ing pre-noon­day sun. Davis de­cides on the spot that Re­hema will be One Girl Can’s lat­est ben­e­fi­ciary.

Grow­ing up in the more pros­per­ous cap­i­tal isn’t nec­es­sar­ily any eas­ier. In Nairobi, we visit Kib­era, the largest ur­ban slum in Africa, where about 250,000 peo­ple live within 2.5 square kilo­me­tres. Elec­tric­ity is sparse and san­i­ta­tion nonex­is­tent, and “you smell Kib­era be­fore you see it,” Davis fore­warns.

The Kib­era school project is spe­cial to Davis, in part be­cause of 18-year-old Rahma, a stu­dent she met here eight years ago. When they are re­united, I see the ef­fect they’ve had on each other. In Rahma’s pres­ence, Davis is the soft­est I’ve seen her. Rahma is striv­ing for a dif­fer­ent life. She wants to get out of the slum, earn her own money and then come back to help Kib­era. “The minute I saw her, I knew there was some­thing so spe­cial about her,” says Davis. “There was a de­ter­mi­na­tion in her eyes.” The next day at Nembu, a sec­ondary school 40 min­utes out­side the slum that has taken in three girls from Kib­era, I think of Rahma when I read the prin­ci­pal’s plac­ard: “Where a girl is born is not her des­tiny.”

To get to the fifth school, we fly to north­ern Uganda and drive be­tween the Atanga Girls Sec­ondary School and Gulu, where we’re stay­ing. The tem­per­a­ture hov­ers be­tween 43°C and 46°C, yet women walk the red dusty road car­ry­ing both ba­bies and wa­ter jugs. We meet 21-year-old Ak­era, a lab as­sis­tant at St. Mary’s Hos­pi­tal La­cor. She’s un­flag­gingly cheer­ful and tells us that when she was study­ing for her train­ing cer­tifi­cate, she used to dodge the uni­ver­sity regis­trar for months be­cause she couldn’t pay the fees. One Girl Can heard about her and stepped in, and she is im­mensely grate­ful. She joins us for our last sup­per wear­ing a vi­brant dress and match­ing head scarf. She re­veals that her fa­ther lives in town but has no in­ter­est in hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with her. And, with tears in her eyes, she re­counts the time her aunt’s hus­band tried to force him­self on her. The meal ends, and Ak­era gets up to leave. Af­ter hug­ging me, she takes the scarf off and places it in my hands. “I can’t take this,” I rea­son. “It matches your dress!” She in­sists, and I ac­cept, my eyes welling up.

I think about that sign: “Where a girl is born is not her des­tiny.” Davis be­lieves this, too. “Th­ese girls are fiercely de­ter­mined, and I’m fiercely de­ter­mined to help them,” she says. “My job is to give Rahma and Ak­era and the thou­sands of other girls like them the chance to achieve the same goals we have for our own daugh­ters.”

IN RU­RAL KENYA, CLEAN WA­TER CAN MEAN A 90-MINUTE HIKE TO AND FROM THE WELL (ABOVE); OUR WEL­COME AT THE MASINGA SCHOOL

ONE GIRL CAN RE­CIP­I­ENTS AK­ERA AND RAHMA (BE­LOW)

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