One Story or Another

Here’s one story about Muhuru Bay.

 

Muhuru Bay is buried in Kenya’s bottom-left corner; it’s part of what was once the Nyanza Province; its shores kiss Lake Victoria and provide a profitable fishing trade.

 

But this trade also brings a steady stream of fisherman, some of whom have transactional sex with women and school-aged girls. This comes at a price — at 14.9%, the HIV rate in the former Nyanza Province is twice the national average. It’s estimated to be as high as 38% in fishing communities, like the one where WISER is situated.

 

Pictured: Muhuru Bay "customs"/downtown area

Muhuru Bay faces the same constraints as many rural areas in low-resources regions of world — shoddily constructed schools, low vaccination rates, lack of easily accessible potable water and scant electricity at night. Girls are disproportionately affected, and most drop out before high school because of unplanned pregnancies, a lack of money to pay school fees, or even a lack of sanitary pads, making it uncomfortable to go to school during periods. WISER addresses all these issues, because it not only provides a rigorous education, but also health and social support. It is a comprehensive, holistic solution. As the educational outreach coordinator for the student WISER club, I presented this message by making slideshows and speeches and showing TEDtalks. In my mind, I believed WISER was working because Muhuru Bay was inherently bad , because how could a place that led to the subjugation of girls be good?

Then I went to Muhuru Bay, as part of an independent study with a professor…and I was led to another story about Muhuru Bay.

A different story.

It’s beautiful. Stars shined through smogless air and assembled constellations I’d only seen in books. I ran in the mornings before sun-up, tracing an earthen path to a fork and turning left down a dirt road that paralleled the Tanzanian border. The road climbed towards a stunning vista of Lake Victoria and ended at a Catholic church. I saw the sunrise nearly every day. My research partner Amy and I spent the first two weeks at WISER refining a survey with our professor, and worked with our translators Peter and Tukiko to translate it to the local dialect, Dholuo. We crisscrossed the peninsula on motorcycles to administer the survey to church and school leaders, and I savored these long rides. Our youthful band of motorcycle drivers were funny, friendly and reliable. As our project progressed, Amy and I became close with Peter. We met his family, went to church with him, joked with him, and ate with him at a Somali place “downtown” (the dirt strip with a few single story shops). I heard stories from fellow Duke students who were teaching at nearby primary schools. They were saddened by the dilapidated state of these schools, but buoyed by their students’ willpower, the joy in meeting their families, and the knowledge that some of their students would get into WISER. The WISER girls themselves, all 120 of them from Muhuru Bay, worked relentlessly. Days started at dawn till nearly midnight, and included chores, studying, class, more studying, exercise and meals in between. I expected these girls to be bookworms because they studied so much. There were some bookworms, true, but there were also sassy girls, class clowns, passive-aggressive girls and shy girls- and most importantly, combinations of all of these things. In short; a normal distribution of high school personalities.

Many girls came to WISER saddled with stories of illness, deaths and hungry nights. But they also came with stories of perseverance, strength and belief. They were unpredictable, and funny. I remember bringing a bottle of chili powder with me to dinner in the cafeteria, only to have it enthusiastically passed around the entire dining hall. It was returned to me nearly depleted. I remember long conversations with other Duke students on the viewing platform of the water tower, which overlooked Lake Victoria. I remember the breeze whipping my face and the sunset casting orange streaks across the sky. How could I ever leave this place and these people?   

It’s not completely accurate to say I didn’t know Muhuru Bay before I visited. Of course, I knew its raw numbers and demographics, and I knew the success of the WISER school. But I could only imagine one story, one narrative. Muhuru was not the bleak place I expected, with WISER the lone shining star. Muhuru is complicated. The people I met there are among the kindest and whole hearted I’ve ever met. A community is hardly static, and a statistic is not a story. One story alone can never be the whole story.