Faith Nyakundi ’17
Faith Nyakundi ’17 loves to play soccer on an intramural team.

Started by Whitman alumna Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg ’01, the nonprofit Akili Dada opens doors for African women by providing scholarships to top high schools. This fall, Faith Nyakundi ’17 became the first Akili Dada scholar to attend Whitman.

By Edward Weinman

Faith Nyakundi ’17, a first-year student from Nairobi, Kenya, with long, tightly woven braids, suspects she’s a conspicuous figure.

The first time she went to a local grocery store, a stranger asked if she could touch Faith’s hair.

“She asked me how long it took to grow my braids. I wasn’t offended. It’s like when a white person comes to Kenya. Some kids have only seen white people on TV, never in person, so they follow them around,” Faith said.

However, nobody at Whitman asked Faith whether or not she knew how to flush a toilet.

Faith explained that a friend of hers who attends a university in the U.S. was asked this question upon moving into her dorm.

“My friend’s roommate figured since my friend was from Africa, she might not understand how toilets work,” Faith said.

Some people are curious about where she learned English.

“Of course, I learned it back home, in school, but I joke that I learned it on the plane on the way over.”

“The Akili Dada people are here.”

The principal at Faith’s high school in Nairobi, Kenya, which was called Precious Blood, told her that if she didn’t pay the late bill for her school fees, she would be asked to leave.

Here she was, a 14-year-old student in her first term of 9th grade, in jeopardy of suspension because her family wasn’t able to pay tuition.

At this moment, the prospect of Faith finishing high school – let alone attending college in the U.S. – didn’t seem possible.

Wanjiru founded Akili Dada to help young women like Faith, who grew up in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, one of the poorest slums in Kenya, a shantytown full of violence and drugs. Work was scarce for her father, a day laborer. Her mother worked as a cook. With five children, her parents didn’t have the disposable income to pay off Faith’s late fees.

Shortly after her run-in with the principal, though, Faith attended an Akili Dada assembly and applied for a scholarship. She thought earning a scholarship was a long shot. She would be competing against top private-school students who spoke, as she said, “much better English than me.” There were 150 kids applying for four spots.

Three weeks passed after she had applied, and there was no word. She figured she failed. Then, one Saturday, her principal called her from class and, as she remembers, said, “The Akili Dada people are here. You’re going for an interview.”

“I had no idea I would be interviewed that day,” Faith said. “We don’t wear our uniforms on Saturdays. I was looking so ragged. I thought there was no way I would pass.”

She interviewed with a panel of six Akili Dada members, including Wanjiru, and ended up with a full-ride scholarship to Precious Blood.

“She was a very confident young lady,” Wanjiru said. “I could tell she had potential as a future leader. I felt Faith had the passion and drive for social change. I could tell Faith was a doer.”

A sisterhood

Wanjiru said that Akili Dada provides direct financial assistance, which includes comprehensive scholarships that enable intelligent but underprivileged girls to attend top high schools to which they’ve been accepted but can’t afford. The nonprofit connects students with mentors committed to helping them succeed. The organization also provides rigorous leadership training in which the young women learn how to lead by designing and driving their own social change projects.

“Wanjiru has created a community that is unique,” Shea Morrissey ’07, Akili Dada’s communications and development manager, said.

“It’s not just about getting an Akili Dada scholar through high school. Wanjiru is creating a long-term culture of thinking. She imagines a community of African women where the minister of finance or minister of agriculture is from Akili Dada, and they can stay in touch and help each other out. She imagines Akili Dada scholars in positions of power who can affect women’s issues. Akili Dada is an incubator for social change. It’s a sisterhood.”

Faith is a thriving member of that sisterhood. She excelled at Precious Blood, and became student-body president, taught herself the piano, sang in the student choir and played rugby. While in high school, under the guidance of Akili Dada mentors, she also attended leadership academies and was trained in community organizing. After graduating, she spent a year interning with the nonprofit. She also earned a small stipend and, with assistance from Akili Dada, started Reaching the Needy, a nonprofit that raises money to provide school supplies, food, and other assistance to poor children in her community.

Faith told the Global Fund for Children that she started Reaching the Needy because she “would like to help all the children who are facing challenges like mine.

“I always feel for the people who suffer because I know what it means to suffer.”

No big buildings and lots of green grass

Faith Nyakundi ’17 and Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg ’01
Faith Nyakundi ’17 and Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg ’01

Because Wanjiru is a Whitman alumna, Faith was eager to follow in her mentor’s footsteps. She is attending Whitman on an international student scholarship and a Pearson Achievement Scholarship (a merit-based award).

There was a bumpy transition period when Faith, like most first-year students, felt like a fish out of water, but she has since found her way.

“At Whitman there seems to be a solution for everything,” Faith said. “There is someone to help you with any challenge, whether it’s an RA at the dorm or someone at the writing center. There is always someone willing to listen to my challenges and give me a way out.”

Faith has a semester under her belt, yet, she continues reconciling her expectations of life in the U.S. with the reality.

“I expected big buildings and glass walls, so I was shocked when I arrived on campus. There were no big buildings and lots of green grass. There is a community feeling around campus, which I like. But I’m used to a busy city, like Nairobi, with lots of activity. On Sunday mornings when I walk to church, I don’t see people on the road. It’s strange.”

And she is still adjusting to the food.

“There is lots of sugary food. Teriyaki chicken is so bad. And tea. Ice tea is strange. In Kenya, we only have hot tea.”

The Akili Dada scholar now shines academically, especially in classes such as Encounters, where she’s reading and discussing diverse texts like “Frankenstein,” the Book of Genesis, the Qur’an and “The Confessions of St. Augustine.”

“I’d say that Faith stands out for her intellectual curiosity, her fearlessness in class discussions, and her particular interest in the ways that women are portrayed in the texts we read,” Johanna Stoberock, adjunct assistant professor of English and general studies, said.

Like most Whitman students, Faith has diverse extracurricular and academic interests. She plays soccer and badminton. During her first semester she took a full load of classes that included International Politics, English, piano and chorale. Plus, she started a research project, studying sub-cultures at Whitman, especially international students and the adjustments they must make to acclimate.

There are many unpredictable adjustments international students have to make. For instance, Faith is trying to decide whether or not to change her hairstyle. She enjoys playing intramural soccer, but her braids get in the way.

“I can’t get mud in my hair because of the braids. Nobody here knows how to do my hair, so I might have to grow it out into an Afro. Buy some products to make my hair softer.”

Faith’s confidence, which Wanjiru noticed back when Faith was a 15-year-old student in Nairobi, helps her succeed at Whitman.

Faith said, “We Akili Dada sisters are doers.”