Big day out

12-year-old poet from the slums of Nairobi takes on New York City

On the last day of her trip to America, Eunice Akoth relaxed in Central Park

“Look at that dog.”

It was a sun-kissed Sunday in Central Park and 12-year-old Eunice Akoth was staring bemusedly at a Jack Russell Terrier as it splashed about happily in the waters of the Boat Pond. The intense kinship between New Yorkers and their canines had become a point of fascination for Eunice during her trip to America, which marked the first time she had travelled beyond the Kenyan slum that she calls home.

“I never knew people talked to their dogs,” Eunice said.

She sat against the edge of the pond, a butterfly sticker on her forehead, a tiny tub of vanilla ice cream in her hand. It had been an overwhelming two weeks for this little girl with the fuchsia-tipped braids. Eunice’s journey began with her departure from Kibera, a sprawling slum in Africa, where Eunice lives in a mud hut with her parents. She flew to New York for several days, then travelled to Boston, then to Washington D.C., then to Connecticut, and then back to New York once again before her flight to Kenya. Throughout the trip, Eunice met with American board members of Shining Hope For Communities (SHOFCO), the grassroots organization that runs the Kibera School for Girls where Eunice is a student.

But the primary purpose of Eunice’s visit to America was to appear onstage at the Women in the World Summit. In front of an audience of thousands, Eunice recited the first and only poem she has written. Titled “My Dream,” the poem was an assertion of hope and ambition in the face of adversity:

I have a dream,

A dream that will never fail,

My present situation not withstanding.

It’s a mere passing cloud.

Every mighty king was once a small baby.

Every great tree was once a tiny seed.

Every tall building was once on paper.

And so I dream my dream.

As she delivered her poem with emphatic determination, silent tears began to stream down Eunice’s face. She wasn’t nervous (“Why should I be nervous?”), just overcome by the emotion of it all. “I never knew someone can just pick someone from the slums and take them somewhere to be who she wants to be,” she said.

And just who does Eunice Akoth want to be? A journalist, for one thing. During her trip to New York, she met with the New York Times’ Nick Kristof, a definite highlight, though one that may have been surpassed by Eunice’s first sampling of Mexican food. As a reporter, Eunice hopes to one day bring to light the sort of suffering that she witnesses every day in Kibera. “I want to help my community,” she told me. “I want also to travel all over the world and be the voice of the voiceless.”

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The Kibera slum occupies a waste-filled expanse of land in Nairobi. Though concrete statistics are hard to come by, it has been estimated that at least several hundred thousand people are packed into an area smaller than Central Park, where Eunice sat last Sunday watching miniature sailboats drift by on gentle waters. Infrastructures like plumbing, clean water, and waste collection are minimal in the slum. HIV is rampant, especially among young women, and violence against women is routine. When she descrbes Kibera, Eunice speaks of things that no little girl should know about: rape, forced marriage, prostitution. Some of her peers have been subjected to atrocities that, Eunice says, “make you not want to live again.”

Though she was born into extreme poverty, Eunice has mercifully escaped such tragedies, largely thanks to her parents. Eunice’s father works in construction. Her mother cleans the houses of wealthy Kenyans. Neither of them went to school, and they cannot read or write. But Eunice told me that her parents understand the value of educating their children—including their daughters—and so they sent Eunice to the Kibera School for Girls (KSG).

Established in 2009 by SHOFCO co-founders Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner Odede, KSG is the first free primary institution for girls in Kibera, where the majority of female children do not receive an education. The school provides its pupils with free health care, food, and psychosocial services. The goal is to vitalize a struggling community by investing in its girls.

Throughout her trip, Eunice was accompanied by Lilly Bullitt, a fellow at SHOFCO.  “What we’re trying to do is show [the students at KSG] all their opportunities, and let them choose what they want to do,” Bullitt explained. “Coming to America and seeing this whole different way of life is one option, but there are so many [opportunities] also in Kenya.”

Eunice’s first taste of life in America had been a whirlwind of excitement and monumental culture shock. She was astonished by how clean it is in New York (not something one hears too often about the city). She had experienced some of the country’s most iconic landmarks: the Empire State Building, 30 Rock, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, Boston Common. She had visited a rural farm, where she rode a horse. It was all new, and it was all fun.

But first and foremost, Eunice came to America on a mission. She hopes that the poem she recited at the Women in the World Summit will inspire children who “do not know how to achieve their dreams.” And she hopes that anyone else who hears her words will be galvanized to help alleviate suffering in Kibera.

“America is about fun, enjoyment, and all that,” she said. “But I want them to realize that there’s other places, where people are crying. They seek for help, for someone to come and help them. I also wrote the poem so that people can hear the pain that people are going through.”

Acting as a “voice for the voiceless” can be exhausting work, however, especially for a 12-year-old. After spending two weeks dashing around American cities and courting board members, Eunice was tired.

“Are you ready to go home?” I asked her.

“Yes.”

 “Do you miss your family?”

 “Yes.”

And so the last day of Eunice’s American trip was a relaxed one. She strolled through the Central Park cherry blossoms, ate vanilla ice cream, and laughed at dogs—taking it all in, but eager for Kenya.

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