Grace Nshimiyumukiza shares her courageous journey from Kakuma refugee camp resident to a computer skills and digital literacy teacher. Find out how she pushed through prejudice and personal strife to get her Master’s Degree and how she’s helping thousands of refugees learn digital skills.
Grace Nshimiyumukiza shares her courageous journey from Kakuma refugee camp resident to a computer skills and digital literacy teacher. Find out how she pushed through prejudice and personal strife to get her Master’s Degree and how she’s helping thousands of refugees learn digital skills. Find out how Grace brings passion and purpose to every facet of her life as she helps other women transform their lives.
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Taylor Trudon: You're listening to the In Culture Podcast. I'm your host Taylor Trudon. I'm speaking with women from age 12 on, about the pivotal moments that inspired their paths, the grit and determination that powers them forward and where they're headed next. I'm really excited to share these inspiring conversations with you on the podcast.
Taylor Trudon: My conversation this time is with Grace Nshimyumukiza. Grace is 24 years old, and for the last 17 years she's lived as she says, Under the hot sun in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya that's home to 190,000 people from Eastern and Central Africa. Education has been a through line in her journey. She's pushed through prejudice and personal strive to pursue a master's degree. Now she's teaching computer skills like email and PowerPoint as part of a digital literacy program, with the goal of one day helping 25,000 Kakuma residents. Meeting me over Skype from Kenya, Grace shares her incredible story.
Taylor Trudon: Grace, thank you so much for taking the time to Skype today. It's an honor to have you on the podcast all the way from Kenya. You strike me as being very ambitious when you were a child, and I'd love to learn more about what it was like growing up in a refugee camp with your family, with your younger siblings, where you moved to about 17 years ago. Can you tell us about what you were like as a child and what that experience has been like?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: Life in the refugee camp, the hot sun, staying in a tent when I was a child. Sometimes staying hungry and sleeping empty stomach, and sometimes going to school with barefooted. Sometimes being abused and sometimes being discouraged by people who thought I could not make it. I mean it was not an easy life, and then studying in classrooms that were very overcrowded. Classrooms that could not allow the teacher to have one on one interaction with the students, because the class was really, very overcrowded and sometimes missing classes.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: Being the firstborn of my family, had to stay several times at home and taking care of my siblings while my father and my mother went out looking for jobs so that we could survive. It was not good, but I was so ambitious. I knew that life would not be the same few years to come, and of course, my mum was a great source of encouragement and a great source of hope. I grew up knowing that I am responsible for my siblings, and if my siblings will at some point lose track in their journey life, then I'll be responsible because I'm the firstborn. I had to be strong, not just for myself, but also for my siblings being the firstborn of my family.
Taylor Trudon: Thank you so much for sharing that. Your ability to stay focused and achieve so much is extraordinary. The work you're doing now is focused on bringing vital tech skills to people who don't have access to them. Do you remember the first time you used a computer?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: It's a long story, but to cut the long story short is that yes, I do remember, I recall it very well. When I completed my form four and had an opportunity to join the JWL diploma program. When I saw the computer at JWL Learning Center, I was so happy, super excited in fact. I remember touching the screen and I was like, "Oh my God, this is so wonderful," but then the challenge was, how do I start using this? When colleagues were like, "Oh, it's not hard. It's just the same with using a smartphone."
Grace Nshimyumukiza: I had this challenge, I don't have a smartphone, how will I adapt using this computer? I started teaching myself how to type. It took long by the way before I could master the keys, and I remember I could type a word like letter after letter and guys could laugh at me, but I was not discouraged. I kept writing these emails to my professors, telling them how I'm struggling and telling them, "I'm sorry I'll submit this assignment in few days." They kept telling me that, "It's easy, you will adapt, keep on going. Don't worry about submitting it on time, make sure you're submitting the right thing. Read and understand." They kept encouraging me.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: The second year flew, like I had no issues. The first year, of course, for those few months that I really struggled, it really gave me this passion of wanting to help others. I kept thinking, "What will happen to other women like me who will join this JWL program, who have no idea of how to use this lab computer, desktops, who have never interacted with any smartphone?"
Taylor Trudon: You're a part of a program that stands to answer this very question, with the goal being one day to help 25,000 other refugees acquire these digital skills. I'd love to know why from your point of view that's so important.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: I think it's so important, especially for refugees because one, we have these less resources to accessing education just like any other child from around the globe. It's important because you're able to learn what others are learning from your context, from where you are. It's also about reaching others. It's also about collaborating with others. It's also about making your relationship grow around the world, and it's also about finding the digital skills that can help you, not just in your academics, but in your day to day life.
Taylor Trudon: Has there been a specific situation in which having digital knowledge, having those digital tools has helped your students to succeed?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: I'll start by giving the story of, when Microsoft came in and in partnership with UMHCR to offer the digital literacy on the basic computer skills, when they first came with this project, we were taught as the trainers of trainees. After completing the course, we were then assigned to teach women. These girls were in a bootcamp, and so we were assigned to deliver the same content that we were taught.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: Then after the bootcamp, I had another class with some youth from Kalobeyei settlement, it's a settlement within Turkana, it's just next to Kakuma. We went there and we were teaching them, and they knew nothing. They had no basics in the computer skills. They didn't even have the email addresses. They didn't know how to open a computer. They knew nothing.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: We took 10 days, I remember to teach them and three days to do the tests, just to confirm if they understood the contents of what we taught them. Then after the exam, we left them and we went our ways. I think it was after a few months I received an email from one of my students in Kalobeyei settlement. He's a youth and he sent me an email and he was so excited. He was happy and he said, "We thank you so much for teaching us. We've learned a lot and at least I can write an email and I'm about to write an email to one of my," he said an uncle or a relative who is in the US. "I want to surprise him that I'm now in a position to write an email." He was so happy and I was happy that he wrote me that email. It was a success for me, having taught them for 10 days and seeing the impact of the energy that I gave in to teaching them.
