September 23, 2014
Written by Everlyn Njiri, Intern, Jhpiego
This post originally appeared on Medium here. Reposted with permission.
The Kenyan school year is just beginning, and I’m taken back to my first day in university, four years ago.
A day I will never forget.
I left home early that day on my two-hour journey to campus. I was anxious. I didn’t want to miss a thing. At the registration desk, new students were everywhere, dressed to the nines and eager to make a good first impression. Curious, but shy and reserved, too. At least, that’s how I felt.
Some of the students had already made friends in the queue and were engaged in animated conversations about what they would be studying, which schools they had come from, and what they were looking forward to the most. I observed quietly. Who would be my classmates? Who seemed like a potential friend?
Frankly, who would make a good boyfriend?
I was in awe of the boys. Having come from a strict girls-only boarding school, I wondered what it would be like to be studying in the same class as boys.
Standing in that room, at that moment, I was aware of my sexuality as a young woman and recognized my need to be wanted. That feeling would stay with me throughout my four years at university.
The dorm — we call it a hostel room — had a balcony overlooking a small garden. I shared the space with three other students. The first, Rose, a short, dark, full-figured lady, mature, experienced and completely sure of herself. She was a marked counterpoint to my anxiety and naiveté.
We became fast friends. She introduced me to older students — previous friends of hers — and taught me how to survive in college. Rose and I shared more than a room, we shared our stories and our dreams.
And we shared a good deal of parties.
There were parties almost daily, invitations everywhere. Flyers and posters strewn around campus announced the night’s biggest gatherings. Some hosts even offered personal escorts to and from the venue.
I only realized later that these parties were mere excuses for older students to meet the new girls.
They called it the gold rush. We were the gold, and they were the miners.
It was confusing, but exciting. The attention felt so good, and so frightening. The freedom was overwhelming.
Many girls had sex for the first time at these parties. We were all clueless.
Today, I am interning with Jhpiego — an international maternal and child health non-profit — on its Brighter Futures Program, and I feel for the young people of my country.
I wish someone had sat down with me for an honest conversation.
I wish I had known that relationships would come and go, and that I could take simple steps to protect my future. Adolescents in Africa are the only generation with rising rates of HIV, but many of my peers don’t practice safe sex.
With so much risk, honestly, young women and men can’t afford to go through school like I did: naïve, insecure, hiding in shame, and so susceptible to peer pressure. We need real education, and safe places for young people to talk about relationships and sexuality. I am proud to be part of a program that is making this happen.
So as I look back on my time in University, I would give incoming students this advice:
Brighter Future is supported by Merck & Co. and implemented by Jhpiego-Kenya to address unmet need for contraception among university-age women & help them develop confidence to build a strong, purposeful future. A Brighter Future youth is among the speakers at the Wednesday panel on “Reimagining Adolescent Health: Breaking New Ground, Finding New Strategies that Work,’ at the Roosevelt Hotel, 8 am EST.