It takes no time at all to get a sense for the culture at Daraja Academy. The campus is a utopia of positivity, learning, laughter, respect, and diligence created by the staff and the 120 Kenyan secondary school girls that call it home.
As our car entered the main campus gate, we passed four consecutive roadside signs, each one reminding students, staff, and visitors of the pillars of Daraja:
Pillar 1: Be accountable for the role you play in Daraja, neither neglecting nor abusing it.
Pillar 2: Maintain open communication. Speak honestly and listen respectfully.
Pillar 3: Embrace differences. Treat all with dignity and respect.
Pillar 4: Each day, leave it better than you found it.
Daraja Academy is a boarding secondary school for Kenyan girls with top academic scores and exceptional leadership skills, but no means to continue their education. The academy provides shelter, food, healthcare and counseling services allowing students to focus on academic and personal development.
Daraja means “bridge” in Swahili. The school is aptly named as it has proven girls born into economic circumstances beyond their control can become the women and leaders they always knew they could be with education.
With the first students enrolling in 2009, Daraja Academy graduated its first class in 2013. I will be on campus for the 2014 graduation on August 8th. These 20 women are incredible–they will change Kenya, and the world.
The 60-acre Daraja campus is located four hours north of Nairobi, and 25 kilometers outside of Nanyuki. The diversity of the student body is striking–students hail from 30 of Kenya’s 42 tribes, coming from the country’s urban centers and remote rural countryside. Girls from warring tribes are roommates; Christian and Muslim girls dine together as part of the same “family” (foursomes created with one girl from each “form,” or what we in the U.S. would call grades 9-12). Why would they concentrate on their differences when they are all focused on the same goals of leadership and education?
Sustainability is also a focus. The garden produces spinach, kale, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash, and herbs, while cows are milked, and eggs are collected at the hen house. Water for the campus is pumped from a nearby river and therefore must be conserved. Food waste is collected following meals, and is returned to the garden’s compost pile.
Finally, Daraja is unique with its quest to educate the “whole girl.” For example, the W.I.S.H. program (Women of Integrity, Strength and Hope, a four-year leadership and empowerment class which is sprinkled into the academic day) is unique to Daraja and has been a part of the curriculum since inception.
As I write in the volunteer office at 9:30pm, I look out at the academic block and library, which remains alive with activity. When I went out for a run at 6:45am this morning, I saw the same activity. These girls have energy and drive that propels them dawn to dusk. They know they are among the chosen few from the many deserving girls interviewed by Daraja, and they are grateful to be here.
The generator only runs from 6 to 10pm, so it’s soon lights-out soon for the girls, and for me.
I can say today–as I did yesterday and the day prior at Daraja– that I leave today even better than I found it.
** To learn more about Daraja Academy and its students, visit www.daraja-academy.org **