Taylor Trudon: Women have been fighting for education for centuries. We know that's not new and they're sometimes even risking their own lives in the process. I'm curious as a woman, Grace, you're breaking all of these barriers and you're challenging the status quo. Do you ever feel underestimated at times?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: When I began this, I used to feel so underestimated, especially working in a male dominion environment, but I don't feel it anymore. I feel so strong, because I'm respected.
Taylor Trudon: How do you get that respect? I'm thinking about young women who might be listening to this, what would you tell them?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: First, I would encourage them to be passionate about what they are doing and then working towards pursuing their dream. Also, not being discouraged, staying strong no matter what. Of course, you'd get lots of barriers and then sometimes you will be discriminated and sometimes you will be discouraged. If you're passionate and you know what you're doing and you're strong, nobody will discriminate you. They will do it at first, but then once they notice that you're so ambitious and you are so informed and you know what you want and you are working towards pursuing your dream, they will even feel ashamed and hence they won't discriminate you anymore.
Taylor Trudon: Was there ever a moment where you were discouraged or maybe faced a particular failure or a setback and you really didn't think that you could go on? Or you felt like giving up maybe?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: Yes. There were several times when I felt like giving up. I've completed my class eight, my eighth year, and I was fetching water in the community at the water tap. There were these women and they were discussing about marriages, and they were saying that nowadays girls want to study and complete form four. They were making fun of that. "They want to finish form four. We wonder, why are they struggling and yet they have men working for them? These are kind of women who want to be rude in this society. They want to study and look down upon men. Why should they even go on with their studies?"
Grace Nshimyumukiza: My mum was seated there and she said, "No, you need to take your girls to school because it's not certain, maybe they might get married and then they are divorced you know they will suffer. If they had gone to schools and if they have their certificates, they will have a potential of moving on no matter whether they're married or not married."
Grace Nshimyumukiza: All women laugh, "Oh is this the reason as to why you're letting Grace continuing with form one? She will not even complete. Let's bet, you will see. Men are there looking, they are watching. She will not finish school." During that scenario, I also felt so discouraged, and I felt being so down. I remember I cried, looking at how my mum was abused by other women for allowing me to continue with education. Then when we reached home my mom was like, "Don't worry. Don't even give them your ears. Let them talk. Don't look at what they say, they will one day come kneeling down before you in your offices asking for help. Study so that you proved them wrong."
Grace Nshimyumukiza: I mean the same women who were laughing at me on the water tap some previous years ago, and the same women who are abusing my mom are the ones who are now telling their daughters, "You see, we remember grace going to school." There's a famous school here called Kakuma Secondary. "We remember Grace going to Kakuma Secondary on a hot sun and she was working hard. We remember how she used to go barefooted and sometimes she could go hungry. Please work hard like her and sometimes in future you'll also be successful as she is."
Taylor Trudon: What does success mean to you? What does that look like?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: Success to me, I can define success in various ways. For me the first definition of success, is getting to a position where you are able to pursue your ambition. For me, teaching girls digital literacy and the digital literacy course on basics computer is a success to me. This is what I always wanted to do ever since I started my diploma course. My goals and my ambitions and my targets have not reached the limit. On that spot I think it's not as successful as it should be, because I'm still staying in Kakuma on a hot sun, nothing has changed.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: Yes, much has improved. I can dress the way I want. At least I can eat the kind of food that I'm able to afford. It's not like it used to be before, so I think success is just very broad. Yes, I have the parts of success in me.
Taylor Trudon: For young girls who are interested in tech, what advice would you give to them to help them get started and excited and motivated?
Grace Nshimyumukiza: The first advice I can give them is, hard work pays. Taking advantage of what they have at hand is always very important. At least a big percentage of the world population has a smartphone. It's not just waiting for a computer, but also taking that smartphone and learning the basics of it and sharing. Sharing the basics of what you know is really important as you can never share the biggest parts if you've never shared the smallest part. Then another advice that I can give them is that, the roots of getting to knowledge is always hard, tough and rough. The fruits of it is always very enjoyable and sweet. Helping others is the best thing to do.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: For me, I usually use this example, of having a basin that is full of water. Once you pour water in that basin, you know the water will overflow and it will overflow down because it's full. Once you take that water in the basin and you pour it down, then you get a space. There's that vacuum of adding more water in the basin. It's the same with our brain, the little that you know, share it out so that what you don't know will have a space to stay in you.
Taylor Trudon: I think that's such an important point that really is worth repeating. Share out what you know so that what you don't know will have a space to stay in you. That's so beautiful and true, and there's more than enough success and knowledge to go around.
Taylor Trudon: Grace, thank you so much again for taking the time to speak with me today all the way from Kakuma. It's truly been an honor to have you on the podcast.
Grace Nshimyumukiza: Thank you.
Taylor Trudon: To learn more about Grace, visit microsoft.com/inculture or follow us on Instagram at Microsoft In Culture. This episode of In Culture was hosted by me Taylor Trudon. The podcast is produced by Jordan Rothlein, edited and mixed by Nat Wiener and features original music by Angular Wave Research. In Culture is a production of Microsoft in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.