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Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede Transform Africa’s Largest Urban Slum

Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede/Photo from Jessica's book Find Me Unafraid

Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede

By Laurie McAndish King (@LaurieKing)/January 12, 2016
TWITTER for Jessica and Kennedy: @hope2shine

Jessica Posner grew up a middle-class American in Denver. She hadn’t seen much of the world, and when she had an opportunity to study overseas she chose to do political theater work in Kenya. Jessica ended up living in a slum with no streets, no toilets, no running water, no electricity and no public services. Then she got malaria.

“No one believed Jessica could survive,” Kennedy Odede, her husband, says. “Every morning my friends knocked on my door and asked: Is she dead, or is she alive?”

find=me-unafraid-kennedy-odede-jessica-posnerJessica Posner and Kennedy Odede’s lives are linked by one unlikely circumstance after another. They met when Jessica was taking a junior year abroad and Kennedy was organizing street theater to raise awareness about sexual violence in his community. Kennedy lived in a Nairobi slum called Kibera, a warren of hopelessness the size of Central Park.

Jessica and Kennedy were in America together, celebrating the launch of the book they co-wrote, Find Me Unafraid — Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum. A friend had told me about their remarkable story, so I was excited to hear the couple speak at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.

It’s hard to imagine two people more different on the surface. Jessica wears a stylish dress; her animal-print pumps have three-inch spike heels. Reserved on stage, she lets Kennedy do most of the talking.

Kennedy speaks with animation and charisma. Until a few years ago he’d had so little exposure to Western culture that he was astonished by the abundance of a school cafeteria and the luxury of hot running water.

Jessica and Kennedy tell us about the work they have done together, which sounds like a minor miracle: setting up and running a free school for girls in the slum, making clean water and medical care accessible and helping dozens of individuals start small businesses.

It hasn’t been easy. Kennedy grew up in extreme poverty, taking to the streets and using drugs when he was just 10 years old to help alleviate the pain of his situation.

“I had a job in a factory where I earned $1 for 10 hours,” Kennedy says. “I saw people getting old in their jobs. My best friend was shot and killed by the police; my sister was abused. I was sad and angry and hopeless.”

 

But Kennedy Odede was also resourceful, resilient and determined. He read A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was inspired to build a better future.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that,” he read in King’s book. “Faith is taking the first step, even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”

Kennedy realized that the people of Kibera needed to solve their own problems, and he was determined to do just that.

“Where are the donors? Where is the money?” his friends asked. “You are crazy!”

“This is not a non-profit,” Kennedy responded. “This is a movement. We do not need donors to clean our streets. We do not need donors talk about issues that affect us.”

Odede was off to a strong start. He bought a twenty-cent soccer ball and started a team to give people something constructive to do. He organized neighborhood clean-ups and street theater. He raised awareness about sexual violence.

He co-founded a youth group called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) and got his fellow citizens talking about how to improve their living conditions. “I got elected mayor of Kibera,” Kennedy says, sounding a little surprised.

jessica Posner and Kennedy Odebe at Book Passage Oct. 2015/from Laurie King

Kennedy and Jessica speaking at Book Passage/10-15

Then Jessica turned up. She moved into Odede’s cramped home, reasoning that it would be hypocritical to live in comfort outside the slum while she was working with the people of Kibera. The two strategized, and decided that if they could change the realities for women and children, everything else would follow. They would open a free school for girls, starting with the youngest, the brightest and the most vulnerable children.

Jessica knew how to apply for grants in America. She had friends whose families donated money. She raised $10,000 to start, and Kennedy worked with community members to arrange a small space for the school.

It had to be free in order to reach the girls most in need, but the school wasn’t set up as a charity. The students’ parents contribute their time — five work-weeks each year — in exchange for the girls’ education. Some of the students are orphans, so friends or relatives donate time for them. Brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbors all work together to help the school and build community.

Jessica and Kennedy hired the best teachers in Kenya, and after just a year their students were speaking good English. Opportunities were opening up, and the community began to understand the value of educating girls.


