I can’t remember exactly why it was decided that I should talk with Grace* on my last trip to Kenya, but I am so glad it happened. There’s always at least one person you meet on a trip that you will vividly remember your encounter with, and Grace is one of those people.
We didn’t talk for long, but even in the ten or so minutes I spent with her, she made a lasting impression.
She’s the kind of young person that has the spark and eloquence and drive to become a youth activist or run for Parliament or…become a biomedical engineer.
The day we spoke she was in Class 8, and it was exam time of year. She had taken exams in science, mathematics, English, Swahili, social studies and Christian Religious Education.
Let me just take a minute to remind you that Grace isn’t attending a prep school with the best educational opportunities. She’s growing up in a slum of Kenya, outside of Nairobi. For most in the West, it’s worse poverty than anything you’ll ever see in your life. The challenges that come with that environment are staggering.
Yet Grace has a vision, and I don’t think anything is going to get in her way.
Her favorite subject is mathematics “because it’s all about calculation.”
Right there I knew I was speaking with a young woman with far different potential than I ever had. I told her she must be very smart, and that math was not one of my good subjects when I was in school–I had especially struggled with it at her age.
She told me she planned on going to high school the next year and when I asked her why she wanted to do that, she told me: “So I can achieve my goals.”
Good answer, but I had to ask: “What are your goals?”
Grace replied: “To be a biomedical engineer when I grow up.”
Ummm. Okay. That’s not an answer I’ve often heard.
So, of course, my next question: “Why do you want to be a biomedical engineer?”
And this is the part that makes you gulp…
“To help people in our communities develop, because people in our village, they don’t have enough requirements to help the mothers deliver their babies. So… the reason I want to be a biomedical engineer is to build some incubators for the baby to stay in. To support the mothers.”
I told her that was very noble, but it was so specific, I asked her how that had come to be her dream…
She went on to tell me that about 8 years ago, her aunt had a baby… a new baby cousin for Grace. But it ended in tragedy:
“When she delivered her baby, her baby could not be put in the incubator,” she explained. “That incubator was not in the hospital, so her baby died.”
Ever since that time, though, Grace has carried this dream in her heart to help save other little babies like her cousin.
It says so much. Here’s this young girl who lives in extreme poverty every single day, battling obstacles that would probably make many of us give up. And then poverty struck another blow, perhaps one of its worst: death…a death that may have been preventable, if only they had had access to adequate health care.
Young as she was, the blow so profoundly struck Grace that she decided that this should not be. She didn’t want anyone else to go through what their family had gone through with this loss.
She was going to do something about it.
And that passion has put her life on the course it’s on today: with her sights set on becoming a biomedical engineer so she can build infant incubators.
It’s a story with heartache, yet beauty.
I remembered this story as we celebrated International Day of Women and Girls in Science recently, and it makes me celebrate girls like Grace who are trying to push through the dark forces of poverty and pursue an education so they can achieve their dreams of changing the world through science.
Much to my surprise, there was another young teen I met who also aspires to be a biomedical engineer…
I asked Grace about her family—she lives with her mother, father, sister and two brothers. She has always lived in the Mathare slum.
“How do you find Mathare?” I asked her.
“Life in Mathare is really hard. What I want to do is, when I grow up, I want to take my parents out of here.”
I found that touching. This13-year-old girl, eloquent and decisive, is not only dreaming of becoming an engineer, but pulling her parents out of the hardships of this slum too.
“Life is hard because when people are demonstrating, the police threw some tear gas and that affects us and even the young children who are still babies.”
Children being exposed to tear gas? Babies? Most of us are so out of touch with a life like this.
I met Grace at her school, which Bright Hope partners with, and I also had the opportunity to walk to her home and meet her mother. Her mother is deeply invested in her children and their school.
Both Grace’s mother and father did not complete school, and her mother seems determined that her children will not have the same life they have had.
Parents who prioritize education in the slums are a great blessing and a powerful ally in the fight against extreme poverty.
“If you want to succeed in your life, if you want to see a good life tomorrow, go to school. Educate your children,” Grace’s mother told me. “Know what education is. Education is the key to life.”
With a mother like that cheering for her and supporting her, we pray Grace can achieve her every dream!
*Name changed to protect privacy