Evalyn Wakhusama ’01 M.Div., ’02 S.T.M.: bearer of water in Kenya
By Leslie Ann Brown ’10 M.Div.
After Kenya’s hotly contested December 2007 national election, the African country erupted into a ferocious wave of ethnic violence and political chaos—a tragedy for a nation holding great promise for a strong civil society. Kenyan human rights lawyer and YDS student Agnes Olusese M.Div ’10 lamented in the weeks following the election, “It is really unfortunate that some people in the leadership of our beloved country have previously and continue to use the ethnic differences in our country to further their personal goals and agendas.”
Many in Kenya, and outside the country, called for an end to the violence, including some who, like Olusese, have Yale ties. International leaders, such as Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai, Yale School of Forestry Fellow ’04, met with religious and civic leaders early in the conflict to attempt to mediate a long-term resolution. The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick ’68 B.D., president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), joined a WCC delegation to Kenya early in the year to urge churches there— where nearly 80 percent of the population is Christian—to reposition at the heart of the reconciliation process.
While the violence largely subsided after warring factions worked out a peace deal at the end of February, much remains to be done in the long term. Among those working toward a peaceful and equitable future in Kenya is the Rev. Evalyn Wakhusama ’01 M.Div, ’02 S.T.M., a native Kenyan and chair of the Women’s Initiative for Knowledge and Survival. She revisited the Quad recently to share a hope-filled mission she and partners are nurturing in this beautiful and troubled nation—creation of a school for needy children in Nambale in the Busia district of Kenya’s western province.
The Rev. Canon Peter A.R. Stebinger '80 M.Div., rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Bethany, CT, where Wakhusama did an internship as a student, serves on the board of the Nambale school project and as the chief U.S. fundraiser. While back in the United States, Wakhusama visited with Christ Episcopal Church parishioners, who individually have raised a sizeable portion of the current endowment for the project. Additionally, the congregation voted to support the initial land purchase with donations from its annual capital fund. But the majority of funding for the project has yet to be raised.
Editor’s Note: Leslie Ann Brown ’10 M.Div., former staff director of the Democratic National Committee’s Faith in Action outreach initiative to the faith community, had an opportunity to sit down with Evalyn Wakhusama at the end of January to discuss her life and work in Kenya. Following is an edited transcription of the interview.
Q. For the sake of general background, can you share a little bit about yourself…How have you come to the work that you are doing? And, more specifically regarding the Women’s Initiative for Knowledge and Survival, what is the impetus and particular project for the school?
A. My name is Evalyn Wakhusama. I come from Kenya and I am the chair of the Women’s Initiative for Knowledge and Survival. This is an NGO that was founded in 2002, registered in Kenya in 2003 whose vision is to see a world where all harness their potential and live in dignity. Its mission is to transform society and bring about meaningful change amongst those who are very disadvantaged, specifically the historically disadvantaged and those who have been affected by [the] HIV/AIDS pandemic. And I come from a very impoverished part of Kenya, the western part bordering Uganda and the poverty index is 75 percent and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the prevalence is 30 percent, which is a huge number of living people who are disadvantaged who lead poor lives…. children who are growing up really without much in life. And so, they are trapped in poverty. So, it is this vulnerable group of people, especially women and children, who often have no voice that we would like to reach out to and affect their future. So the way in which to do that is to create initiatives that will allow them to lead full lives by being self-reliant and also creating other opportunities for them so that they can go on.
Q. Can you talk a bit about your funding and supporters?
A. At this point, the people who have come to support us are mostly individuals, people who are mostly connected to me or are connected to those that are connected to those that are known to me. And so, in that sense we are a small group of people who are working and have shared this vision. We hope that this would decrease, but until this point these very faithful supporters of ours have raised up to $350,000, which then will be used to build the first phase of the school and thereafter, because the school has other phases to it, we hope that we will expand our supporters so that we eventually would raise our target of $3,000,000.00.
Q. And your target is to raise that amount by when? Do you have a particular time that you expect construction?
A. At this point, we think that when all is done that will take maybe 10 years. We wish that it would be shorter, but being realistic we put it at 10 years. And also, the Steering Group that is here in this country (the U.S.) putting together our support team has applied for our registration to have a 501c (3) status, which we believe that in a year’s time we will have. And when we do have it, we believe that we will have corporations and other bigger donors. And so that is how we hope to accomplish our 10 year target sooner.