Eunice Akoth’s Dream: A poem from a 5th grade student at the Kibera School for Girls

The Kibera School for Girls  is adding one grade each year; eventually it will go through 8th grade. After that, the school will try to arrange admissions to high schools, boarding schools and even college for all its graduates.

The school made even more sense when Jessica and Kennedy added a health clinic and a source of clean water. TWE first interviewed Jessica in 2010, when the clinic had just opened. Services now include primary preventive care, women’s and children’s services, HIV care and a child nutrition program.

By including holistic services so all members of the community benefitted directly, they made the school into a portal for large-scale social change.

Jessica Posner at new health center, Kenya

Jessica Posner at the new health center

New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes about human rights, women’s rights and global affairs, has helped publicize Jessica and Kennedy’s work. Now even the government wants to help. (“They want our votes,” Kennedy clarifies.)

And since they have demonstrated what is possible, Jessica and Kennedy are getting requests from young people across Kenya — and around the world — to replicate SHOFCO and the school for girls. “Young people look at me,” Kennedy says, “and see that it is possible to change. We can do it. We don’t have to wait for the government, or for big donors.”

“Standard international development is very top-down,” Jessica explains. “But this is bottom-up. Most of the funding comes from individuals. It only takes $100/month to sponsor one girl, and give her two meals a day.”

Although things are getting better, many residents of Kibera still struggle every day. The political situation has improved significantly since 2007, when Jessica and Kennedy began working together. Kenya’s government is much stronger now, but there is still no functional government in the slum, and no police protection. Poor women still have a dismal life.

Jessica Posner

Children at The Kibera School

But SHOFCO isn’t waiting around for donations. They provide computer, adult literacy and business skills classes for Kibera residents. SHOFCO’s sanitation efforts include cutting edge bio-latrines, community toilets and hygiene and sanitation education initiatives.

All this has grown from Kennedy’s initial work to create a safe, productive space for community members to gather and improve their lives. The real magic of Jessica and Kennedy’s collaboration is the local participation Kennedy inspires, combined with the outside funding prowess Jessica provides.

This approach works so well because it empowers the people of Kibera and lets them decide for themselves how best to use outside aid. Most of all, it engenders hope by demonstrating that a better life is possible.

Wedding of Jessica and Kennedy by John Moore on YouTube/6-19-12
 

Jessica and Kennedy took their collaboration beyond SHOFCO — they were married in June of 2012, and they will undoubtedly keep right on making things happen. As a friend said at their wedding, “It’s never going to be dull!” I have a feeling there are more miracles on the horizon.

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Author Paula McLain Reimagines the Lives of Two Remarkable Women

Paula McLain; speaking at Book Passage, Aug. 2015/Photo: Pam Burke

Paula McLain at Book Passage Bookstore/8-15

Update 6-5-18: Paula is getting great reviews for her newest historical fiction, Love and Ruin, the story of Ernest Hemingway and writer/journalist Martha Gellhorn.

by Laurie McAndish King/November 16, 2015
Photos: Pamela Burke

 “The genre is completely addictive to me. It’s almost like every step of my journey as a writer has been leading up to historical fiction. It allows me to use all my gifts as a writer — my empathy, my curiosity.”   Paula McLain

Paula McLain didn’t plan to write breathtaking historical fiction; her sights were set on poetry. She worked hard at it, earning an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan while single-parenting her toddler. She published two books of verse, a memoir about growing up in the foster-care system in California, and a contemporary novel … and then came The Paris Wife (@randomhouse). McLain hit her stride with historical fiction.

Paula McLain books/Photo: Pam Burke

That book, published in 2011, is a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and early years in 1920s Paris, told from the perspective of his wife, Hadley. Friends were raving about The Paris Wife and I knew McLain had just published a second piece of historical fiction, Circling the Sun, so I was delighted to hear her speak at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.

Looking lean and graceful in a black jacket and lively pearl earrings, McLain radiates warmth. She talks with both hands, and her right arm clearly has a life of its own. She flips her long brown hair, enthusiastically.

