Daraja Academy for Exceptional Kenyan Girls

Student selections in Makindu
Student selections in Makindu

Daraja administrators have just completed Student Selection for our new Form 1 (first year) class.  Here Daraja founder, Jenni Doherty, gives a view into what Student Selection trips are like:


We have 2 more days to go on Student Selection and we are spending the night in Makindu (a small truck stop town on the Mombasa Highway). There are no hotels worth mentioning, but the Sikh temple has dormitories so we are staying there.

We’ve had incredible interviews that showcase a Daraja Girl to perfection. And then…there are interviews that change your life. There is a familiar pattern we get into when we do an interview. You sit in a circle around a table; we each have our pen at the ready to record poignant comments. Charles, our Head of School begins by introducing the Daraja Admin. He has the kindest and most smiley face. He tells the girls that we are writing down the things they say because we want to remember them, and not to worry. We are only writing good things. Then, he kindly asks the girl to introduce herself to us.

Many girls start with their names, age, parents names or names of their primary school. Some stand to attention while doing it, others are prompted to speak louder so that we can hear them. The first part of the interview is to ascertain their financial need, often asking questions about older siblings who had gone to school, occupation of the parents, and learning about some of their challenges regarding education. The second part of the interview is to see if they are a Daraja girl. We ask 4 basic questions.  In the past 3 weeks, we’ve talked a lot about how we would have answered them at their age and what we might answer now.

I could go on and on about our process, how we “grade” them, what we look for. But suffice it to say, we know a Daraja Girl when we meet her.

And we met a Daraja Girl today.

We have a policy that we don’t tell girls if they have been accepted to Daraja until we have finished the 3 weeks of interviews. We have broken our rule 4 times this year. And today marks number 5.

Her name is Mbinya (Bean-Yah). She comes from Makindu. Her mother and father passed away from AIDS in 2011, leaving her and 4 younger siblings orphans. They are sent to live with an Uncle, whose wife dies in the first year leaving behind a 1.5 year old child. The uncle finds work 25 miles away as a watchman who makes about $50/month. He no longer lives in the home. Mbinya is the Mom in the household. She is 16 and takes care of her 5 younger ”siblings”.

I wasn’t sure about her upon first meeting her. She didn’t volunteer to go first in the interviews; she was actually the last. But she did look me in the eye when we shook hands. And when she went to introduce herself she spoke loudly and clearly, more so than any other girl in the past 3 weeks. After her introduction, we were all speechless. I’ve never been so lost for words. This girl was the Mom, the caretaker of her whole family. AND she got a 325 on her KCPE. That is SO high for the circumstances. When we went to do our 4 questions, she shut down. She wouldn’t answer at all. We stopped and asked Sara and Diane to leave the room. We breathed in deeply together, twice. We reiterated our instructions. And then she started talking.

Women should be educated because they have mercy and help other people. If she could change her area, she would bring in HIV testing centers, build a mortuary, bring ARVs to the hospitals, and make sure that zero percent die of HIV. She, at first, claimed she wasn’t a leader. When we prompted her about her home life she said, yes, she teaches her family about cleanliness, how to organize, how to live in a clean compound, and teaches the importance of education. We told her that was being a leader.

We asked her what she’d feed the children tonight, and she looked incredibly forlorn. She said, she’d go to her neighbors and ask for 1kg of Maize. For those of you who have been here, Maize is about the size of hominy and I swear you burn more calories chewing it! We asked what she ate for Christmas, and she said her uncle bought wheat flour so they could make chapati.

I wish I could pass to you the feeling from the interview. It is rare that at the end of one, we weep. And both Victoria, Daraja’s Principal, and I wept, we could barely pull ourselves together. We all hugged each other at the end of the interview just for comfort because we know what a scholarship like ours will mean to this amazing girl. We asked if she could take us home. One the way, we stopped for some basics–oil, beans, ugali flour, and wheat flour. She told us shyly that she cuts her neighbors’ bushes for firewood for cooking.

And we went to her home. At night the primary school’s watchman stops by to make sure they are okay. The community health worker stops in a few times per month. Words can’t describe the condition of the home they are ”squatting” in.

But the best moment was when we were standing around, and Victoria said, ”Mbinya, because you have been so amazing to your family, we want to give you a present. We want to give you a 4-year scholarship to Secondary school.”  The Community health worker bursts into tears, the social worker bursts into tears,  and Mbinya? She breaks into a smile that splits her face, just as her 2 youngest siblings run up to the house from school. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life.

The community has pledged to take on the family while we take Mbinya to school. It feels like a happy ending. And in a way, it is. But really, it is only just the beginning of a long road for Mbinya. I’m just so glad that Daraja gets to be her bridge to a better future. Mbinya is the reason we started Daraja. And she is the reason we don’t tell the first 26 girls we meet that they have been accepted to the school. But today, we broke that rule, again. And tonight as I snuggle into bed, I rest a little bit easier because I’ve helped change the life of a girl.

Girls awaiting interviews at Student Selection
Girls awaiting interviews at Student Selection
Applicants awaiting interviews.
Applicants awaiting interviews.


Betty, Valedictorian & #1 Girl in the District
Betty, Valedictorian & #1 Girl in the District

After a stellar performance in Kenya's National examinations and an inspiring journey through Daraja's unique Tranistion Program, Daraja's first class of graduates are ready to create their futures!

The UN Girls' Education Initiative has recognized Daraja Academy as an effective and innovative organization in “breaking the mold of Girls’ Empowerment”. Read the story here!

International Day of the Girl and The Girl Declaration

Daraja Girls celebrated International Day of the Girl by signing the Girl Declaration. It is a statement written by 508 girls living in poverty around the world with the expertise of more than 25 leading development organizations, declaring the power and strength of girls, in order to be included in the world’s next development agenda.

