by Olivia Drake
This article originally appeared in The Wesleyan Connection.
Girls who grow up in the patriarchal Massai community in Kenya are often impoverished, voiceless, and undermined by men. Although Kenya offers free public education, less than 5 percent of Kenyan women end up attending college.
Diana Naiyanoi Kimojino ’25, however, was determined to continue her education, even if it meant going against her family’s wishes and her cultural norms. Now an economics major at Wesleyan, she’s feels “an immense call of duty” to bring awareness to her Kenyan community about the benefits of college access for women.
“Growing up, my education is always a point of contention with my family and the community. My mother’s emphasis was to train me in the traditional ways of being a good housewife and less on pursuing my dreams as an academic or perhaps an economist,” she said.
As one of three Projects for Peace recipients at Wesleyan, Kimojino will receive a $10,000 grant to fund her project “Nailepu Girls’ Empowerment” in her hometown of Narok, Kenya. There, she will work to break down fundamental barriers, including poverty, so girls may achieve the highest level of education possible.
Projects for Peace, funded by the family of philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis, is a global program that encourages young adults to develop innovative, community-centered, and scalable responses to the world’s most pressing issues. Along the way, these student leaders increase their knowledge, improve skills, and establish identities as peacebuilders and changemakers. Projects for Peace are grassroots activities that address root causes of conflict and promote peace.
Kimojino knows first hand that her project “Nauleup Girls’ Empowerment” has the potential to be successful. While the community hasn’t completely embraced the idea of girls furthering their education, members of her town are supportive. “I was surprised at how celebrated I was when the news got to the village that I was accepted into a U.S. university and I have continually received encouraging words from my local community on how they are cheering me on while I am here, and I believe that efforts to spread the word on this project would be received well.”
Like Kimojino, Alice Musabe ’22 and Constance Hirwa ’25 also are hoping to help young people in Africa through their joint project, “Healing Through Poetry by Us.” Musabe, a neuroscience and behavior major from Kamembe, Rwanda, and Hirwa, a prospective psychology and neuroscience and behavior double major from Nyamasheke, Rwanda, will use their Project for Peace award to tackle mental health issues in their home country by sharing poetry and encouraging dialog. They’re also teamed up with friend Inkindi Muqtar.
Even though it’s been 28 years since 800,000 Tutsis were killed in the Rwandan genocide, those who endured, and survived this tragedy are still feeling the aftermath of suffering. The government of Rwanda worked to eradicate any genocide ideology through an “I am Rwandan” campaign. The campaign helped, but in some ways overshadowed room for open conversations around the trauma and experiences of genocide survivors.
“As a result, we, the younger generation, experience the trauma in our parents’ hearts and it channels into the intergenerational gap,” Musabe explained. “It indirectly affects mental health in general. Children grow up with minimal access to mental health knowledge and the culture still views [treating] mental health disorders as a luxury. Indeed, for the three of us, we best express our emotions through poetry, which is why we chose a poetry book as our means to share mental health tales.”
For the past two years, young poets Musabe and Hirwa have worked on a book, The Tales of a Healing Heart. The book is divided into three sections: poems that discuss the trauma that resulted from the genocide; poems that explore mental health disorders and combat mental health stigma; and poems that focus on psychiatric resources, self-care practices, and artistic ways to heal and promote peace. They’re currently working with a Rwandan publisher and hope to print and distribute 300 books in schools and 100 books in public libraries.
“As young poets, we thought that the best way we can unite into what seems like a mental health crisis is using our talent to spread stories of how some people deal with mental health and write poems that decentralize access to mental health issues,” Musabe said. “Like a dairy or journal, we hope that our book will provide a daily testimonial of mental health stories that high school students yearn for.”
Makaela Kingsley ’99, director of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship; Alice Hadler, the retired senior associate director of the Fries Center for Global Studies; and Alvin Chitena ’19, a former Projects for Peace recipient, served as members of the grant’s selection committee.
“Diana is one of the strongest natural social entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. Her commitment to creating opportunities for girls and disrupting gender norms is extraordinary, and her theory of change is especially elegant,” Kingsley said. “And Alice and Constance have the potential to inspire a generation of poets. Like Diana’s, the impact of their project can last far beyond this one summer. Truly, these projects can trigger permanent changes in their communities.”
Kimojino, Musabe, and Hirwa all plan to implement their Projects for Peace efforts this summer.
Twenty high school girls will participate in Kimojino’s inaugural project. After holding a workshop with their parents, she’ll teach them beadwork, hair salon and tailoring services, and show them how to market these skills for a profit, to help alleviate their poverty. Afterward, she will teach the girls basic computer skills and prepare them for applying to colleges in September.
“Ideally, I’ll also bring in women leaders from neighboring communities, some of the girls who graduated college from the community, and religious leaders to bring awareness on the need and the benefits of education for girls in the community,” she said.
Her goal is to ensure all 20 girls who take part in her summer project transition to colleges and universities and learn to support themselves.
Musabe and Hirwa plan to visit 15 schools in Rwanda to share their books and encourage conversations about mental health. They also hope to inspire the students to create mental health awareness and inclusivity clubs, and will offer a stipend for supplies and self-care tools.
“At the end of our [school visits], we believe that every student will explore different ways that feel more natural to them to express their emotions,” Hirwa said. “We use poetry, but each student is welcome to explore unique ways to express themselves; be it photography, drawing, taking a walk, or crying. We dream that over time, the generational gap and genocide trauma ends with our generation; we want the next generations to be born in a healing country full of peace. We believe that the Project for Peace grant is the backbone we need to put all pieces together and implement our project for the lives of infinite Rwandans, notably high schoolers.”
Kimojino, Hirwa, and Musabe join a successful line of Project for Peace fellows at Wesleyan. In 2021, fellow Naomy Chepngeno Chesengeny ’24 worked to empower and educate high-achieving young female athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds in an African community; and in 2020, fellow Anthony Price ’20 assisted young people across the country in building and strengthening their leadership, communication, and relationship-building skills. Read about other recipients online here.