*By Jackson Biko
“A journalist by profession, Purity is an active member of the feminist/women’s rights movement. She is committed to analyzing private and personal spaces, and developing strategies that lead to the emancipation of women.”
That is what Purity’s bio reads. It also says that she holds a degree in gender and development, and a diploma in journalism. The company she heads, Akili Dada – an incubator nurturing a generation of young African women – has been doing phenomenal work and is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary next year.
What’s Akili Dada’s story?
Akili Dada was started in 2005 by Wanjiru Kamau, a Kenyan living in the US who had been a beneficiary of scholarships from the time she left Kenya at 14. While doing her PhD, she interviewed many people and realized that many times they said there are no qualified women… that there are no women in leadership because they are not qualified.
She thought if she started educating bright girls from needy households, there was a chance that other young women could achieve all the things she had achieved as a person.
We started off as a scholarship fund. In fact, we started at Alliance. We currently give scholarships in four girls’ schools (Kenya High, Loreto-Limuru, Mary Hill and Precious Blood).
But with time, we realized that giving money for school fees was not enough. From Wanjiru’s experience of being mentored by the women she used to work for, we started our mentoring program.
What you are doing is laudable. But is there any effect this will have on the girl-child?
How I see it is that it took many years of having a Starehe Boys before there was a Starehe Girls. It is not that girls were not scoring high marks, but this happened when I was an adult. In 2003, I think. So you see and realize that where we come from, as a culture, women are largely seen as “your space is in the kitchen.” Our contributions are not measured.
That is why I feel like the gap between girls and boys is still really wide. So this war, if we may call it that, between boys and girls and who is more powerful than the other is far from over. Our setting already gives boys an advantage.
What is your definition of feminism?
Anyone who believes in the equality of men and women. And I think we confuse equality to mean something else. For me, equality means that we realize that all of us are human beings. If I treat you the way you want to be treated or the universal way a human being should be treated – with dignity, with respect… with a lot of support to get you where you want to go – that for me is feminism.
But then we are caught up in the equality and everyone thinks if you say you are a feminist, you want to be a man. Women who are feminists do not necessarily want to be men. It is just that we have come from such oppression… I think that’s why people always say that feminists are angry.
Do you think men are responding well to feminism?
It depends on which men. There are categories. I feel there are some who get it; there are some who understand that the systems don’t treat us equally and they will do their bit in making that space for women. There are other who are like: “ha! You just want to kuja hapa kutukalia kichwa. Na unamea pembe!” (Laughs)
For example, when Kidero slapped Rachael, I believe the cases of domestic violence in this country went up. And I think we as a country, we need to get angry and say, “Why are we allowing these things to happen?” Why should it matter to a makanga who decides your dress is too short? And who decides what is short?
Biggest success story as Akili Dada?
All the girls we have sponsored have gone to universities, locally and abroad. All have gotten scholarships. Locally it would be through JAB, and abroad they have gotten full scholarships to Ivy League universities. Recently, one of our girls got a MasterCard scholarship to a university in Ghana.
On the mentorship side, I think, for me the greatest success is seeing a girl who did not speak above a whisper suddenly putting up her hand in class and deciding, “I am not going to sit at the back. You think I have a Kamba accent? I don’t care… I’m going to sit at the front.”
I feel like that battle is already won. When that girl realizes: “yeah, I may have an accent but I can change this. And it doesn’t matter if I have an accent; what matters is where I think I’m going.” Just seeing them have that realization means everything for me.
What are you struggling with as a woman?
(Pause) It depends on the day… What I’m struggling with is that now I have a child and I feel like we are in a society where people don’t feel like they need to instill values in their children. And it really bothers me because I’m like, “where is my child going to grow up?” I feel like I’m doing my bit, but how much of it can I do on my own?
How old is your son?
He is five months.
Has motherhood surprised you?
Yes, just how intense it is. I didn’t really think how it would change my perspective because now, I think, when I look at all children, they look like my own…. (Laughs) So motherhood has made me see children in that light of every child could be my child.
I always knew how the burden of parenting falls on the mother, which I guess… you come equipped for 99 per cent of it. I think it is helpful to have a supportive partner. So half the time I’m thinking of people like me who have babies and they are alone. What does that mean?
Worst fear you have for your son?
I have not really explored the fear, because I’m keen on ensuring that I do what it takes to instill good values in him. So whatever he turns out to be in future, I want to be able to say I did my job. I don’t like to dwell on fear because I find it a defeatist way of approaching life. I like to block out stuff that I think will derail me from doing what I think
Having this child has been a highlight. I cannot believe how much I have changed.
What’s your passion outside work?
I’m very passionate and interested in fashion and design. If I’m not doing what I’m doing now, that’s what I would be doing. I also garden; I have a little garden in my house. I enjoy reading and knitting. I don’t know if I can say I’m passionate about people, but I’m invested in people.
What’s your biggest insecurity?
For Akili Dada? Lately there has been a lot of shifting in donor funding and most of our traditional donors are getting less funding. My biggest insecurity has been where I need to find new money for this organization. I have spent a lot of time thinking about that. I worry a lot about this country. I feel like we make so much noise on Twitter, keep quiet and move on to the next thing.
Are you born again?
Yes. 15 years now.
What is the hardest part of being born again?
I try to live in black and white. I have very few shades, if any. And when I realize I have shades, I try to clean that up.
This article was first published in Business Daily on the 4th of July 2016