Give a woman an education, change the legacy of a nation. This anthem has been the driving force behind Daraja Academy, a free boarding school for girls in Kenya, where less than 50 percent of girls enroll in secondary school and many are married off early in their teenage years. Anyone who has worked with these eager students says they have walked away with much more from the girls, than what they provided them.
Jenni Doherty and her husband Jason, both educators from the Bay Area, started the school in 2006 after taking inventory of their lives. He was fresh off a trip from East Africa and was struck by the gender inequality he witnessed in the region’s education system. Prompted by a conversation about having children, they decided they wanted to dedicate their future to women's education. Although this was contradictory to Jenni’s plans for a suburban lifestyle, she realized she had found something bigger than herself to believe in.
“I like to say that Daraja, as all good things, was my husband’s fault,” she said. “He’s a wonderful man, who realized he was a feminist before I realized I was one.”
And success came quickly to the school, with news spreading of its performance.
In August 2009, Jason introduced the academy to Deborah Santana of Do A Little, an organization devoted to supporting women in all areas of health, education, and happiness. By February 2010, Santana was on campus with director Barbara Rick working on what was to become the first film in the “Girls of Daraja” documentary series (Watch all three films on KCET and Link TV!).
“I loved Daraja because there’s something magical there,” Santana said. “There’s a collective spirit of everyone wanting everyone to succeed.”
Daraja, which means “bridge” in Swahili, was structured to help Kenyan girls bridge into the future. The academy takes Kenya’s rigorous curriculum and layers it with additional value: focusing on integrity, empowerment courses, and a community service component.
The Dohertys and other school administrators spend a couple of weeks every year driving around the country, scouting “exceptional” girls who do not have the opportunity to attend high school. The application process screens them by financial need, eighth grade exit exam results, and an admissions essay. This is followed by roundtable interviews for the girls who clear the initial requirements.
“A Daraja girl will walk in the room, look you in the eye, even if she is scared to death, and she will have a conversation with you,” Jenni said.
A Daraja girl will walk in the room, look you in the eye, even if she is scared to death, and she will have a conversation with you.
The interviews analyze strength of character, rather than academic prowess of an applicant.
“The Daraja girl will sit there and say, ‘You know what, if you don’t admit me, I’m going to go out and get a job save all my money, and I’m going to secondary school,’” Jenni said. “That’s the girl who will go out and be proactive in her community. And that’s the kind of girl we welcome into our program.”
To bolster this spirit, the school's Women of Integrity, Strength, and Hope program is designed to cultivate community leaders. “We give them a place where they can speak confidently, and raise their hands,” Jenni said.
According to Jenni, graduates walk into the world with a confident perspective.
“The community is seeing these girls and saying, ‘Wow, they are educated and they can be active parts to society’s problems and helping solve them,” Jenni said. “And the girl suddenly sees herself as, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m part of the solution.’”
Just as they are taught to be agents of change in their communities, they also have a powerful impact on women all over the world.
Rick recalls a student named Betty, who said one of the most important lessons she picked up at Daraja was that people have to listen to her opinions.
“It just gave me chills,” Rick said. “The idea that she believes she deserves to be heard. That’s something we all need to take to heart and step up to.”
In the latest film “Daraja Girls: Powerful Beyond Measure,” two Daraja Academy students visit high schools in Northern California for a historic cultural exchange. The film shows the arc of the girls’ growth. For example, viewers are introduced to Alice who starts off as the shyest student in the class. However, in her last year at Daraja, she traveled to the U.S., stood before an auditorium full of American high school girls, and shared her story.
“My uncle took me as his wife,” she said as tears streamed down her face.
She ended her speech with an enthusiastic vow to never quit until she achieves her dreams. After the trip, she returned to Daraja to rank at the top of her class in the exit examination. While the trip expanded the girls’ understanding of the world, their determination has inspired high school girls across California to form women's groups based on Daraja Academy principles. Later this year, a group of 10 at-risk girls from Marin County will be visiting Kenya to spend the summer with Daraja girls.
“Daraja gives as much as it receives,” Santana said.
Daraja gives as much as it receives.
Ten years after the initial baby conversation that spawned Daraja Academy, Jenni and Jason are building on the success of the Academy with a new Doherty in tow. But having children will not slow down their efforts. They plan to add partnerships, seek more grants and volunteers, and expand their funding from personal donations (which constitute 85 percent of their funding). The school has plans to scale its model by tripling the student body and eventually sharing their structure with other institutions in the region.
As for the future of the girls, Jenni said they all set their sights on the highest levels of professional success. Many graduates have moved on to become teachers, nurses, and business women. Although 14 percent of graduates do not move on to higher education, Jenni said they take Daraja lessons with them wherever they go.
“Education allows girls to have a life of their choosing,” Jenni said.