What’s a typical school day like for Daraja students?
The girls rise around 5:00 am. They make their beds and clean the dormitory before carrying out other campus chores (fetching water for the kitchen to wash dishes, carrying in the filtered drinking water, sweeping walkways, mopping classroom floors, wiping tables, etc.,) all before they start their school day! After classes end for the day, students have a sports period in the afternoon, followed by dinner and chores, then study hall every night from 7:00-10:00 pm. There’s also a farm on campus where the school gets most of the vegetables they serve (when in season), and students help out in the gardens there too.
What does it mean to the young women to have access to YA books?
The students were thrilled to receive the books, but I didn’t stay on campus long enough to hear what they thought after reading them. (I will find out though!) Daraja is situated on a site that was previously used for a boys’ education program, so the small library that the school inherited definitely needed updating with more books written for teenage girls.
Because Daraja students come from cultures very different from ours, I included a lot of fantasy novels. I figured those imaginary worlds might have more universal appeal and the situations in which characters find themselves might be more relatable than in some contemporary novels set in American high schools. Most of the Daraja girls are not as sophisticated as their American counterparts. A number of them, for instance, had never used a computer before coming to Daraja.
I kept diversity and inclusion in mind when choosing titles, making sure that I selected books with protagonists of different races and religions. I included a good number of books written by authors of color—especially African American authors. I talked to librarians and the teen book buyer at my favorite local bookstore, who hooked me up with books like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. Katie Bayerl gave me some terrific recommendations, and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s website was invaluable. Daraja has quite a few Muslim students, so I made sure to include novels with Muslim main characters as well.
Kenyan society is very conservative, so unfortunately LGBTQ people face severe discrimination and intolerance. Being gay is not openly talked about; in fact, it can be downright dangerous to reveal. Knowing that, I thought it was important to bring books not only about girls and boys falling in love, but about boys falling in love with boys and girls falling in love with girls. I have no idea yet how these novels will be received. The stories may shock some of the students, but they may also reassure them.
Mostly, I believe that given the atmosphere of openness, acceptance and tolerance at Daraja that these girls will be better equipped after reading them to go out into an infinitely more complex real world to be the change makers and ambassadors of peace we so desperately need. I like to think that these YA books will start discussions, get students thinking and act as a kind of bridge to help transport these amazing girls into their future lives where their skills and convictions can make a positive difference.
One of the girls I spoke with on campus was telling me how wonderful it was at Daraja because there was no bullying. Then, she commented, “But I’m sure kids in the United States don’t have to deal with that…” She was astonished when I told her the truth—that sadly, bullying was a huge problem for American teens as well. Exchanges like this were eye-opening for us both.