WISER’s principal, Madame Dorcas, says that courage isn’t built from grand, monumental achievements, but from simple moments. “Can you look me in the eye? Can you speak loudly?” she would ask the WISER girls, encouraging them to practice a little courage every day.
“We couldn’t do that originally,” said Mercy Adhiambo, a member of WISER’s class of 2014. But last month, Mercy had the chance to see how very far she had come, in a moment of courage she could never have imagined as a first-year student at WISER.
Mercy, who just graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Pwani University in Mombasa, represented WISER at the first in-person convening of the Girls Opportunity Alliance, a network of organizations around the world committed to girls’ education and empowerment, at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, Illinois. When she heard about the opportunity to attend this event, she was thrilled at the opportunity to “put WISER on the map.”
“I’m speaking for the WISER girls, I’m speaking for the WISER alumni, and I’m speaking for Muhuru Bay as a community, as someone who knows their struggles,” she said.
Mercy’s fellow Girls Opportunity Alliance attendees came from all over the world, but each had a shared purpose in making sure women and girls are educated, healthy, and well. They spent most of the conference getting to know one another, brain-storming and idea-sharing about how best to do the hard work of women’s empowerment.
“Getting to know people from different places was a blessing. You really felt like the whole world was in the room,” Mercy said. But the real work, for Mercy and her co-beneficiaries, was to make an impact beyond their individual organizations: “It really felt like the group was ready to move outside of the room, too. They were working to open everyone’s eyes to what we should be doing.”
In individual and group settings, Mercy got the opportunity to talk about WISER’s impact from her first-hand perspective. She told the women she met about what it was like growing up in Muhuru Bay: “I talked about how I was raised up with a single mother who was facing challenges and being forced to stay quiet about challenges and poverty. And this motivated me to change the story about my family.”
She also shared about how her community has been impacted by HIV/AIDS, and why WISER’s specific approach is making an impact: “The majority of my clan has been affected by HIV. But you can imagine a future where this isn’t true. Right now, there are 180 girls who have graduated from WISER and there are about to be 240 girls at the school now – and they are getting educated, they are getting jobs, and where would they be without it? They would be involved in having sex and trading that for the things they need, and they would be putting their health at risk. Education, employment, empowerment is the way to reduce HIV. It is possible – and it is working!”
Hearing voices from around the world talk about the shared issue of girls’ education helped put the work of WISER in a global context. “The more I talked to people about challenges and how to tackle those challenges, I felt sure WISER was on the right track.”
And perhaps it was the confirmation from the fellow attendees that WISER’s work was meaningful, or perhaps it was all the little moments that Madame Dorcas and the other WISER staff had believed in Mercy, but when it came time for the beneficiaries to have a conversation with Michelle Obama about girls’ education, Mercy glowed with confidence.
When Mercy told Michelle about how WISER taught her how to find her strength and her voice, Michelle replied, “You can look me in the eye. And you can talk so strongly. You are a leader. you have confidence in you.”
Michelle’s encouragement resonated strongly with Mercy: “I felt like she saw something in me. I thought back to when I was young at WISER, and I was a shy girl, I was not courageous enough to talk to people, but before long, my teachers saw something in me and asked me to be a leader. And having Michelle to confirm it – that I was doing well – and for it to be confirmed in this room full of so many people from so many countries – it felt like a big deal, it felt like something to inspire me to do more. It was a big moment for me, and I’ll remember it.”
Armed with a university degree and with all the wisdom she gleaned from her peers at the Obama Summit and back in Muhuru Bay, this connection has inspired Mercy to look ahead to how she can foster confidence in the quiet, ingenious, bright girls like her.
“I want to mentor others, act as a role model, speak to people, and help people the way I was helped. To see something in others that they cannot see.”