Steve Charles—I returned from two weeks in Kenya with Wabash students last summer with what was, for me, a new understanding: The people of Africa that we met have much to offer us spiritually, we have much to offer them materially, and this rich exchange is at its best when it happens face-to-face, one relationship at a time.
I also realized that you don’t have to be wealthy to make a difference—for relatively little expense, one person can make a big difference in another person’s life and get much more back in the process.
But months later as I photographed last Saturday night’s kick-off event for the Harambee Initiative to raise funds for the education of girls and young women in Kenya and Uganda, something else came into focus. (Click here for photos from the event.) This rich exchange has been stirring at Wabash for many years, right in front of me, and among friends—it was just waiting for us to wake up and pay attention.
The event itself raised more than $2,300 for Shifting Ideas Through Education for African Women (SITEAW), the non-profit organization whose mission is to provide education to African girls and young women attempting to escape oppressive traditions in their tribes. The effort leading up to the event also garnered sponsors for five more Ugandan girls in danger of being forced to undergo a rite euphemistically referred to as female circumcision, but which the World Health Organization calls female genital mutilation (FGM).
Sister Stella Santana—the Ugandan nun who founded SITEAW in 2004 and has served Wabash eight years as costumer and dance instructor for the College’s world music ensemble and as director of its Children’s Ensemble—called the occasion “one of my greatest days in Crawfordsville.” You could see the gratitude and joy on her face throughout Saturday’s event.
In Swahili, “harambee” means “let’s pull together,” and in the photos from that evening here you can get a sense of the diversity of individuals and organizations who came together to provide for girls and young women in Uganda and Kenya something most of us take for granted—an education.
Two of the presenters—Jose Herrera ’12 and DeVan Taylor ’13—were students from the class I accompanied to Kenya last summer. They had listened to Kenyan women talk about FGM, they had seen firsthand the way education changes the lives of children there; their talks Saturday night were and support of the Harambee Initiative were one way to put their own educations into action. At least two fraternities have also taken action, donating funds to sponsor girls who have long been waiting for help from the SITEAW program.
My favorite moment of the night isn’t captured very well by the photo I took of it, but I can still see it all in my head: Sister Stella and Naomi Horton directing the pre-schoolers, kindergartners, and elementary school kids of the Wamidan Children’s ensemble; people at the back of the packed Allen Center classroom standing up so they can see; ; and the kids themselves, beaming, awash in this attention and love and expectation and encouragement.
Among those kids were Maesa Horton, soon to be four years old, born in Awassa, Ethiopia and adopted there as a toddler by Naomi and Professor Bobby Horton; Kuba Szczeszak-Brewer, whose baptism (with Scripture read in both English and Polish) I had attended, now strong and healthy and clearly relishing this moment; Tomas Rocha brandishing a cape and yelling “Ole” when it came his turn to sing.
There were the parents from the Wabash and Crawfordsville communities, encouraging their kids and cheering each one when he or she finished singing. Then there were the students taking all of this in—the kids, the talks, the drumming, the dancing, the celebration.
And Sister Stella, whose own childhood was difficult and included none of these kinds of moments, reveling in the chance to provide them for these kids, redeeming her own childhood in song and dance.
Yet even in that joyful moment, the children of Uganda and Kenya weren’t far from her mind.
“The great work all the Harambee and SITEAW members put in to make this fund- raising day happen, those who donated auction items, the children who made everyone smile, the musical ensembles who made us feel it was a celebration, and those who turned out to support our efforts—they challenged me,” she told me after the event. “I will never give up on any one of these girls.”
So Saturday’s event was one-third food and celebration, one-third education, and one-third “Wabash Always Fights.”
And that fight continues. Many of us saw a different side of Sister Stella, whose smile and singing and joyful performances at Wamidan concerts spring from faith and a deep determination to help others. I was reminded that we are connected more deeply and in ways we sometimes miss. The masses following Twitter and Facebook suggest that, but there was nothing virtual about the relationships at last Saturday’s gathering. Like the best Wabash teaching, this was face-to-face. And like the College itself, it was based on the belief that we really can make a difference, one person at a time.
For more information about the event or the Harambee Initiative, contact Steve Charles—firstname.lastname@example.org