My interactions with the girls are everything. Lilian, a junior, braids my hair. We sit in the dormitory common area, me on a pillow on the floor, her leaning over me at whatever awkward angle it will take to get the cutest, tightest braid. Other girls come and go while we sit there. Some sit with us the full 3 hours, others breeze in and out, humming to themselves as they wring out freshly washed tee shirts, run combs through their hair or run past on their way somewhere.
The first time Lilian braided my hair, the girls sang songs. Swahili versus on tribal beats. We talked about California, Daraja, and school in general. The conversation was vague, introductory at best. Whenever I saw her afterward, though, it was as if we were best friends. Both of us light up when we pass by each other. “Lilian!” “Hi Ashley!” Tight hugs and genuine “how are you”s.
The second time Lilian braided my hair, we really got to talking. Now, we knew each other. I flipped through her photo album, pointing to faces and asking questions. Most of the adults in her book have passed away. “Pole sana,” I would say, and gently prod as to how they came to pass. “He was sick,” she said. Similar story for almost all of them.
Before long, I was dishing on past boyfriends, college life and why I feel called to write books. She gave me the inside scoop on her brothers, family life and life at Daraja. Lilian doesn’t miss home “Nothing to miss,” she said, looping a group of strands over then under another. “Daraja is my home. Daraja is my family.”
I wrote Lilian a thank you letter for braiding my hair, and for being one of my first girlfriends at school. Although we still live on the campus, I want to start writing now for fear that if I do not start the habit now, it will fall off once I move back home. That can’t happen. I can’t leave here and not be a part of these girls’ lives. Just not possible. I’m too invested. I know too many of their names. Hell, almost every girl’s name. Too many back-stories. I know who is an orphan, who has been circumcised, who is a Muslim, whose mother is a prostitute, who has 9 siblings (tons of them), what careers each girls wants to pursue. I know Irene wants to be a judge because she has experienced first hand the injustices of the court system. I know that Teddy wants to be a legislator, and she’ll make a damn fine good one. I know that Hannah and Grace want to be accountants, and that Zeki has a tightly-knit family of siblings. I know that her mother’s passing devastated her. I know that Irene’s mother can negotiate her way in and out of anything, and that Shamsia and her mother are the spitting image of one another. I know that Naomi is afraid of bullying, so she’s the first one to put up an attack. I know that if you ask Yvonne to say something inspirational, she will pull a quote she learned however many years ago that has stuck with her to this day and repeat it back, word for word to you. I know that Mercy has the voice of an angel. That Emily can spit a spoken word poem like a champ. That Jesica can balance a jug of water on her head and that Charity will argue you to the death that geography is a better class than history. That Joyce has the courage to run for Kitchen Prefect, but is nervous about making the other girls do their own chores.
My interactions with these girls are genuine, real. That some are longer than others matters not. Moments with them become delicately woven double strands of DNA created, crisscrossed and channeled in my brain. Sketched into my soul like “I was here” doodled into wet cement.
I have plenty to miss about home. But like Lilian, I must admit that there is something totally unique and inspiration happening on these grounds. Daraja may only be my home for now, but Daraja will be my family, forever.