Q. Can you talk about the district itself [Busia]? I know it is on the border with Uganda. What is the general infrastructure in the district, and ethnic constituencies? What is the composition of the area where you are looking to build the school?
A. The place where we hope to build the school is known as the Busia district, which I said is on the border of Kenya and Uganda. It is a rural town whose people are mostly peasant farmers. And they speak the Luhya language, one of the 42 tribes in Kenya. Busia is, as I said, a very impoverished area. And so most of the people just do small scale farming just for subsistence…what you would call subsistence farming.
Q. I was doing some background research and found there were a number of…what were couched as anti-AIDS clubs in the primary schools and the ways of building awareness. Are you finding that there is still a need for the awareness campaign or is it more of a behavioral shift for the community? And how is that factored in if at all particularly with a focus on those orphaned by the epidemic?
A. The ways in which the HIV/AIDS pandemic that took root in this, our society, is through a number of things. One, it is because of poverty that means that people are unaware of the risks. Two, it is because of the lifestyle that they are forced to lead; some of those decisions that they make are because they are really [without] choice. Another reason really has to do with culture which is a difficult thing to really turn around because people are often a product of their culture. But there are a lot of education programs that are going on to try and educate people.
Q. Is that a consideration as part of the program for Nambale?
A. That will be in some way, by bringing in a group of women so that they would know about their bodies…
A. Yes, exactly, things that they would not ordinarily talk about because in the African culture sexuality is not something you discuss, and so the HIV/AIDS pandemic is causing people to do what would have been considered unthinkable in the past.
Q. Certainly for some who may not have had an eye on Kenya previously, there is attention, post the recent election. How specifically is the project, but more broadly the people of Busia, being impacted by the conflict now, and the move of some who are displaced to Uganda being on that border? Can you give a sense of what the urgency is in the immediate right now and how you envision that impacting this particular work?
A. The current situation in the country, the political crisis is affecting everyone in the country. One, there [in Busia] are people there who are displaced, and because of that it means that people must have lost jobs so that is already a direct impact. And part of the reason why Busia is poor is because of bad politics. And at this point, what Busia people are doing is to try and pick up the pieces although there is pressure on the other end because a number of them are not really safe. There is a threat; schools have not opened. So kids are staying at home when they should be in school.
Q. This is since late December?
A. Ah, from January, they should have opened but they did not reopen. And this is right from nursery/kindergarten all the way to high school. So it means those kids who would ordinarily be at school at this point, they are at home waiting for this violence to end. So that is a huge loss.
Q. They are at a deficit . . .
A. There is going to be a huge . . . disaster in the results because this is a national exam and so it is going to affect them. People are demoralized because there is nothing as bad as a people who feel that their very rights have been taken away. And for impoverished people in Kenya the only thing they felt that they owned was a vote so that they can decide who will be the next leader. And so when that small yet important item is taken away from them then it fully leaves them in a hopeless situation. So that is the kind of frustration.
As for the project, we see a number of things happening, delay in the work because if people are demoralized then they cannot work as effectively.
Q. There is an essential essence of hope, and future-oriented feeling that is necessary?
A. Yes, it is very important. So, our hope that this thing will be resolved, the political crisis, so that many people can begin to go back to their places of work and begin to move on to reconstruct what has really been destroyed in our own country. There is also the issue of shortages in building materials, because now with the transport system affected it means delivery of materials is actually severely affected. It also means because of shortage in terms of fuel there is some sort of rationing that means the price of things will go up so that means that it will impact the project.
Q. Perhaps you can explain a little bit about the harambee system, the system of local school parents paying into the primary system for maintenance of a school…that at times can perhaps have some inter-ethnic conflict over the ownership of an area. Is that at all an aspect with this school or are those issues set aside? And the more direct question is what are you thinking about your personnel, teachers and administrators in the school, is this something the people of Busia will have ownership of; is there a thought of bringing in others/foreign aid workers in?
