This is Esther.
When we first met Esther a few weeks ago, she came running around the side of her house to greet us. She is amazing to see: tall, strong, vibrant, with a smile that takes you in immediately. She ushered us in, come in, come in! She had just been working in the shamba, the garden, with her aunt.
Esther’s story is incredible. Esther finished secondary school last year, and scored so highly that she received direct admission to university for this fall. She is a total orphan who has been supported by the Umoja Project since 2008—throughout the end of her primary school at Bar Union and her entire time in secondary. She attended Mawego Girls’ Boarding School under Madame Grace, who is a tower of strength for young girls. Grace identified Esther as a leader among her peers, and now this confidence exudes from Esther as she speaks.
During her years in boarding school, Esther attended the GET UP senior retreats—weekends when girls attending boarding school could come together to learn about women’s health, rights, and strategies for coping with the challenges unique to their lives. Now, Esther speaks to younger girls every chance she gets, telling them to be strong, brave, and sure of themselves and their gifts. She says GET UP was a mother to her when she had none, teaching her and giving her support as she grew.
Esther told us that she is looking forward to receiving her calling letter for university, and that she plans to study special education. “These people have a unique perspective,” she said, “and I want to be the one who can listen to them.” When we asked what she is excited or nervous about for college, she said she was nervous to make new friends, but excited because her tuition is paid. She feels free to focus on her studies instead of worrying about the fees.
This week, she shared with me that she loves writing. She says it’s how she used to cope with the pain of losing her parents, and now it’s continued as a way of expressing her identity in the world. She wrote this piece about the impact Umoja Project has had on her life:
Dear Umoja Project,
Once I was lost and thought I could not make it. I was down and thought I could not rise up. I was stuck and I thought I could not be freed. I was heavily loaded, but could not imagine at being freed. I lived in darkness and I did not think of living in brightness.
I lived in sorrow and fear. I did not even want to associate with my fellow friends because I thought I was nothing before them.
Good Lord! You gave me a father and a mother too! A sister and a brother and that was Umoja Project! Umoja, you have me education which has graduated me from darkness to brightness.
Umoja, you have given me a mother who is GET UP (Girls Empowerment Team of Umoja Project). I am now better than a person who has a mother because not all mothers share what they have experienced with their daughters.
Do you remember where you found me? When my eyes were ever full of tears? When the only thing in my mind was that I am suffering because I am an orphan?
You have taught me to be strong. You have filled the gap in my mind of being parentless. You have fed me just as birds feed their young ones! This is through your lunch program. You have also ensured that I stay at peace by taking me to a boarding school. You have made me to feel a sense of belonging between people by instituting GET UP programs.
Thank you Umoja for getting me up when I was down, for clothing me when I was naked. For giving me water when I was thirsty. For giving me hope when I had lost hope.
Father God, I pray that it may continue so that others can also be helped.
Just this week, Esther told a group of Umoja students and local leaders, “GET UP taught me to be strong. I am sure of a bright future.” As always, her confidence was striking. All of us are also sure that her future is bright, and we could not be more proud of her as she goes on to University this fall.