I went to a high school high up in the Aberdares, Central Kenya. I was originally from Mombasa, the land of warmth, light and happiness. To call the transition to freezing, damp temperatures, traumatic, would be the understatement of the century. I’d never lived away from home and the last thing I’d expected as a 3rd form student, was the sudden change of environment, both physical and academic, so close to my final national examinations. I felt like my future had been sabotaged for real.
My parents took me from the loving, peaceful, predictable environment of a national ranking urban private school that had been responsible for producing the top girl student for 3 years in a row then, to a barely known, backwater public school in the rural areas where we had to fetch firewood and do our laundry before every evening prep. I was depressed. Worse still, the attitude our public school teachers had towards our learning; they didn’t care. After all, weren’t we just some dumb girls passing through as many had before? This lack of belief in our capacity to aspire to more than house wife-ship to a village mechanic or bodaboda driver (public transport motorcycles) was unnerving at best and enraging at worst. I couldn’t believe these teachers weren’t interested in helping me to become a Cardiovascular surgeon!
Thank goodness for the amazing woman head that led 127 girls straight to university, propelling the little known Karima Girls’ High School to national fame (admittedly only in education circles) for one of the greatest academic comebacks of the century, Mrs. Irungu. From a mean score 0f 6.9 in 2009 to 10.69 in 2010- a C to a B+! How did she pull off this little miracle?
Well, first, she listened to us. She asked, “What do you want?” We said, a new uniform. She let us design one ourselves. Before, the rule was that the ugly red skirts had to fall 3″ below the knee, the new sky blue, pleated one had to be an inch above the knee, nothing longer. We loved the change. We also wanted to be allowed to attend as many out of school events as we wanted and for form 4s to be allowed to participate in their chosen extra curricular activities still, as opposed to before, when the last school year was strictly academic. We looked good, we went out often, we were happy.
Happy, until one of our female Chemistry teachers commented aloud how girls could never be expected to pass the sciences, especially, ironically her own subject. Historically, she was right, the school’s usual mean score for Chemistry was a D+. Her claim wasn’t unfounded but it was extremely infuriating. Once her words had passed from girl to girl around the school, the predictable thing would have been a collective shrug of our shoulders as we continued to study Home Science, English or History, the star subjects, the effeminate ones. But no!
All of us forth form girls called a meeting with the principal and begged her to allow us unlimited access to all the science labs and its equipment for revision. We created an elaborate laboratory practice schedule where everyone got to do 3 experiments a day, everyday for the rest of the year right up until the actual exam started. We also created inter-class discussion groups that were well balanced where everyone got the help they needed in the subjects they were weakest at- all this without the help of any teachers. It was beautiful, it was worth it, we were determined not to let anyone dictate our failure or success based on just gender.
Mrs. Irungu was convinced that we’d make it and that her school would finally be upgraded to a National School and thus provided all the necessary support. We were just as deserving as The Alliances and Starehes of the country in spite of the gender and class norms that had been forced upon us till then. From equipment, to past papers and hiring motivational speakers whenever it seemed we were losing hope, she gave us all we needed and more to ensure our success at achieving our goals and hers. Every single, spare resource was used to make sure her girls knew they could make it. It worked beyond even our wildest dreams.
Today, 50% of the graduating class of 2010 is engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses and careers all thanks to one wonderful lady and a handful of amazing teachers who chose to believe their girl could do anything instead of setting their course towards ‘feminine’ careers.
I was apprehensive and convinced it was the worst thing ever to happen to me when my parents forced the transfer. I would have passed my exam either way from whichever school because of individual self drive and spoon feeding from private school teachers. I am eternally grateful however, for the chance I was given to witness and be a part of the magical phenomenon that is the power of woman. The ability to make the choice and see it through in spite of sexism driven hurdles is one of the most powerful lessons I have ever had the pleasure to learn.
I take this opportunity to thank the beautiful Mrs. Irungu for creating a wonderful environment for the Kenyan teenage girl that honestly isn’t told enough that she can be anything she so pleases. Thank you madam for standing up for us and helping make our dreams come true.
This post is part of the #AlwaysStandUpKe initiative that seeks to encourage the Kenyan girl child to stand up for her dreams and aspirations. Always is encouraging all girls to share their stories of how they stood up to make their dreams come true and to encourage Kenyan girls to share their #AlwaysStandUpKe moments.