Marion Ndeta Wasia: A new life for sexual assault victims in Kenya

Filled with pain, rejected by society, survivors of sexual assault in Kenya are often left directionless and without hope. But a Christian nonprofit is helping them build new lives, says the organization's co-founder.

After three years, Freely in Hope is still a small organization, but it has big aspirations, says Marion Ndeta Wasia, one of its co-founders. The nonprofit combats sexual violence through holistic, higher-level education and helps young women achieve their vocational dreams.

Freely in Hope began when Wasia reached out to help a young woman, buying her personal items such as soap and a toothbrush and then realizing that something much more sustainable would be needed.

“So, basically, Freely in Hope started with a toothbrush and toothpaste,” she said.

Currently, Freely in Hope assists eight women, but its leaders hope to expand. Humanitarian filmmaker and co-founder Nikole Lim was inspired by the same young woman's plight and by producing a documentary film and portrait book series, “While Women Weep.”

“We want to grow and be an international organization and touch as many lives as possible,” Wasia said. “That’s what we have been called to do. The Great Commission says, ‘go to the ends of the world.’ It doesn’t give a limit.”

Wasia is a graduate of Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, and is the former editor and publications manager for The Salvation Army’s War Cry Magazine.

Wasia was at Duke Divinity School to attend the Center for Reconciliation’s 2013 Summer Institute and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about your organization, Freely in Hope.

The name comes from Matthew 10:8 (NIV): “Freely you have received; freely give.”

Basically, we work with young women who are survivors of sexual assault, people who have been bound in sexual trade not by choice, but circumstances in their lives. We focus on holistic education in which we provide their tuition fees, health care and psychological counseling to ensure they are equipped to succeed.

We started in July 2010 with one girl, and now have eight in the program.

They come with a lot of pain, rejected by society. They are almost lost, directionless and hopeless. So we try to teach them the love of self and of God. And then, we help them create a different life by giving them scholarships to go to school.

Our ministry is threefold. We seek to restore justice, hope and dignity.

Q: Where does your funding come from?

From well-wishers. We have friends who have heard about us, and they want to support us.

We also sell a DVD on our website called “While Women Weep,” which was the genesis of our organization. The proceeds go for scholarships, and the education and support of the girls, to help provide counseling and health care, for example.

Q: Talk some about the way you’re connecting these young women with education and social entrepreneurship. How do those work together?

We partner with other organizations to teach these women a trade, a skill, and then they go out and start a business. You help them start a small business and they are followed and helped for up to a year, and then they are on their own to operate their businesses and to take care of their children.

Some go into groceries, or into beauty and hair care. They will open a small salon to plait people’s hair. They go into cooking and open a small restaurant.

It’s up to them. We don’t tell them what kind of a business to get into. We ask them, “What are you feeling called to do? What is it that you want to do with yourself?”

Many of them are in high school, in boarding schools, so they are safe and secure. Others, who may have been rejected by their families, we help them choose where they want to stay. “Do you want to go into a hostel? Do you want a small house?”

We do not impose decisions or choices on them. We discuss together the choices. The girls have their own minds, and they know better what they want with their lives.

Q: You mentioned that the making of the film prompted the start of Freely in Hope. And your website is beautiful. How important is storytelling to what you do?

My co-founder, Nikole Lim, is a filmmaker who strives to use film as the platform for people to share their stories of beauty, even in the midst of brokenness.

In a way, we are teaching. We want our girls to share their stories in a dignified way.

Telling their stories helps them to heal. It allows them unload the emotions that they’ve been bottling up. By talking about it, it helps them heal.

And it also helps others who are out there who identify with their issues. It becomes a healing process for someone else.

It is a ministry. We are preaching to people about how to find hope.

Q: How did you come to this calling?

Six years ago, I suffered a broken engagement. I am a Christian, a Pentecostal, and was engaged to this guy for five years. But three weeks before the wedding, I called it off.

It was a difficult time. But after that, the Lord just opened my eyes. Now I look at it and realize that’s where my calling started. The Lord opened my eyes to women who were hurting, women who have suffered broken relationships, broken promises, girls who have been cheated into believing things that are not true.

Sometimes people ask me, “How do you know this person needs help?” And I say, “I don’t know. It just happens that God brings them into my life.”

So that’s how it started. I met Eunice, a young girl who was a classmate of my sister, a teenager living in the city, very unkempt. She would come to class late, with dust all over her clothes from the long commute. I challenged my sister to follow up with her, to find out why she was behaving like this.

She learned that Eunice had a baby, a son, after being raped by a stranger. Her dad threw her out because he believed she had the baby as a result of prostitution.

So, she came to the city and was trying to make a living doing odd jobs, doing laundry or working in car washes or hardware shops. That’s how she was able to pay for her college. She would pay in installments.

When my sister would tell me these stories, I encouraged her to carry an extra lunch so that they could share at school. When we had extra food in the house, I encouraged her to take some to Eunice so she and her baby could have something to eat.

So, we became friends without really ever having met. And then, one day, I finally met Eunice. She is a very beautiful girl with a beautiful spirit. Her smile -- I still remember her smile to this day.

She sees me and she runs into my arms and hugs me tight, like she has known me forever. I am struggling with my tears, but there’s a lot of joy in my heart.

When we pull apart from each other, suddenly a thought comes to my mind, that probably she doesn’t even have a toothbrush. So I walked into a store with her and bought her personal items, simple things -- bathing soap, laundry soap, body lotion. I bought her a toothbrush and toothpaste and another toothbrush for her son.

When I went home, her image wouldn’t leave my mind. I sat and thought and asked myself, “How sustainable is that? Even if I bought her a toothbrush, she needs more than a toothbrush. And how long is that toothpaste going to last?”

So basically, Freely in Hope started with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a $500 scholarship to secure Eunice's place at her university. This is why higher-level education is so important for young women in Kenya -- to help them heal from past abuse so that they can be agents of change in their community."

Q: As a young, single woman, do you ever get criticized for the work you’re doing?

Yes. A lot. I get a lot of appreciation and admiration, but also a lot of criticism.

People look at you and think, “Are you married?”

No.

“Do you have any children?”

No.

“So, what do you know? What do you know?”

Q: What is the future for Freely in Hope?

It is very bright. We want to grow. Kenya is a launching pad. Once we have stabilized in Kenya, and the local community has bought into our vision and comes in with support, and we have a stable structure, we want to be in other places as well.

We want to spread our wings to other places. I have an Anglican bishop from Southern Sudan who is really pushing me to start something there. After years of war, there are many women there, rape victims, who would benefit from our ministry.

But now, we can’t because we don’t have money.

So, the future of our organization is we want to grow and be an international organization and touch as many lives as possible.

That’s what we have been called to do. The Great Commission says, “go to the ends of the world.”

It doesn’t give a limit.