Wanjiru Kamau-Ruternberg: Education & empowerment

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg has a vision, to educate and empower young African girls, so they can become the future leaders, who will help shape the continent’s destiny.  Founded in 2005, Akili Dada, an international non-profit organisation based in Kenya is on a mission to address the vast underrepresentation of women’s voices from diverse and underprivileged backgrounds in decision-making positions. In January, Kamau-Rutenberg, a Professor of Politics at San Francisco University, was honoured by the Obama administration as one of fourteen “Champions of Change” who are leaders in American Diaspora communities with roots in the Horn of Africa. In the second of our series of interviews, celebrating African women to coincide with International women’s day, Kamau-Rutenberg tells us why educating the African girl child is paramount to solving the continent’s challenges.

Belinda Otas talks with Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg


How does education help African women to contribute to society?

Education opens your mind. A good education teaches you to be a problem solver and that’s what the continent needs, African women, who are equipped to solve complex problems. I care deeply and passionately about education but it has got to teach people more than just how to copy notes.

Why were you compelled to start Akili Dada?

Women were really not being engaged in decision making. Part of what we are trying to do is to make sure there are women at the table and to ensure that these women are well equipped to make a valuable contribution. For us, it’s a dual mandate to say we need more women in positions of influence and to ensure that these women are educated, articulate and prepared.

How do you develop the young women who come through your doors?

There are four major parts to our programme. The first is scholarship - we have to make sure that bright young women from the poorest families have access to good quality education.  The second is mentoring, which is a major part of our programme. We connect these brilliant young women with professional Kenya women, who are willing to step up and walk shoulder to shoulder with them. The third thing is leadership training and that’s why we say leadership is not accidental- it’s a learned skill. The fourth component is our fellowship programme; this involves inviting young women on a break from university to come to Akili Dada, we will pay you a stipend and make it possible for you to intern within our organisation or other partner institutions.

What criteria must the girls fulfil to win a scholarship at Akili Dada?

Firstly, of course, you have got to be female. Secondly, you have got to be from a financially challenged family/background, and thirdly, you have got to be academically very strong. We work with the top one percent of students from the whole country. We are also looking for young women, who are have already been involved in social change activities and are already giving back, initiated projects and have emerged as leaders in their own community.

How many people have come through your doors since you started Akili Dada in 2005 and what impact and change have you seen in their lives?

Oh my goodness, we have 16 young women right now, who are either in or are on their way, to university. We currently have 22 in High School and we are soon to add 27 this year. So our numbers are growing significantly and the impact has been tremendous. We have got young women, who would not have remained in High School and because of our intervention now have full scholarships to Ivy League Universities. We have young women, who are training to be lawyers, doctors, architects in universities across Kenya and they are the future of this country. All these young women inspire me on a daily basis.

You were recently honoured at the white house for being an agent of change and trailblazer within the American Diaspora community. What did that mean to you?

Akili Dada has been going for seven years. You work hard - it’s a small organisation with a small budget and you struggle to punch above your weight and leverage every single dollar that comes your way to make it worth five or ten. The recognition from the White House, was a real pat on the back for me on a personal level. It restored my spirit and said this is worth it, to keep going because it gets lonely, it gets hard when you are balancing a budget and the budget won’t balance and you are saying my god, where am I going to find money?

The motto is once a Dada, always a Dada, which means sisterhood. What lessons can we learn from that motto of sisterhood?

Generosity breeds generosity. That has been a big lesson for me with Akili Dada. There is an honest place in all of our hearts where we would love to give and were made to give. The first thing with sisterhood is that you have to be courageous. The reason a lot of women don’t act in sisterhood is because of fear. Fear that you would be taken advantage of, that you won’t be respected or honoured, fear that you will appear weak, fear that it will make you more vulnerable and so, for me, sisterhood is about being courageous and overcoming that fear.

It’s International Women’s day, this week, what is your message to women out there?

Stay courageous!!

Find out more about Akili Dada here

Article contributed by:

Sarah Ross

Creativity and innovation- are happening everyday across Africa, I'll be writing about the most exciting developments in our favourite contintent

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