Paula on Reviving Ernest Hemingway and The Paris Wife/Random House of Canada on YouTube

Before she wrote The Paris Wife, McLain says, she had a problem. “I hadn’t yet had a big idea, and I wasn’t sure how to find one. It was by fluke that I stumbled onto A Moveable Feast. I was moved to tears by the love story. When Hemingway believes his own genius … I wanted to know more. Who was she? What really happened, so that they lost each other?”

McLain read two biographies of Hadley. “I let the first fall open, and a letter from Hadley leapt off the page at me. This is my girl,” I thought. “This is my book!” McLain quit her teaching job (she was actually working three teaching jobs at the time) and borrowed some money. She wrote every day in a Starbucks in Cleveland — which, McLain points out, is the absolute farthest one can possibly get from a Parisian café.

“I had never done research before. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had never even been to Paris. It was almost as if I was channeling her, like an actress in the role of my life,” McLain remembers.

In the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, she found a treasure trove of love letters—thousands of letters that she could “follow down the rabbit hole” into Ernest and Hadley Hemingway’s exuberant life in Jazz-Age Paris. “Hadley had burned all her letters from Ernest, but he kept everything. It was like a ghost chase.”

A member of the audience asks McLain how she managed to recreate Hadley’s dialog. “How do you get into their heads? How much is fact, and how much is fiction?”

“Because it is a novel, you can say anything,” McLain explains. But due to copyright issues, she was not allowed to use any two words together that her subjects had actually written. “Getting inside her head was like an actor’s trick. I had read so many of her letters … I also love what is not being said. Really good dialog is people not saying what’s on their minds.”

The Paris Wife was told from the perspective of a relatively unknown historical figure. It included “no detectives, no porn, and no death on page three.” Yet it hit the New York Times bestseller list — and stayed there for 77 weeks.

“The genre is completely addictive to me,” she explains. “It’s almost like every step of my journey as a writer has been leading up to historical fiction. It allows me to use all my gifts as a writer—my empathy, my curiosity.”

The Paris Wife was named one of the best books of the year by People, the Chicago Tribune, NPR, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Kirkus Reviews, and the Toronto Sun. It sold 1.6 million copies. And that presented a new problem.


BEA Librarians’ Breakfast on “Circling the Sun”/Penguin Random House-2015
 

It was time for a follow up. Readers were asking McLain what she was writing next. She had started novel about Marie Curie, another extraordinary and underappreciated woman, and worked on it for two and a half years. But the story was boring. “It felt like pushing a mannequin in a shopping cart,” McLain recalls.A nudge from her brother-in-law introduced McLain to West with the Night, the memoir of history-making aviator Beryl Markham. Markham’s achievements alone might have captured McLain’s attention.

Paula McLain, Elaine Petrocelli/Book Passage 8/-15/Photo: Pam Burke

Paula with Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage/8-15

She was a daring bush pilot in 1920s Kenya; the first person to successfully hunt big game from the air; the first licensed female horse trainer in the world; one of the first people in the world to hold a commercial pilot’s license; and, in 1936, the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west—the hard way. In McLain’s words, “Markham was a real badass.”

Then there was Markham’s personal story. She suffered incredible losses early in life, somehow managed to draw strength from them, and grew into an exceptional and fearless woman.

She lived a dramatic life as part of a circle of glamorous British and European expats and had affairs with a prince and a duke—not to mention her part in the decade-long love triangle with Danish writer Baroness Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, a charismatic hunter and pilot. “She lived like Calamity Jane and she looked like Great Garbo,” McLain observes.

But there was still more that drew McLain to Markham; the two shared surprisingly similar backgrounds. Both were abandoned at age four by their mothers and felt the loss deeply. Their mothers were both gone for 16 years, reappearing when their daughters were 20 and making the girls’ lives extremely complicated. Both McLain and Markham were married at age 34. “We share emotional DNA,” McLain says.

