Dara Lipton

Dara Lipton (Vital Voices- Kenyan Association of Women Business Owners - KAWBO): Before her fellowship, Dara served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan and Suriname. In Uzbekistan she worked at a community health clinic. In Suriname she worked with a women’s group. Dara then returned to Suriname to train Peace Corps Volunteers. At the time of her fellowship Dara was pursuing her MA in International Relations with a concentration in sustainable development in Africa at Yale University. After her fellowship, Dara wrote: "This fellowship has helped me to understand many of the academic and theoretical concepts that I learned in school in a more realistic and practical setting. This has given me increased confidence and a level of comfort in development discussions that I didn’t previously have."

Is an opportunity an opportunity?

29 Jul

As you know from my previous posts I’ve been following the Miss World Kenya competition these past few weeks; assisting at the taping of the reality TV show by the same name and getting the opportunity to get to know the contestants.  Many of these young women are experiencing the capital city of Nairobi for the first time; they are meeting exciting people, learning important life skills and living a life (though temporary) that they otherwise never would have had the opportunity to experience.  Many of them have expressed to me how life changing this experience has been for them; giving them a renewed confidence and an interest in pursuing a professional modeling career.  These young women were selected from over 2000 hopeful applicants and they will return to their villages as celebrities.  One of them will become a competitor in the 2010 Miss World pageant in China.  This experience has been extraordinary for them, and it has offered them new and exciting opportunities.

Just this past week I was invited to attend another event for young women; it was the training conference for the Zawadi girls.  Zawadi Africa is a non-profit organization that provides scholarships to academically gifted girls from disadvantaged backgrounds from Africa to pursue Bachelor’s degrees in the US, Europe and Africa.  The program was founded by Dr. Susan Mboya, the daughter of Tom Mboya, himself a founder along with John F. Kennedy of the Africa Student Airlifts program of the 1960’s.  That program “educated over 1000 bright young East Africans who went on to become their countries leaders in post-independence.”  One of the graduates of the Airlift program was an academically motivated young man from Nyanza Province in Kenya named Barack Obama Sr., our President’s father.

Zawadi girls are taught that they have an obligation to their own country, and that their opportunities should eventually bring renewed opportunity back to their country in hopes of advancing the future of Africa, one educated woman at a time.   Girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are targeted in hopes that they will help to diminish the pronounced rich-poor gap that characterizes many economies throughout Africa.

I believe that Zawadi Africa is an incredible organization and I am inspired by their efforts.

I was invited by the Chairperson of Zawadi Africa (who also happens to be the Chairperson of KAWBO, my host organization) to attend this training because one of these extraordinary girls is headed to Yale.   That’s right, this young woman from a disadvantaged home in rural Kenya is headed to one of the most competitive undergraduate programs in the United States.

She and I spoke extensively about campus life, Yale classes and what she can expect from the Yale community.  I insisted that she come over to have dinner at my house in New Haven whenever she’d like, and she promised to make chapatti for me (a delicious Kenyan flat bread).

I was able to offer some advice to the group of girls about undergraduate life in America, and general cultural/social norms.  Many of them have preconceived notions about Americans and fraternity/sorority life.  I shared with them a story about a guy I know who ended up being arrested while running around his campus naked as a result of his fraternity exploits (cough cough, my brother Noah, cough cough).   I shared that story more as a warning of the potential ridiculousness of Greek life, but I also emphasized the value that it can have for forming a sisterhood and a sense of belonging and family when one is far from home.

All American cultural quips aside; these girls are embarking on an amazing journey.  Undoubtedly, Zawadi Africa has offered these girls an extraordinary opportunity.

My question is; are the opportunities awarded to the Miss Kenya competitors comparable to those awarded to Zawadi girls?  I assume most would say they are not.  The pageant contestants are selected because of their beauty and adherence to a certain size requirement; Zawadi girls are selected because they have excelled academically, often despite the very limited academic resources afforded to them as children.  The pageant contestants are given the opportunity to compete on an international stage, though all but one will return to their respective homes and schools after the Miss Kenya competition in August.  The Zawadi girls are being sent all over the world, they will be attending excellent academic institutions, and they are being prepped to become leaders in their countries.

But isn’t an opportunity an opportunity?  Perhaps it’s not fair to even compare Miss Kenya and Zawadi Africa; they are very different organizations, with very different intentions.  If the Miss Kenya Competition purported to be a non-profit organization with purely development intentions than the comparison would be more founded.   I think that I make the comparison in my head because I was inspired by the girls in both groups; they are all idealistic and hopeful and they all deserve to believe that they can excel and move beyond the confines of what they know.  They all deserve opportunities.

Perhaps, a comparison is founded in that they are both reflective of the growing impact of globalization.  The same international community that favors a Western education similarly produces a culture of voyeuristic reality television shows and beauty queens.   Perhaps it’s not my place to judge whether one or the other is more in keeping with universal ideals.  Perhaps, an opportunity is an opportunity.

Posted By Dara Lipton

Posted Jul 29th, 2010


  • Amy Lipton

    July 29, 2010


    What if you have both brains and beauty? Do you qualify for both opportunities? Which would you choose? Is it fair to assume the girls are motivated by different intentions as well?

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