We met in the darkness at the campus gate at 6am.
It was graduation day, and our last full day at Daraja Academy. In honor of new beginnings, my friend Jennifer and I led a group of students and volunteers on a sunrise hike.
We returned to campus in full morning light, and final graduation preparations were in full swing. The campus sparkled with clean classrooms and trimmed bourgenvilla, and the tent and stage were now decorated with signs and balloons. I found the soon-to-be-graduates outside of their dorm striking poses in caps and gowns. Their younger sisters wore their everyday school uniforms, but sported notably shinier shoes and freshly-braided hair. I, like most of the female volunteers, had saved a dress and a new necklace to wear for the special day.
In my month on campus, I got to know the Daraja staff and bonded with certain students and volunteers. The 20 women graduating are those I coached in business plan presentations. While the Daraja staff has seen an amazing transformation in these girls since their arrival on campus in 2009, I’ve even seen them mature over the past three weeks. So when each woman individually shared words of wisdom and gratitude with the entire school at last evening’s school party, I felt their emotion.
With a front row seat among the over 300 graduation attendees, I settled in for what I knew would be an inspirational and emotional day. My sunglasses would hide both the sun and inevitable tears.
The graduates arrived, walking to their seats in bright blue caps and gowns. The 10 that achieved KCSE test scores high enough to earn a full government-sponsored scholarship to university wore burgundy drapes. As the salutatorian and valedictorian, Shamsia and Gitwa donned special ropes, and both would be among the graduation speakers.
Shamsia displayed a reserved confidence I had not previously seen, delivering her entire speech at the podium without using notes. Her mother and sister were behind me in the audience, having traveled for two days to attend her graduation. I felt her speaking to them and all of us when she shared the four things that successful people do.
– First, they THINK. They know their values. They know what they stand for, and what they can’t compromise.
– Second, they DREAM. Upon their foundation of values and faith, they dream of life’s possibilities to serve the greater good. They focus on what they will create, on what will be their legacy.
– Third, they BELIEVE. They believe in their values, and pursue their dream with patience. They walk their talk. They invest in themselves. They build self-confidence while avoiding arrogance.
– Finally, they DARE. They dare to make their dreams come true. They don’t give up, they learn from mistakes, they keep moving forward.
Introduced as class valedictorian, Gitwa walked to the stage in what looked to be a brand new pair of heels (perhaps a graduation purchase, as I noted two other graduates wearing the same pair). But what Gitwa lacks in physical stature, she more than makes up for in confidence. Just as she did during her business plan presentation the week prior, she embraced the crowd with a booming smile and “Good morning!”
The crowd responded. And Gitwa continued. “Good morning, again!”
This was clearly Gitwa’s signature opener.
“I love saying that,” she explained. “Good morning comes from God’s morning. Saying ‘good morning’ reminds me that every day is a chance to do something amazing.”
Seeing Gitwa speak makes me excited for all she can and will accomplish. She is daring– “If you fall, get up and shake the dust” was a favorite line from her speech. She is full of gratitude and humility, even admitting to a time when she “started to act a little too big,” convinced that she knew more than the school administration. Apparently the administration responded by “giving her a taste of her own medicine.”
But Gitwa was grateful. “Thank you for disciplining me. It is because I was disciplined that I am standing here. And to my fellow students, listen to the administration. They know more than you do.”
Representing the administration as a graduation speaker was Jason Doherty, who founded Daraja Academy with his wife Jenni in 2008. My admiration for Jason and Jenni keeps growing as I get to know them. Over the past month, I’ve seen them handle tough situations with decisiveness, discipline, honesty and love. In founding and growing Daraja Academy, I already had a great respect for what they do. But now I have a fond respect for how they do it.
Jason had finalized his graduation speech the night prior. But as he and Jenni sat listening to the girls speeches and songs, he decided to throw most of his planned remarks out the window. Jason has a true gift in connecting with and inspiring people. His remarks connected to the words of Shamsia and Gitwa, and to the songs sung by the girls he helped grow.
“Girls, keep dreaming. Keep listening to that inner voice. Travel light, and keep moving. Carry that dream.”
Jason paused. “And at some point in your life, when you least expect it, you’ll find that the dream carries you.”
Jason shared a recent personal tragedy he had endured. This dream–the Daraja dream of girls from humble beginnings being educated and becoming leaders in their communities and country– had carried him through.
“Girls, you are my dream. If you want to know how you can pay me back, listen to that inner voice and follow that dream. And encourage others to do the same.”
The invited Daraja commencement speaker was Wilson Kipaloi, the Director of Education for Kenya’s East Laikipia District. Wilson spoke last year to the first graduating class at Daraja. When this year’s class was asked who they would want to speak at gradation, the unanimous choice was Wilson.
Like many of us sitting in the audience on that sunny day, Wilson was wearing sunglasses. What wasn’t apparent until he was led up the stairs to the stage by his deputy director was that he was blind. Wilson had lost his eyesight as part of contracting measles as an eight-year old child.
Wilson is a man who has beaten many odds to rise to his current position. He praised the achievements of Daraja Academy and today’s graduates, and encouraged the current students and visiting families and community members to support education. But then he made the ask. Knowing Wilson’s physical challenges made it even more impactful.
“Kenyans need to take care of Kenyans. We can’t just rely on the generosity of outsiders. We need to support ourselves.”
Wilson was speaking that voice in his own head. He was speaking his dream.
“My fellow Kenyans, will you take on that challenge?”