And finally there was Markham’s own voice, reaching out from the pages of West with the Night, and captivating McLain. “Within two paragraphs of reading West with the Night, I knew I would write about Markham,” she says. And write she did. Paula McLain’s new book, Circling the Sun, is a fictionalized account of Markham’s life, and it’s getting rave reviews.

McLain is getting rave reviews, too. Here’s what Ann Patchett says in Country Living, “Paula McLain is considered the new star of historical fiction, and for good reason. Circling the Sun … is both beautifully written and utterly engrossing.”

The audience members at Book Passage are eager to hear what McLain is up to next: Is she working on a novel? Will it be about another extraordinary woman? “Will a man ever inspire you that way?” someone asks.

“It’s these women’s lives that are capturing my imagination and magnetizing it,” McLain responds, flipping her hair back. She clearly has someone in mind, and it’s my guess that we’ll soon be treated to another lush piece of inspired historical fiction. In the meantime, I’m tucking into Circling the Sun.

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STORY OF THE WEEK: Hillary Clinton Powers Inaugural Lead On Conference for Women

Stacey Gualandi/Lead On Conference/Photo: Lifescript.com

Stacey Gualandi at the Lead On Conference/Photo: lifescript.com

By Stacey Gualandi (@staceygualandi)/April 1, 2015

I’m going to need more than one day. That was the first thing I thought the minute I, and over 5,000 others, walked into the Santa Clara Convention Center for the inaugural Lead On Conference for Women in February.

Waiting for me in the heart of the Silicon Valley was an outstanding lineup of one hundred+ speakers, brought together to “promote leadership, professional development and personal growth,” thanks to the forward-thinking females at Watermark Institute.

Stacey Gualandi at Lead On Conference/lifescript.com
 

The list included tech industry leaders, best-selling authors, innovators and entrepreneurs—women like fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, Stella & Dot founder Jessica Herrin, former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, Intel’s Rosalind L. Hudnell, research professor Dr. Brené Brown, and Before I Die Project creator Candy Chang—and that was all before former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s luncheon keynote address!

I covered the one-day event for lifescript.com and I was certainly in good company. With this many high-profile overachievers under one roof, and the possibility that Secretary Clinton might announce her 2016 Presidential run, everyone from CNN to the Huffington Post to the New York Times was front and center.

Hillary Clinton and Kara Swisher at Lead on Conference Silicon Valley, Feb. 24, 2015--Getty Photo

Hillary Clinton with interviewer Kara Swisher at Lead On Conference/Getty Images

During her highly anticipated speech, the former First Lady emphasized how women need to do more to help all women lead on and succeed, but left the crowd hanging when she jokingly teased, “What you do doesn’t have to be big and dramatic…you don’t have to run for office!”

While Revere Digital co-CEO and well-respected tech journo Kara Swisher masterfully led a Q&A with the Secretary, getting her to discuss “partisan bunkers”, Edward Snowden and whether she uses a fitbit (she doesn’t). But she only got an “all in good time” response regarding a run for the White House.

What she lacked in a formal announcement, Mrs. Clinton made up for in her assertion that historically, there has never been a better time to be a woman than right now, but “we have an obligation to set an example for people across the globe.”

She also added, “I believe talent is universal, but opportunity is not. I think ‘leading on’ means, in large measure, how we expand that circle of opportunity.”

At the end of the day, by having leaders like Secretary Clinton speak, Watermark’s take-home strategy gave the audience “insights and practical advice” for their careers, life and relationships. There was no shortage of either.

Dr. Brené Brown, best-selling author of Daring Greatly, told the crowd that on the subject of failure, being brave means being uncomfortable, adding, “There is no greater threat in the world to the cynics, critics and fear mongers than a woman who is willing to fall because she has learned to stand back up.”

Artist and designer Candy Chang, who sold out hundreds of copies of her book Before I Die at the conference, showed all of us through her community art projects how to “share our ideas, memories,  anxieties and aspirations.”

Diane von Furstenberg’s Keynote Address/WeAreWatermark
 

And Diane von Furstenberg, wrap-dress icon and “comeback kid” at age 50, said, “to be a woman is a privilege. Women should have an identity outside of the home.” She also said don’t waste any time because your present is all about building on your past.