A. The way in which we anticipate to work in the school regarding ownership is very clear because this is a community-based organization. And when it is for the community, it is owned by the community and the community will be so glad that such an institution is in their community. As far as we see it when it is all built and running, [it will be] one that will be a beacon of hope and a symbol of development in the area. So we see people owning it and protecting it so that is can provide hope, education and livelihood for their own. And because we believe education is the key to success then we know that when the community upholds this school and institution, they will be creating hope and success in their own community. And they will raise people as leaders in the country, and so that will be something the community will be very proud of. We know that in order to get the best of education, we will need to get the best of teachers. And so as the weeks go out, we hope to seek out throughout the country regardless of the current political situation (which we believe is going to be a short-lived problem) so that the very best will come and instruct these children. So, we hope to solve that by creating a model institution, but insisting on good standards and getting the very qualified to be there.
Q. And what do you envision as your standard for admissions?
A. Our first and our target group is the vulnerable group, whom we will select blindly because of their deep need. The second group of students would come from all around the country or region based on the fact that their parents can pay for their staying in school.
Q. What is the role of women in the larger context of the school, and will there be direct consideration of gender-balance in obtaining your student population?
A. In order for us to have equal opportunity for these children, we would very much as far as possible have a gender balance of so many boys equal the number of girls that will get admitted. Looking at the statistics in Busia of women’s education, there are many that are not educated. Many go through life learning chores, not taking education seriously, getting married early and being mothers and caretakers of homes…and rarely as those that would pursue careers…take on careers and be empowered. So because of this kind of situation most of those women are very disempowered and lead very impoverished lives. We would like to reverse that.
Q. And can you speak to your experience at YDS. How did that particular time of formation and later affiliation inform this work?
A. I came to the Yale Divinity School in 1999. I was very grateful for the opportunity to come over this way to study, one of the few coming all the way to an institution of this caliber, which was a great privilege. But, I was clearly overwhelmed by the culture and the adjustments being away from home. It was difficult. It was a long way. But I did get along by and by with struggles in the beginning, then I made friends. I became comfortable. I fitted into the institution. I found my place. I worked hard. I got my two degrees, an M.Div. and then I got an S.T.M. As I was leaving in 2002, I began to ask myself one important question now that I was going home: “What was it that I would take home with me?” Clearly, I had my degrees, which was a personal achievement, but I felt called to translate those papers into something that would be tangible for the society. And I use an image of a woman bearing water or carrying water. And in Busia district, women are bearers of water. They do not have piped water. So in homes people go to rivers, streams and wells to draw water for use. So, I pictured myself as an ordinary girl who would have to do that, carry out that chore. But then I imagined that I had come all the way to draw water of knowledge and survival, so I was taking back water that would be used to nourish that society. So it was in that mindset that I began having conversation with friends, sharing my own dream and how I wished to change society by bringing about something that would impact them.
Through that conversation, the name Women’s Initiative for Knowledge and Survival was born. And then we created a logo. Basically, our…what shall I say…our statement of faith is the tear of compassion and the flame of indignation. Our logo is a compilation of four parts of a symbol. We have the tear which represents our sensitivity to the pain, and the logo of the flame which represents the very fire in us that makes us indignant to the suffering in the world. We have the cross which is the Christian symbol of values which we embrace and hands which for us are representative of God who works through us to heal the broken world. And so I went home with these things together, my logo, my vision and my mission and got home and shared this with a group of women who were willing to embrace this, and from there we built what we have until this point.
For me, coming to Yale Divinity School and the experience that I had helped me to look critically at my own society that I had come from and seeing the great variance there is. I find that as a life-changing experience which has given me purpose, something that I am passionate about, something that I am proud to do because it is a legacy that will live on.
Q. Again, there is no focus on any particular religious education?
A. No, and because we know that we will have children from various diverse traditions we will have a Chaplain as long as we see they embrace what we consider as orthodox Christian teaching and allow them nurture the children.
Q. There will be a Chaplain?
A. There will a chaplain because at the center of that will be Christian teaching
Q. What do you envision for this? Is that more of a moral or character formation?
A. Much more perhaps different from what we have in this country where there is a clear separation of faith and institutions. Whereas, back home they are so intertwined it is a normal part of life. It is not even surprising in an office meeting to have it begin with prayer. It is secular completely, yet prayer becomes a part of it.