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Have you tried teaching self-love to a teenager? You can't. Self-love requires quiet introspection and acceptance of oneself—the opposite of where the Ajiri scholars (and most teenagers) are in their lives. Our scholars want to get as far away from themselves as possible.
This is why having the right stuff is so important—the right shoes, the right uniform, the right pens. They want to fit in (which can be even harder when you are poor, and even harder when you are an orphan). They want to fit in with outward expression, not tune into themselves and their feelings.
At Ajiri we try to fix things. It is what we do. High unemployment? We'll create employment. Children need school fees? We pay school fees. But we can't fix those teenage years. We can't take away their awkward growth. We can't remove their desire to be somewhere else or be someone else. So instead of fixing the painful teenage years, we try and give them more opportunities to feel good about themselves.
Ajiri scholars on a field trip to Lake Victoria this December.
This requires some quiet listening on our part—and some persistence past the eye rolls and curt one-word answers. Regina, our Kenyan colleague, is a champion listener and observer. She sees a child doodling on the side of a page and some colored pencils appear on the table. A child finishes a book quickly, and the sequel is placed within reach. Our weekly swimming lessons build confidence, our bookclubs build camaraderie. We aren't so naive as to think that we can lead our students to radical self-love, but through encouragement, through truly seeing them, we can at least lead them to like a part of themselves.
The more we organize Ajiri hikes and swimming lessons and book clubs, the more chances we give our teenagers to be, well, kids. From school to their home lives, their worlds are telling them to hurry up and grow up. And at Ajiri, we are giving them space to still be a kid. So maybe self-love can wait.
After a recent swimming lesson followed by a book discussion at the local Kisii sports club, we found our scholars lying underneath a tree, their heads on each other's stomachs, looking up at the sky. There were no phones out (most of our scholars don't have phones anyway). Their books were underneath their heads. "What are you doing?" Regina asked. One of them looked up and earnestly replied, "listening."
Thank you all for listening to us as we grow up,
Kate, Regina, Sara, and Difna
Ajiri scholars at a swimming lesson this December.
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