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Think empowered woman. What jumps to mind? I’m imagining confidence, independence, strength, heart, Beyonce…I typically don’t think “social networking.” Imagine my surprise after learning my host ministry, Zana Africa, is pouring dollars and time into an initiative that links adolescent girls in the slum to the net. This is not what I imagined my summer would look like.
Being in Kibera slum is increasingly difficult for me—every day the desperation and poverty sink a little deeper into my heart. By last week, I needed to experience the work of ZanaA. I needed to see hope and progress and solutions in action.
But instead, we headed into the slum with laptops.
The girls of Kibera slum are going wireless. They blog. They tweet. They ‘comment’. Over one hundred girls in five schools went from never touching a computer to becoming integrated into the net in a matter of months. Undoubtedly impressive, but perplexing…how does an organization go from providing sanitary pads and facilitating empowerment lessons to teaching girls about the internet?
Simple: they grew with the needs they encountered. Megan White Mukuria, the innovative founder of ZanaA, began working in Kibera in 2001. There, she learned about some of the root causes of poverty in Nairobi. Megan was shocked by the amount of school that girls were missing due to their periods each month because they couldn’t afford pads.
Missing class is hard to recover from in Kenya’s rigorous school system, which is why some girls take financial matters into their own hands by begging, working in the evenings, or even prostituting themselves to afford pads.
Just the Beginning
By 2007, ZanaA was on the ground with pads. But it turns out that pads were just the beginning. Girls in Kibera needed and deserved more—they lacked information about reproductive health and basic life skills, and many of them suffered emotionally because of the effects of poverty.
Thus, Empowerment Clubs were born. ZanaA field agents traveled to over twenty schools in Kibera on a monthly basis to facilitate lessons about self-esteem, health, sex education, confidence and making positive choices.
For those of us blessed with a D.A.R.E. program or supportive friends and parents while growing up, it’s easy to underestimate the value of good mentoring. ZanaA filled a huge void for some of these young women—maybe the difference between allowing themselves to be abused or not, or getting pregnant versus finishing school. ZanaA mattered.
But still, where did computers come from? Enter The Girl Effect. The Girl Effect is a global initiative by the Nike Foundation to empower adolescent girls. So naturally, they wanted in on the work of ZanaA. Early this year, ZanaA used their Girl Effect grant to restructure their efforts. They chose five schools, bought nine laptops, and introduced 110 girls to the world beyond their slum.
This week I experienced EmpowerNet firsthand.
Each day in the office, about the time when most people hit an afternoon lull, the four ZanaA field officers swiftly pack laptops, power strips and the wireless router into two backpacks and venture through Kibera to the school of the day.
When we arrived, the EmpowerNet students got to work. They broke into their groups, plugged in a laptop and started the thing like they’ve been doing it for years. Honestly, I didn’t find this routine too impressive my first day. Although I find technology difficult to navigate (literally—I tripped over the router TWICE in class this week), even I can start a computer.
After a few days of EmpwerNet, I’m beginning to think that somebody—a very patient somebody—probably taught me just like ZanaA is teaching girls in Kibera. Somebody put their hand on my hand to show me how to move a cursor, double click and scroll across a page…and maybe reminded me twenty minutes later when I’d already forgotten, just like we do for the EmpowerNet students.
Over the past few months these girls have posted blogs about the lessons they’ve learned in EmpowerNet, and they’ve Twittered their reactions and emotions related to the topic of the day. Starting now, they will all be connected through the ZanaA version of Facebook where each girl has her own profile and message center. But girls in Kibera aren’t just sharing what they think—they’re learning about others as well.
Field officer Amos describes it as a connection to the outside world. Girls in Kibera sometimes think they are the only ones facing issues of poverty or simply of adolescence, but social networking links them to girls inside and outside of Kibera who struggle as well. Moreover, a girl with a serious or embarrassing problem might feel more comfortable seeking advice from friends online than in person.
I read through the blogs and was impressed. In concise, honest posts the girls boldly share their thoughts on topics from puberty to peer pressure with eloquence and confidence that some of them find easier in writing than speaking.
The results speak for themselves. A recent survey of the EmpowerNet students found that nearly every girls agrees with statements like, “I’m part of a global network of girls like myself,” “I’m proud of myself because I’m able to use a computer” and “Seeing my published blogs makes me feel special.”
But it’s not just the networking that empowers girls here—it’s the availability of knowledge. I come from a world where a simple Google search links me to global current events, the nearest Indian restaurant and every ‘how to’ from dating to treating scorpion stings. ZanaA wants students to tap into that wealth of knowledge to empower them.
Amos says, “We want the girls to be able find information like what we’re teaching them in empowerment lessons on their own.” The internet is the ZanaA solution to ‘knowledge handouts’.
Telling their own stories
So is Twitter becoming a basic human right? Maybe I won’t write the UN just yet, but the more I read from these girls the more I am convinced of its value.
In cramped classrooms with next to no light, in the middle of the million or more people who comprise these girls’ entire world, the young women of Kibera are connecting. They are learning from the net and from each other. And they’re telling their own stories!
This week I’ll pack laptops and head into the field with a greater sense of purpose. I feel privileged to be here and learn from these bright, strong young women, but I’m more excited to know that for the first time anyone, anywhere in the world can hear them too.
- Learn more about Zana Africa at zanaa.org.
- Listen to the girls of ZanaA! You can follow them on Twitter and read their blogs at http://www.zanaa.org/empowernet-clubs/ They are sorted by school and group. Encourage them by commenting on what they share.
- Engage with the youth in your area. Provide a listening ear and guidance to an often misunderstood age group. Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters would be happy to find you someone who needs a mentor ( bbbs.org).
- Pray for teenagers worldwide! It’s a time of life when we need an extra dose of confidence, discernment and love.
About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.