Ten courageous girls living in Kenyan slum communities talk openly about their lives and the joys and struggles facing girls everywhere.
13 Oct, 2017
These girls are like any girls, anywhere in the world: they have best friends to laugh and cry with, teachers to please and chores to do. They love to dream about their futures.
We see ourselves in these girls; we see our daughters, sisters, friends and aunties.
But there is something extraordinary about these girls, too.
Their resilience is astounding. They exude strength and courage in the face of enormous pressure from their circumstances and communities. They are young but fiercely focused. They radiate joy at the opportunity of education.
They are girls proud to be changing their tomorrows.
Meet the girls.
Mathare slum, Nairobi
Warning: Esther’s story contains details that may be distressing.
Robbery is common here in Mathare. We had a TV in our small house and the robbers came at night and they sprayed some gas into the house and it made us fall asleep. They took our TV and we didn’t know. There was also a time when the houses were burnt. We slept outside in the cold. We would wake up and there was nothing to eat. [The house] was burnt because of people making illegal connections with the electrical wires. I was 12 years old then.
There is also a lot of rape. Even small children as young as three years are raped and thrown in the toilet. I think this is because it is not safe here, if there was more security it wouldn’t happen. A small boy went missing. Another child was lost and he was found with his body cut up near the river. It’s not a good place for children. Desperation makes people do desperate things.
It is important for girls to feel beautiful. If someone tells you that you are ugly you can tell them you are beautiful [but] only if you know in your heart that you’re beautiful. True beauty comes from education. We are the ones who can show the younger girls how to carry themselves. We can help direct them. Being strong for us girls is as important as having good self-esteem.
CONFIDENCE to be an encouragement to other people
CREATIVITY I love to sew on a sewing machine. I can make dresses and curtains
HUNGER the memory of my house burning down
LAUGHTER all my laughter was when I was young
WATER is a big challenge. It is here for a few hours then disappears after ten minutes and then comes back next week
I was born in Mathare and grew up here until the post-election violence in 2007. I was still small then, only five years old. I don’t remember it too well because my mum took me to stay with my aunt away from the violence. Because of the riots we moved to Dandora and now I come back to Mathare for the [Compassion project], it somehow still feels like home.
If a girl thinks that she’s not beautiful, she will always be down; she will think people don’t love her. The one that knows that she’s beautiful will always be courageous and she will know she can do something, she can do anything. True beauty comes from one’s heart.
HEALTH not being sick
WISDOM Solomon, from the Bible
EDUCATION what I’m learning about at the moment and knowing how far it will take me
FAMILY people who help each other
FEAR snakes, but there aren’t many around here
CONFIDENCE the things that I can do without fear
Mashuru, Rift Valley
Strength enables us to choose education over marriage. For me, I know I can go to the chief and tell her, “I want those girls to study, I don’t want those girls to be married off.” Nowadays the community is starting to see early marriage is a bad thing, little by little. But there are a few who still accept it.
Girls do not have access to pads here when they have their periods. They can’t afford them because they don’t have money and it’s embarrassing for them. I would like to change this. When I finish my studies I want to be a doctor to help the sick in my community, not even just the community, even in Kenya, even the whole country. I would stop children from being married off when they are young and I would build more boarding schools for girls.
HOME the chores I do and the struggles my parents go through to help us
STRENGTH my ability to read. I know this will help my parents
FEAR I have no fear except of wild animals
FREEDOM I wish all people could be free from the fears that hold them
WOMEN should help one another
LOVE I have love already. I want others to receive it
GROWTH is the polio vaccine for children
Mashuru, Rift Valley
I live with 14 people in my home. Because my parents do casual work, we are not able to build a good house and this is difficult for us as a family. We are many, yet we live in one house. Because our home is crowded, I don’t have space to do my homework. Sometimes I go to my neighbour’s home where there is more space, so I can get it completed. My family doesn’t see my education as a good thing. That’s why it is important to me to be a part of the Compassion project. I want my daughter to become educated so her house would be a good house. She would be able to sleep in a good bed that is not made of cow skin and she would go to a good school. Boys and girls are not given equal opportunities in my community. Boys are valued more than the girls.
HOME I will bring change in my family
WISDOM gaining it in school
FUTURE I have a good future
YOUR PAST I don’t like life in the past
WATER is life
YOUR VOICE loud
JOY inside church
Mashuru, Rift Valley
There are good things about living in this community. There are nearby water points and a good availability of vegetables along the river. But the challenge here is that children’s rights are violated and girls are exposed to harmful cultural practices. Then, when someone gets sick they use herbal medicine.
Girls and boys are not equal. A woman’s role in this community is to bring up children and follow rules in the community. I think girls should get their confidence from education and from working hard in school. That is why my goal is to be a teacher.
