I first learned of Jane Wanjiru Muigai Kamphuis watching the HBO documentary, A Small Act. The film told the story of Chris Mburu—Jane’s cousin—whose primary education in a rural village in Kenya was sponsored by a woman he’d never met in Sweden. Both Jane and Mburu grew up to become Harvard-educated human rights lawyers, and one day, Mburu got the idea for the two of them to start their own education fund to “pay forward” the gift a woman named Hilde Back had given them. The film tells the story of Mburu’s efforts to locate Hilde Back and bring her to Kenya to see the results of her small act. It also portrays the daunting circumstances poor Kenyan children overcome to acquire a high school education. Throughout the film, Jane’s is a voice for the importance of educating girls—and recognizing the double jeopardy they face in passing the qualifying exam because of all the household work they are expected to perform in addition to their studies.
When planning this issue of The MOON on GRRL Rising, I thought of Jane and contacted The Hilde Back Education Fund to try to locate her. Within thirty minutes, I’d received an email from her in Nairobi, Kenya, where she is currently stationed as the senior regional liaison officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). She has spent twenty years in the practice and application of international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law with the United Nations and civil society in various countries. We spoke at length via telephone. — By Leslee Goodman
The MOON: Please tell us about your life growing up as a girl in a small village in Kenya.
Muigai: I had a rural upbringing in central Kenya. As a child, my best memories are of the nursery school—the equivalent of kindergarten in the U.S.—which I used to walk to with my friends. It was about five kilometers—or a little more than three miles—but we played along the way. The nursery school was sponsored by a group of Swedish people, so we had some wonderful luxuries like free toys, crayons and we ate oatmeal in the morning and a nice lunch in the afternoon. I have wonderful recollections of that time.
As early as primary school, however, life for us girls began to change. After school we had to do more chores than the boys. We walked to the river, we fetched water, we cooked, we washed the clothes, we fed the animals. The boys had chores too, but the girls had more. While the boys could play, the girls were expected to start becoming responsible for the life of the family.
Our schoolteachers also emphasized personal hygiene for us girls, but not the boys. We had to submit to “hygiene checks,” in which we partially undressed and submitted our uniforms and underwear for examination. It was female teachers who did the examining; yet still, it was clear that girls were held to a different standard than the boys. We were frequently told that we had to be clean and neat, which was evidently not a concern for boys. We didn’t even realize how strange it was until we grew up and thought, “What were they thinking, asking us to undress to inspect our underwear?”
Another example: The village would show movies at an open-air location at night. Only boys could go; girls were not allowed. The next day there would be a discussion of the film in school, but of course the girls couldn’t participate because they hadn’t seen the film.
The MOON: Why couldn’t the girls go?
Muigai: It was considered unsafe. But of course, as adults, we questioned that. Surely it could have been possible to make it safe: our older siblings or parents could accompany us. The villagers themselves could have protected us. The films could have been shown in a location that didn’t require walking a long distance. But that wasn’t the culture. It would have been considered an outrage; totally unacceptable behavior for girls to go. And because we didn’t have electricity or television in our homes, this was a big treat that the boys got and the girls didn’t.
I felt this same sense of flagrant injustice in 2009 when my cousin Chris—who founded the Hilde Back Education Fund with me and others, and who is also a human rights worker—was also living in Geneva with his non-Kenyan wife, while I was living in Geneva with my non-Kenyan husband. We both had young children and I realized that Chris’s child could travel to Kenya with him as a citizen, but my child could not. I had to pay for a visa for him to return “home.” His child was automatically a Kenyan; my child was not. That was Kenyan law at the time: one law for men married to non-Kenyans and having a child outside of the country; another law for women in the same situation. I thought, “Wow. Here we are at the village cinema again.”
The MOON: Tell us more about your education—you ended up graduating from Harvard. Tell us how that happened.