In between keynote speakers, there were networking breaks, author signings, meet-ups, social media roundtables, expert exchanges, and breakout sessions. (Now do you get why I wanted another day?) There were even several TWE radio guests serving as panelists including Gloria Feldt and Victoria Pynchon.

As the hours quickly ticked on, several hot-button issues and themes emerged: Lean in or lean out? Where are the childcare solutions? Why no equal pay? How do I deal with gender inequality? Can I find balance? Many of the sessions tried to tackle these questions.

Former Wall Street equity investor-turned-Akoya Power CEO Vanessa Loder led a panel called “Breaking Through: How to Overcome Fears, Inertia, Gender Bias and Other Obstacles.” She said events like this allow her to inspire other women and show, by example, how to move through fear.

Stacey Gualandi with Katrina Alcorn, author "Maxed Out"

Author Katrina Alcorn and Stacey Gualandi

Loder said, “It’s our inner fears that hold us back much more than the outer obstacles. [This session] was to help people look within and start to question what it is that’s been holding them back. I also wanted to give practical tools so that they could take action on it. I’m really focused on helping people create lasting change.”

“My message to women is: It’s not your fault and you’re not alone,” said Maxed Out: American Moms On The Brink author Katrina Alcorn. She joined a panel, alongside Daring and Passages author Gail Sheehy and POPSUGAR founder Lisa Sugar, called “Life Balance Survival Strategies in a ‘Lean In’ World.”

Her point was simple: “We’ve made great strides but we are far behind other developed countries when it comes to support for working women and families—no paid maternity leaves, guaranteed paid sick days—things like that make such an enormous difference in people’s lives and can set us back in our abilities to lean in.”

Sugar told me she was fortunate to be able to create her own unique path with the POPSUGAR web brand; Lead On let her teach others how to do the same. “We all have our passion. We just need to be able to find it and follow what works best for us,” said Sugar.

Gail Sheehy interviewed by Stacey Gualandi/lifescript.com
 

During my Lifescript interview with Gail Sheehy, she said she is no stranger to conferences like these, but the energy and professionalism at Lead On is the best she’s experienced. The irony, however, is that it took place in Silicon Valley, “where the last dark hole for women exists. I just wrote a story on this: ‘Straight White Men Don’t Have All the Great Ideas.'”

My takeaway from her successful journalism career? It pays to be daring.

“Every time I feared I would dare, I would take a risk. And that would make me feel stronger that I actually turned anxiety into action. Of course, often I would stumble or fail but it would make me stronger because of having taken the attempt and something good would always come out of it,” says Sheehy.

When the conference began, I was asked, “Name one woman, past or present, who has inspired me and why.” Well, not only did I need more than a day to see and hear everyone, I needed to name more than just one. But after Lead On, it was refreshing to know there are so many women to choose from.

And while I still don’t know if Hillary Clinton wants to lead the country, one thing I do know: I’m that much closer to leading a more inspired life.

Lead on Conference Logo

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Elizabeth Smart Spreads Message of Hope to Sexual Abuse Victims

Elizabeth Smart at Signs of Hope 40th Anniv Dinner for Rape Crisis Center, Las Vegas, Oct. 2014--Photo: Rape Crisis Center

Elizabeth Smart speaks at the “Signs of Hope”
40th Anniversary Dinner for the Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas.

By Stacey Gualandi/ January 16, 2015

TWITTER: @ElizSmart
@RapeCrisisCtrlLV

When 27-year-old Elizabeth Smart took to the microphone at the “Signs of Hope” 40th Anniversary Dinner for the Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas recently, she was poised, polished and in total command.

It’s hard to believe considering that in 2002, at 14-years-old, Elizabeth was abducted from her Salt Lake City bedroom, then sexually assaulted repeatedly, until her miraculous rescue nine months later. Her story captured the nation’s attention.