So on Friday, 11 October 2013 Daraja students broke into small groups and read the declaration aloud. They discussed what it meant to them, then decided to put their names to it. Check out this video to read the declaration and see the girls declare their support!

Outcomes & Impact

The Daraja Academy students are given the tools and resources to be the voices for other young women and girls in their country. Upon graduation, they will be powerful women with the capacity, experience and global understanding to be Kenya's future female leaders.

In August, Daraja celebrated its first graduating class. In the few months since graduation, out of 25 girls there are

  • 11 Students enrolled in University or College in 2014.
  • 10 Students working in local businesses to “earn and save money for college”.

Daraja changes girls’ lives by investing in their personal potential. If this is where they are only a few months after graduation, imagine what these girls will be achieving in 5 years!


The Daraja Academy team prepares for its largest event of the year - Race for Daraja.  Over 250 runners will participate in the Bay to Breakers 12K race in San Francisco, Kenya, and across the world, advocating and supporting girls' education and Daraja Academy.  Sister races will take place in Australia, Kenya, Singapore, Korea, California, Virginia, and Washington this year making this a truly global event.

Each Daraja girl on campus in Kenya is matched with a participant who runs on her behalf.  As Lilian, a junior, recently said, "I was so happy during Bay to Breakers last year because we were working towards a goal.  There are people out there who are willing to do everything so that I can get an education. It makes me feel loved and cared for."  On race day, runners wear their partners photos on their backs, making the distance and the hills (in San Francisco) all worthwhile!

This year, there will be five classes participating in Kenya, or 130 girls plus staff and volunteers, including the recent high school graduates who have returned to Daraja to attend the newly formed Transition Program.  The Daraja Academy Lap-a-Thon is held every year, giving the students an opportunity to contribute to their own education.  Donors sign up to support up to 28 laps that the girls run (equivalent to the 12K distance of Bay to Breakers.)   Irene N. said, "The first time we ran the girls were so excited because we knew that we were the ones contributing to our own education."

The Race for Daraja 2013 should be even bigger and more successful than the last, and it is all in the name of girls' education. To join us, email race@daraja-academy.org.



Mr. Charles with the students
Mr. Charles with the students
The school year in Kenya begins in January and the girls will be returning Saturday to prepare. To celebrate, we've highlighted some of our favorite stories about the driven young women that will be stepping into the classroom on Monday.
  • Mary woke up at 4 in the morning each day so that all of her chores could be done by the time the sun came up so that she could use every hour of daylight to study during Primary School. 
  • Due to a constant teacher absence, Shamsia and her fellow students formed a study group in which the students would teach each other the lessons.
  • Ann often expressed her desire for an education to her guardians, but unfortunately, they didn't realize the value of education.  But Ann knew in her heart that was the way to a better future for her.  Even without her guardian's support, she went to school early each day, asking her class teachers for help, and then studied at home as much as she could around her numerous chores as she cared for 4 little ones while her mother worked in the farm.
  • Teddy was taken out of school months at a time due to her uncle’s inability to pay school fees. Despite this, she continued to volunteer for and manage responsibilities of major leadership roles at her school including  head prefect, Christian Union president, Health Club president and the Scout Troupe leader.
  • Doreen managed to get a 310/360 on her KCPE at the end of Class 8, despite the fact that her primary school was so dilapidated that students didn't need to use the doors to pass between classrooms - they could merely traverse through holes in the walls. Today, she's on of the top students in her class (she'll be in Form 2 in January).
  • Yvonne is from Nanyuki, and had been attending secondary school for half a year when her aunt got sick and couldn't afford to pay her tuition anymore. One day Yvonne noticed Doreen in town wearing a Daraja shirt. She followed her into a grocery store and when Doreen finished shopping Yvonne approached her and asked for her number because she wanted to know about Daraja. She called her daily, and finally Doreen told her how to get to Daraja and how much public transit would cost. Yvonne got a job doing casual labor - digging for farmers - and saved up enough matatu fare to go to and from the school, where she went and asked to attend.
  • Fatuma attended Class 8 in Nakuru, but the teachers had a habit of missing class. So, she started teaching class whenever the teachers didn't show up.

These are the type of ambitious and determined girls that you are helping to support in the 2013 school year. Thank you for giving them access to further their education!

Lately, we've been hearing a lot of statistics and reading stories about the uphill battle girls face in many countries. Although the facts are startling, what's even more jaw-dropping is the enormous influence and change that can occur simply by investing in girls education. Still, many people ask us why we "discriminate" against boys. But, this isn't about ignoring boys, it's about embracing girls, and their close relationship to their families. When you're investing in a girl, you are investing in her future children -- the number of children she has and her ability to take care of them.

Girls and women spend 90% of their earned income on their families, compared with 30% to 40% among males.

The international community is celebrating Day of the Girl on October 11th and we've made special photos to celebrate the occasion. Thanks to photographer Barbara Rick, with these pictures you can educate and inspire.

The pictures remind us that the statistics don't scare us. We know there is work to be done and the girls of Daraja have built the foundation to change the status quo. With the support of advocates like you, we can educate people in our networks about WHY it's important to invest in girls. The first step of any movement is to education and build awareness so that people decide to pay attention.    

Share these images on your social media accounts and help us get the facts out there! Support the Daraja girls this giving season!

"I have more confidence and more leadership skills than when I was in Form 1. Now I can handle things better and make choices for myself." - Leila, graduating senior at Daraja Academy.


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Project Leader

Jenni Doherty

San Rafael, CA United States

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