Student Spotlight: Leah Wandera T’22, Master of Divinity – Social Justice Advocacy

Leah was raised in Kenya, in East Africa and received her B.S. in Project Planning and Management in 2016, from Moi University in Kenya. During her studies and  after graduating she worked in project management for many companies  but found herself always drawn to social justice issues.  In her last position in project management for a building systems  company she worked on a construction site but instead of supervising the work, she found herself more interested in how the land was acquired, if people living there had been displaced, if they had been compensated, etc. She wanted to be connected to the people on the ground. Her questions sometimes would rub her boss in the wrong way. She knew she was in the wrong line of business. She never hesitated to quit  her job and become a Global Mission Fellow to focus on social justice advocacy, especially economic empowerment of women and protection of children, when she heard about that chance. After working as Global Mission Fellow (2016-2018) in Zimbabwe, and Chief Executive Officer with the Hope Foundation for African Women in Kenya, she founded Mama’s Smile Health Foundation in July 2019 focused on the health and education of women, youth and children.


What inspired you to come to Drew to pursue a Master of Divinity in Social Justice Advocacy?

I worked as a young adult missionary (Global Mission Fellow) in Zimbabwe from August 2016 to June 2018.  During those 2 years in service it became more clear for me that this was the path I wanted to follow.  When I was sent to Zimbabwe, I was sent by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church to work as a  Gender Advocacy Officer with a Women’s NGO.  During my service, the supervisor felt comfortable with me  not introducing myself as a Christian missionary especially to some communities I worked with.  In some communities, not only were the women (teenage girls, young adults and adults ) identified as Muslims/Christians or non-religious, some of them practised commercial sex work, to a worse scenerio, young girls seeking refuge across the border were involved.  Therefore,  when you are going to implement a community project, in such a context, identifying as a  Christian Missionary, some women feel uncomfortable working with you. They do not want to be judged because the community has already labelled them. For the first time I was challenged to put aside my Christian identity and walk into the community with a “neutral” view.  But I asked myself how I could integrate my Christian values into my social work. I resonated with why Medical Mission Sisters (Roman Catholic nuns) petitioned to be allowed not to put on veils and uniforms as required. People questioned what I was doing and labeled the work as non-church programs. I was disturbed that they were putting up a boundary of “them and us.” When it comes to social issues like good health, education, food, and clean water, there is no “they and us”, it cuts across to everyone.  For me to continue to be a better project manager and a better social justice advocate I needed to have a way to understand this. How do I integrate faith and social justice? Was it okay to call myself a Christian Social Activist?  Being raised in a traditionalist  environment made it more complex.  I wanted a place where I could get answers and have an open mind to integrate these things.  I wanted to help communities implement projects that have to do with eliminating suffering, discrimination, marginalization, and social injustice. I didn’t want my Christian values to hinder me from reaching out to others.  I wanted a better way to make decisions on these issues. My quest  led me to Drew. And I got a conviction from Rev. Micheal Mather  who is a graduate of Drew M.Div class of 1985.

What are some of the challenges of being an international student in the U.S.?

There are immediate challenges such as  culture shock, finding your way to get around, and settling in, getting used to food.  The most time in my life that I have ever made use of the map and GPS is when I got here. You have to learn how to navigate the system, like where is the train station and supermarket and other things.  Find people who can help you. You also have to learn the culture and the language.  Communication is key.  Do you get an interpreter if you don’t know the english language?  Then there more and can be long term issues such as the legal issues to abide with if you are here on your student visa.  When the government is threatening to change the law for international students it causes a lot of stress and anxiety.  Other issues like racism exist. Surviving based on the new living standards you are in. Getting used to being far from your home country and family- if not well managed, can create loneliness.    You have to learn how to approach and navigate around this.  When you come with a positive mind it becomes easier to learn new things. If you have a negative attitude it becomes harder to adapt. Change is inevitable. It’s important to have an open mind to create a space to unlearn, learn and embrace.

What are some of the benefits of being an international student?

I feel like I’m in an International Relations class.  It gives me a chance to learn and to have global mindfulness.  It gives me exposure to think beyond my culture and being here has improved my technology skills. It gives me a space to learn how the global systems work. It provides the chance of connection and global networks.  Learning what is required and not required of you and learning how the other side lives and especially as it goes beyond geographical borders, gives you the skills on how to engage beyond those borders. It is a stepping stone and platform to learn and be able to start creating space for embracing diversity. Being an international student gives me an opportunity to understand myself and understand others.  Your network is your net-worth. And this is a rich network web.

Tell me about Mama’s Smile Health Foundation?

