Akili Dada has been a Hivos partner since 2012. Its founder Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg is someone who knows how scholarships can open doors for individuals. She is a recipient of a number of scholarships, awarded to her while studying in the United States. She spoke to Kevin Mwachiro.

Kevin: What led you to start Akili Dada?

Wanjiru: Over the years I have grown to deeply appreciate what it means to make an investment in someone coming up. I’ve realised that untapped potential is useless, but once unlocked, people can do wonderful things with their lives. That’s what scholarships did for me. So having been invested in by people who didn’t know me, by strangers, I am now doing the same for others. I am also a political scientist and have thoroughly studied women and power: their access to power and their exclusion from leadership and the decision making table. So Akili Dada brings together personal and intellectual impulses to highlight how Kenyan and African women are excluded from important decision-making processes. This is a way of ensuring that girls and women are ensured a place at the decision making table and positive policies result from our focus on this issue.

KM: Why the name Akili Dada?

WKR: Ahh! The words we feel capture the essence of the work that we do here.  Both words are Kiswahili words; akili means brains - but more than just brains. It’s intelligence, capacity, ability and strategy. Furthermore, it goes beyond book learning, but into smarts, broadly defined. Then dada means sister. Not just sister through blood, it is a term of endearment between women and in important ways cuts across all forms of barriers, be they racial, ethnic, generational or religious. So what we are doing at Akili Dada is nurturing a sisterhood; a community of women that is strategic, that is capable and that celebrates our ability to excel.

KM: Some people think there is undue attention to the girl-child over the boy children. How would you respond to that?

WKR: That is utterly untrue! Let us look at the historical record of education in Kenya and Africa on investment in girls. All we are doing is creating an equal playing field, we are equalising something that has been deeply unfair for many, many years. Beyond the historical legacy of deep under investment in girls, let’s look at the outcomes/statistics in education here. How do girls perform in comparison to the boys? There are still more boys than girls in the educational system. Does that mean there are no clever girls in Kenya?? How many boys over girls have access to university education? How do girls perform relative to boys? A few years ago a Kenyan politician at a school’s award ceremony made a remark to his parents, who were his constituents, saying that it was not normal for their community to have girls be performing at par with boys!!!!  Building structures that re-enforce the boys’ education over girls’ education are not good for the country. We are shooting ourselves in the foot. We need to tap into all the human resources that this country and this continent has. The next person who could invent the cure for AIDS or the next Mandela or the next Wangari Mathai is a girl somewhere!

KM: Would you care to share your thoughts on the girl or girls who’ve managed to find a place in your heart?

WKR: I like saying I am a mother to many daughters and a sister to many sisters, but I have to be careful not to pinpoint a favourite. All the women that we’ve dealt with are incredible. Though let me share the story of one girl. She is one of the many girls who I am proud of. Her name is Faith. She came from Mukuru kwa Njenga, one of the slums here in Nairobi. She is bright and it was obvious to many how bright she was. I met her when she had just joined high school. It became obvious that her family were not going to be able to keep her in this high quality school that she qualified for. An Akili Dada scholarship was able to keep her in school. It’s been tremendous to see her grow. Not just in her smarts and book learning but in her leadership too. Towards her final year of high school, she went on to become the Head Girl of her school!  This is a beautiful story of triumph, proving to many that it’s not only the rich kids who can make it. We here at Akili Dada are able to prove to ourselves, the girls and the world that with access to opportunity, economic class need not be a barrier. It is about your vision and ambition for yourself, and importantly, for your community. That leadership bit is core, which is why we like to see ourselves as a leadership incubator.

To go back to Faith, she has just completed her first semester at Whitman College in the US on a full scholarship. She wants to study International Relations. I, too, went to Whitman College for my undergraduate degree and that was where I was catapulted to where I am today. So in really cool ways we’re going full circle. Faith’s story is touching to me, because it is my story. I started Akili Dada because the girls here are my story. Plus, the girls’ stories and lives reflect on all the staff here. We see ourselves in service to them and we in turn are teaching them to be in service to their communities.

KM:  Looking back at the last few years, is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

WKR: Plenty!!! I think all good leaders should have a sense of what they could have done differently. I would have loved if we did a lot more policy engagement work. Though, looking towards the future we are well-positioned to do a lot more of that now.

When addressing issues of African women in leadership, you need to look at it from a supply and demand position. We’ve gotten very good at addressing supply; we need to branch into demand and creating spaces where people see the need to make more opportunities for women’s leadership. Young women’s leadership in particular.

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