Their neighborhoods in Nairobi, Kenya, were only 30 minutes apart. Yet these two students traveled more than 7,500 miles to meet for the first time at Eastern Mennonite University, where they discovered a closer connection than geographic proximity.
At the end of her first EMU semester, Kaltuma Noorow had a casual conversation with Caleb Hinga, then a sophomore.
She mentioned her mother’s name – Dekha Abdi. Instantly Caleb made the connection,“You’re Dekha’s daughter!”
Caleb’s mother, Warigia Hinga, had earned a CJP master’s degree in the spring of 2011. Kaltuma’s mother was a student at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) in 1998 and 2009 and an SPI instructor in 2011. She died in an automobile accident weeks after returning to Kenya in the summer of 2011.
“I don’t want her dream to die,” says Kaltuma, a rising junior majoring in peacebuilding and development. Kaltuma is the eldest of Abdi’s four children, aged 11 to 22 when their mother died. When one of her mother’s friends encouraged Kaltuma to consider studying at EMU, she stopped at three years of architecture studies at a Kenyan university to start over in Harrisonburg.
Some of her EMU classes are taught by her mother’s former professors. Kaltuma hopes to one day earn a CJP masters degree. And she wants to connect her love of architectural design with her passion for peacebuilding – she’s hoping to take a new course at this year’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, “Peace by Design: Architecture and Design as a Peacebuilding Practice.”
Kaltuma lived four years in Birmingham, England, with her family and has traveled to Ethiopia, Uganda, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, plus many western European countries. “Yes, I have wanderlust,” she says. “When I first arrived in Harrisonburg, EMU looked pretty small. I’m a city girl.”
In her first year here, Kaltuma quickly identified a cultural trait of her fellow students – a cool reticence in class discussions. “They chose their words so carefully for fear of being misunderstood. I was the one who freely said what was on my mind, and I had to adjust. I didn’t want to be the annoying person who talks too much in class.”
She describes herself as a “visual learner. I’m so bored reading textbooks. I’m asking, ‘How can I practically apply this?’”
One practical skill she would like to see expanded from a two-day workshop at CJP to a semester-long course is instruction in “how to talk to donors, how to write grants for funding.”
The work her mother began, Kaltuma is preparing to continue. She has already gained much practical experience in the field through her mother’s network of friends and associates, working alongside them in Uganda and Southeast Asia.
Fellow Kenyan Caleb describes a similar journey, prompted by his mother to come to EMU. “She saw leadership abilities in me, but I wasn’t using them in positive ways,” he admits.
Three years later and a rising senior, computer science major Caleb is glad he followed his mother’s advice. “I was studying mechanical engineering in Kenya. My physics class had 700 students; the teacher was projected on a big screen. Here, classes are small. The teacher knows if you’re slacking. They know your strengths and weaknesses,” says Caleb.
He and Kaltuma lead the International Student Organization; he served as president this school year and she as vice-president, rising to president next school year. In addition, Caleb has served on student government, campus activities council, and as an organizer for a 20-school international student event at James Madison University.
The 7,500 miles separating Caleb from his homeland are quickly leaped each weekend with a 2-hour phone call to his parents. “I’m much closer to my mom now than when I was back home. She challenges me when I jump to conclusions too quickly. She’s a big part of helping me get the most out of EMU.”
Caleb has embraced the sport of rugby, big in Kenya and other British Commonwealth nations, competing in a Harrisonburg league with players of all ages and many countries.
Caleb knows he’ll be a different person when he ultimately returns to Kenya in a year or two. “I’ll go back a more outgoing person. I’ve learned how to relate to all kinds of people in a good, respectful way, even those who don’t understand me easily.”
Before he returns, Caleb wants to achieve one more wish of his mother. “She always wanted me to take peacebuilding classes,” he says. “Next spring, I hope to take the restorative justice class.”