It’s a non-governmental foundation that I started in 2019. I’ve worked with various organizations including working as Chief Executive Office for Hope Foundation for African Women.  When I work with social issues, I not only look at the issues but also the root causes of the issues and look at the intersectionality of how these issues relate and be a determinant to each other and how they affect the sustainability of the solutions. That’s where my vision for Mama’s Smile Health Foundation is grounded. I have been and am still working with women and girls on projects that aim at ending harmful traditional practise such as female genital mutilation/early child marriage and economic empowerment for women, working on advocating for gender equality policies. But living and working in the most remote, rural and marginalised area made me realise how access to education and health care is still a crucial matter. How do I push for equal employment opportunities on behalf of a girl that has and will never step her foot in the classroom?  We say in Swahili , “Elimu ni Ufunguo wa Maisha”. As it goes in English, “Education is the Key to Life.” But to me,  it’s not just a  random normal key.  That key must be quality, equitable and must include access to equality.  Education is the key to life only if it’s bound in equity and quality.  Not everyone is able to access education but it’s often inequitable where some can’t even compete on a global level.  How do you make it equitable?  Having health insurance doesn’t mean you are healthy. Many aspects make you healthy.  Being able to afford to pay doesn’t make you healthy either.  Health care disparities make us unhealthy. So, how do we address it? Mama’s Smile looks at these disparities in the community and we are driven by a community based approach.  We work on  building upon the existing potentials, the capacities, assets and resources to solve these issues. We look forward to reimaging access to education and health care in the most rurales in Kenya.

How do you help children receive a good education?

One of the reasons I believe education is key is that  I am here talking to you today because of education.  I was born into a background that was not rich or well connected.  I went to a school that is described in a way that you would wonder how anyone would make it out in that environment but I was persistent to get an education.  Although my family could not afford paying for my higher education, through my zeal, willingness and the passion, I felt God always created a way. All my friends, I mean all the girls I went to primary school with, the girls we played, fetched water, fetched firewood, danced together and sat in the same class at Busulere Primary in Busia-Kenya, I can only count one, besides myself, who made it through high school to pursue a diploma degree. Most of them are living the life in those rurales that break my heart. Because I was able to go to school, my community looks up to me. I have become a role model. We can push for policies for equal opportunity employment and for us to be given leadership opportunities but if we are not empowering and educating these children they will not be able to take advantage of those chances.  What are we doing to make sure that youth can access these positions and chances?  Because I know the challenges that children go through, especially from the community I come from, education is at my heart.  Someone can be able to give you $1000 a day,  but if they give you a chance to acquire skills or knowledge, if they provide a platform that will change your mindset, It will never be taken away from you. But the money can be taken from you.

Yes, give me a fish to eat today, so that I may not starve to death. But while I feed on this fish, teach me how to fish for tomorrow.

Tell me about your social justice advocacy?  Why is this work so important to you?

It gives us an equal space on the table and equal space to voice out and to share what we have.  It gives us an equal space to get access to resources we need.  My social advocacy has not only transformed me personally but has transformed the community around me and so I look at it from a personal and community transformation.  The better world we want starts with us.

What do you think is the key to your success?

75% is based on my life experience especially my childhood experience. Life experiences are like a stepping stone, if not allowed to imprison our tomorrow’s lives. I encouraged fellow young African women and girls, to  never think that persevering sexual assault, oppression or any other form of violence is a way of survival to them.  Because that is what I thought at one point in life. My past experience and not wanting to experience it again pushes me to ask, how many children are going through the same situation and are silent or have no one to talk to or advocate for them. 25% of my success is attributed to my role models and mentors like the late Wangari Mathari(she was a Kenyan social, environmentalist and political activist and the first African Woman to win the Nobel Prize),  Liz Lee (Currently the Climate Justice Director for United Methodist Women) and those uncelebrated Ordinary Women doing extraordinary work in unexpected places that I encounter daily.  I borrow a lot of skills from them.

I think success does not lower its standards towards us, but we sometimes lower our standards towards success, once you identify what you want in life. Take the risk. Go for it.

What advice would you give International students?

We leave our places we call home to acquire education, to seek knowledge. Sometimes to seek refuge.  It comes with its challenges but we have a goal in our hearts that we want to achieve.  Remain true to your passion and desire, faithful to that calling in your hearts. Embrace learning and multicultural integration. and keep up the spirit. You are not only gaining from being here, but the “here” is also gaining from you.

What advice would you give students who are interested in working in social justice advocacy?

Sometimes it calls for standing up for the right even if it means standing alone. It sometimes calls for persistence and perseverance.Because you cannot be just to others if you are not just to yourself, real justice comes from real people like you and me.  Social justice is not linear, it is very dynamic and diverse , it is like going around a labyrinth, sometimes knowing the truth or facts doesn’t set you free, but with courage and accountability  it is the most fulfilling and satisfying encounter I have known

What are your plans for the future?

I am a bridge between faith and social justice.

I am a Deaconess Candidate soon to be consecrated as Deaconess by United Methodist Women under United Methodist Church- FYI , the first Deasoness from Africa.

By being a Deaconess, I am called to serve in lay professional ministry for my lifetime through alleviating suffering, eradicating causes of injustices and all that robs of life dignity and worth, facilitating the development of full human potential and sharing in building global community.

I will therefore continue using my professional skills as a project manager and my theological knowledge and acquiring other skills from different areas I am learning, to bring justice to our communities. It is my desire that Mama’s Smile Hope foundation will exist as long as we exist.

Creating space for children to speak up.

Engaging area chief into children’s activities.

Addressing the community planning gatherings.

Posted by Yasmin Acosta
Yasmin Acosta Launch Catalyst