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LOOKING FORWARD: Peninah Nthenya Musyimi, Kenya

Peninah Nthenya Musyimi grew up surrounded by prostitution, violence against women and low expectations in the Muthare slums of Nairobi, Kenya. She and her sister used to wonder why the world was so unkind to girls. "We would ask ourselves, 'Do you think we'll end up like these women, selling illicit brew, becoming prostitutes to make our life better?'"

Instead, Nthenya willed her way into school. "I started primary [school] without a uniform, without shoes, without a school bag, without anything," she says. But she graduated at the top of her class — all while washing clothes and dishes for neighbors to help her family put food on the table.

Nthenya recalls her father's harsh reaction to her success and request to continue on with secondary school: "So what? You're still going to get married and take the 'wellness' to the husband."

With no money, Nthenya went from school to school, pleading her case. She said, "I want to be a lawyer for the slum people because no one takes care of any injustices in the slums. If someone violates you, no one takes care of you."

Finally, one school gave her a scholarship. The problem: it was nine miles away. "The ball was on my side now. But what was I to do?" Nthenya wondered. "Well, I have my feet."

And so she walked.

Nthenya graduated, something no one could remember any girl from the Mathare slums ever doing. But she wasn't done. Nthenya discovered athletic scholarships were available at a local college. So with her eyes on that law degree, she set out to master another kind of court. "I had to learn basketball within one month," she says. As usual, Nthenya didn't just learn – she excelled. By 2000, she made Kenya's national basketball team.

Today Nthenya has that law degree. She's the founder of Safe Spaces, a girls' sports and leadership organization in some of Nairobi's poorest neighborhoods. The program offers basketball, yoga, dance and artistic expression, giving girls a place to play and move freely — a new feeling for many. They empower each other, building leadership and decision-making skills. This is your space, Nthenya tells the girls. And this is your world, too.


Tough times never last but tough people do. I am back again in the slum empowering my fellow girls.

- Peninah Nthenya Musyimi

SOURCES: 1 "Peninah's Story," Women Win, 2010. 2 Girl Scout Research Institute (2009): The New Leadership Landscape: What Girls Say About Election 2008. New York: Girl Scouts of the USA.3 Girl Scout Research Institute (2008). Change it Up: What Girls Say About Redefining Leadership. New York: Girl Scouts of the USA. Photo Credit: Juliett Otieno/CARE.

© Juliett Otieno/CARE