HOME just a place
PURPOSE is to have a clear vision
FEAR I’m afraid of having an enemy
STRENGTH to be powerful
JESUS my Saviour
Mashuru, Rift Valley
The proudest moment of my life was when I qualified for the Compassion National Athletics Tournament. I was competing in the 100 metre sprint. My strength is running. My confidence is running. For me to have purpose means to set a goal and work hard towards achieving that goal. I have seen that if a girl is strong she can be a good role model.
I know that here and all over the world boys and girls do not have equal access to education. In the future I would like to see girls growing up in good environments, because to me, a perfect world is a world where children’s rights are adhered to. There would be no corruption and people would live in peace with each other.
PAST a story
YOUR VOICE using it to teach
YOU a hero
FREEDOM living in peace
YOUR CONFIDENCE running
HOME my father
YOUR PRESENT bright
I live with my aunt in Nairobi and my two cousins. I had to move here and leave my mum who lives in a rural area. My mum is sick and bedridden so I wasn’t able to go to school. Now I am at school here in Nairobi, my favourite thing to do is to read storybooks and history books. And I’m proud of my school performance. I performed as the second best in my whole school.
Poverty makes people think that a boy has more value than a girl. Even in some tribes like the Maasai, you’ll have a boy being taken to school and a girl being taken to marry because a girl is not important to them. We should all be given equal chances. Whatever a boy can do, a girl can do. It’s best that we work together as boys and girls.
My hope is to be a banker, I will even try to raise the economy of Kenya. When I am older, I will take the young people and advise them about corruption. I know I can help others who don’t have an education. The purpose of a leader is to help people who are in need of help. I believe that a woman can lead this country just as well as a man can lead this country.
FAMILY a place where people love you
PAST difficult, my life is now easier
LAUGHTER I think of going to another country
FREEDOM freedom of movement
YOUR VOICE people like listening to me when I sing
GOD my best friend
Gatina, Central Province
My mum got a job here in Nairobi as a house help and so we moved here to be with her. It’s my first time in Nairobi and I like it here, I don’t miss home. But also, I don’t like the dust here and when it rains there is so much mud. The roof of our house leaks so when it rains, things get wet.
I have a difficult memory. During August back when I lived in the rural county, boys are usually taken for circumcision. People would break through the doors at night to come and get the boys who refused to be circumcised. I witnessed something. My neighbour’s door was broken into by other young boys, maybe warriors in the community. They were trying to kill people who refused to listen. I witnessed my neighbour being attacked with a lot of force with pangas [a type of machete].
I want to be a doctor. When others get sick they will need treatment and I will do this by working hard in school and focusing every day.
FEAR when other people want to kill others
WATER to take a drink
Mashuru, Rift Valley
I live with my grandmother and I have two brothers and one sister. I can still remember the day she adopted us. Both of my parents have passed away. One of the most challenging things is living in a small room with one bed, the four of us together.__ My grandmother is so old, but she tries to work for us so that we can live comfortably.
I like this neighbourhood because when people are in need we help each other, even though our neighbour’s goats eat the beans in our farm! We also like to celebrate the birth of children. When children are born we gather neighbours and family together and have food and drink all together.
HOME a farm
STRENGTH my strength is found in God
CREATIVITY using your mind
YOUR VOICE strong
FREEDOM knowing what’s true
Mashuru, Rift Valley
One of the happiest days of my life was when my father built a good house. We moved out of the mud house and into a brick house in Mororo and we had a big ceremony with our friends. But I remember a day when I was scared because my parents went to visit my grandparents. They left me home alone with my brother for one week. I was 10 years old.
The circumcision of girls is a challenging issue. When you circumcise a girl, a girl can bleed until she is dead. I want to live in a world where circumcision does not exist and where my daughter won’t have to be circumcised.
My hope is to be a catering teacher. I will teach people how to cook and how to bake cakes. I think if I am strong, I will have a greater future, because confidence can mean having your own job and making your own plans.
GROWTH is the transition from childhood to adulthood
YOUR CONFIDENCE being able to work for myself
CREATIVITY cooking and baking
FREEDOM is to want anything, to do anything
GIRL she’s a woman, maybe a wife
BEAUTY being smart
Compassion Project Director, Mathare Valley
Generally in this community girls are more vulnerable. Boys are regarded as being strong. Unless someone intervenes for them [girls can] have a very bad life. They are mistreated by men. Very little children are defiled.
There is actually a very big difference between girls in the [Compassion] project and the girls who are not. You can even recognise it by looking at those girls. They have a very high self-esteem because they are getting an education. But above all, because they have been attached to a church and to the Compassion project, they are able to get a lot of other skills from seminars, camps and training. Often parents have experienced a cycle of poverty and they won’t understand why it’s important to send their girls to school. That’s why the church is important, we help them understand.
We feel they have been protected from what is going on outside the project walls. The girls have been able to discover the potential inside them, despite what is outside and all around them. People just need hope. Through the church and the project they have discovered something they would never have been able to otherwise.
When these girls are strong, they are really strong.
Words by Ella Dickinson and Zoe Noakes
Photos by Jeremy Tan and Ella Dickinson