“What makes a leader?”

This question was asked, pondered, and led by example again and again over our week and a half in Kenya. I went into the trip with my own ideas of how to lead, including: confident yet empathetic, humble, and ambitious. I found these qualities and so many more from our leaders in Kenya.

The first time we posed the question, “What makes a leader?” was to a group of high schoolers. 56 students from MOI Girls School Samburu chose to join us for a training seminar/camping trip without knowing what it would entail. Over the span of three days, we trained these girls in how to tackle tough issues that they face in their community, like child marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation), and peer pressure. The girls then could run Girls Clubs in their villages to help pay for their school tuition. Our students did not back down from the challenge.

Over those few days, I watched students open up and engage their classmates in ways I could not. While they might have been intimidated to open up to Lisa and I, they had no problem opening up to each other. They solved real-world issues in productive, practical ways. They cold-called classmates to ensure everyone’s voice was heard. They included us in their conversations, but still kept the focus on their communities and the problems they wanted to help fix. I added a new quality to my definition of a leader:

A leader knows how to engage their audience.

The second lesson I learned on leadership came from a teacher that we spent a good portion of the trip with. Her name is Nashami, and she teaches biology and chemistry at MOI Girls, a school known for its STEM program. She also heads the school’s Guidance and Counseling program, is working towards her masters degree, and runs a radio show speaking out against FGM and female oppression in her county. This impressive resumé is not something she flaunted, but something I got to know little by little as we spent time together.

Nashami is a very gentle woman, so I am not surprised so many of her students open up to her. However, once you get her talking about how families sell off their girls for two cows, she is unstoppable. She weaves together grace, logic, and pathos to captivate her listeners. Her radio show got so popular that she no longer has to pay for air time. This leads me to the second lesson I learned:

A leader finds avenues to do what is right.

Lastly, we were privileged in getting to work alongside a woman named Josephine, who started a rescue center for children who suffered immense amounts of trauma and abuse. Josephine herself had a difficult childhood, having been abandoned by her parents at age ten. Fending for herself and two younger sisters at such a young age engendered a heart full of compassion for others who struggle. She is currently working towards a degree in psychology to better help the children she houses, and she interns at a hospital where she frequently meets child victims.

Josephine welcomes these children into her home, working with the Child Service Center to ensure everything is done by the book. She cares for these children around the clock; she has no “days off” or “vacation” time. She provides the love and care these children need to heal from their past.

A leader sacrifices themself for others.

Kenya as a whole was an emotional rollercoaster of high-highs and low-lows. I grappled with understanding levels of abuse I never imagined, and some days I felt so small. However, it encouraged me to remember that while my role in Kenya may feel insignificant, there are leaders all over Samburu County who strive everyday to help their community and make a difference.

Kylie Palacios