But as harrowing as her ordeal must have been, it did shape the woman Elizabeth would become. In the years that have followed, she made a choice to speak out for those who can’t.

Press conference video from 40th Anniversary Dinner/10-29, 2014

“I know what it feels like to be kidnapped, raped and to almost lose all hope. Yet, I was so blessed to have been rescued and to have a loving and supportive family who’s there for me every step of the way. How could I not?” said Smart at a press conference prior to the event.

I’ve always wanted to meet Elizabeth. As a correspondent for the television newsmagazine Inside Edition, I spent several weeks in Utah covering her kidnapping and the massive search for her. After she was rescued, I wondered how she would ever recover and live a “normal” life.

Years later, I am in awe that she has reclaimed her life after such severe emotional and sexual abuse. When I heard she would be the keynote speaker for the Rape Crisis Center event, I knew I had to attend.

During the press conference, Smart cited Center for Disease Control statistics that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be raped before they turn 18.

“I remember thinking that cannot be right…Every speech I’ve given, I’ve had someone come up to me and tell me how they were raped, abused as a child, or kidnapped. Having all these faces matching all of these numbers, it was overwhelming,” Smart told the media attending.

Smart says organizations and events like this give her hope to continue her tireless work raising awareness and advocating for victims through her Elizabeth Smart Foundation. She believes communication is a “huge factor in helping to keep your daughters safe.”

For four decades, the Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas has steadily built education around communication and awareness. It created education programs at the elementary, middle and high school levels, and now Executive Director Danielle Dreitzer says their emphasis moving forward will be on “true prevention.”

At Rape Crisis Center in Las Vegas Signs of Hope 40th Anniversary Dinner, Oct. 2014

Radio host Mercedes Martinez, Honoree Marcy Humm, Honoree Nina Radetich,
RCC Executive Director Danielle Dreitzer

She says last year, they brought on their first teen interns. They held a “teen summit” in August to recruit empowered youths and then launched Hollaback! Las Vegas in December, a program to end street harassment.

“We are trying to get out there with messages that can really change how the community… views the issue of sexual violence,” says Dreitzer.

Elizabeth Smart book, "My Story"Having Elizabeth speak, Dreitzer says, is a gift. “Elizabeth provides us with a voice for all of those kids who may have told somebody and were not believed or didn’t say anything because they were so afraid.”

Over 300 people attended the dinner to raise money and to honor Congresswoman Dina Titus with the Legislative Hero award; RCC Board member Marcy Humm with the Commitment to Success award; and new media entrepreneur Nina Radetich with the Commitment to Sustainability award.

The bestselling author says what happened to her over a decade ago doesn’t haunt her every day. She learned to cope with the trauma, she says, through the tremendous support of her family and friends.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all in the healing process,” she says. “What worked for me might not work for anybody else.”

She says many women have ongoing guilt feelings that they were to blame or that they could have prevented the abuse. But Smart adds, “All of those feelings are wrong. It’s so important for women to know that rape is never their fault.”

While changes have been made in laws and the way organizations and advocacy centers treat victims, Smart admits there is a long way to go. And that includes continuing to spread her message of hope any way she can.

“Seeing so many people coming together inspires me and helps me realize that there are so many more people out there who are good and who want to do good things.”

Since visiting Las Vegas, Smart has turned her attention to the fight against human trafficking. In November, she spoke about the sex slave trade at the United Nations and has teamed up with Operation Underground Railroad, a group that sets up stings with local law enforcement to free children.

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Photos Courtesy Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas

 

Farzana’s Blog from Pakistan on Malala: This Time History Will Never Forgive Us

Malala Yousafzai | Photo: nation.com.pk

Malala Yousafzai | Photo: nation.com.pk

UPDATE 10/10/14: Malala Yousafzai Becomes Youngest-Ever Nobel Prize Winner

On a day when CNN is reporting that nine people have been arrested for the vicious attack on Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, our Women’s Eye contributor Farzana Ali, a correspondent for Aaj TV in Peshawar, has sent us her blog about meeting this courageous young student:

Farzana Ali/correspondent for Aaj TV

Journalist Farzana Ali

In early 2009 when I went to Swat in the north-western part of Khyber Pukhtun Khwa, to report on a situation there, the Taliban held control of Swat.  The civil administration just stayed in their offices.  And after the ban on girls’ education, the Taliban continued to destroy schools in the area.

I was searching for my interviewee but no one agreed to say anything about the situation, especially the destruction of schools and women’s education.  At that time my Swat reporter, Fyaz Zafer, told me about a girl living in Mangora, Swat. Maybe she would talk about the situation because she was against what was going  on there.

Malala Yousafzai/Photo from Farzana Ali/Aaj TVSo Fayaz and I went to her home but our camera-man took another way because he didn’t want to take any risk with the Taliban.  At that time reporters were not allowed to do anything against them so they avoided doing things that would make an issue.

When we  reached her home, a little 11-year-old girl came to me and said,  “I am Malala Yousafzai.”  Her face and intellectual attitude seemed very bright. I was happy to find a very brave girl who had the courage to face all the challenges and do everything for education.

But at the same time I was afraid for her because I knew she was living in a place where women can’t express their views.  She told me that education is the right of every human being.  Why, she asked, were these people trying to stop her from her basic right?  Why were they trying to impose their evil thoughts which were against humanity and also Islam?

I came to realize in my first meeting with Malala that she was very clear about her dreams and future.  To me she was the hope for our future. When I came back, I made a report about Swat and included her interview. People liked her views and her bravery.

Malala on cover of NewsweekDuring and after the army’s “Operation Rah-E-Rast against terrorists in Swat,I met with her and her father many times, but in every meeting her boldness and  intelligence made me little bit worried.  She told me she was ready for every sacrifice but would not bow her head in front of people who were the enemy of  humanity.

That was the time when Malala gained the attention of the world.  She started writing a diary for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban.  Using the pen-name Gul Makai, she wrote about the suffering caused by the Taliban who had taken control of the Swat Valley in 2007 and ordered girls’ schools to close.

During these three years, she and her father did a lot for the education of their homeland people, especially for girls.  People always were saying that her father was trying to use this little girl for his own interest, but I disagreed because to me everybody who is working for big causes or on the way of truth are always blamed for their honesty and hard work.

Malala and her father never cared about, or were afraid of, these personal attacks.  During these three critical years, they not only faced the people who blamed them but also got many threats from the Taliban. But they did not stop working  for education.

Although the Taliban were ousted from Swat after “Operation Rah-e-Rast,” her family had regularly received death threats. Many people told them to leave this town, but they believed they would be safe among their own community.

Malala Yousafzai in hospital

Photo: Ispr Handout

But they were wrong, and my fears came true.  On Oct. 9, 2012,  she was stopped as she returned home from school in Mingora and shot in the head.  To me that attack was not just on Malala but on  the ideology of Islam because in Islam the first lesson was to learn, which was also Malala’s dream.

That’s why after that attack, the respect, fame, sympathy, and love for Malala was indeed something beyond imagination. I was satisfied, also, that at least Malala’s sacrifices united the nation on one point, standing together in outrage.

Everybody was blaming the Taliban and defending this little brave girl, but after three days the situation totally changed. Malala became a spy and agent of  America in their minds, and the nation was divided into two portions.

One part was in favor of Malala but other part was against her.  The Taliban issued a detailed statement against her and although a large number of people in the country did not agree with it, they became silenced due to their fear of them.

Malala Yousafzai in recovery

Courtesy: QEHE Charity

I don’t know what will be the fate of Malala but for me Malala is the mirror which shows us our real face and how ugly we are.  Unfortunately, again we have made a shadow on that mirror and given safety to the enemy of our generation.  But this time history will never forgive us.

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Farzana has been involved with giving seminars in Peshawar and Islamabad on the Malala attack.  She’s now in Berlin attending the 10th International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development.

Below is part of the documentary the New York Times did on Malala in 2009 that includes her father and shows the dangerous situation they both faced in getting and giving an education.