HARRISONBURG, Va. — Their neighborhoods in Nairobi, Kenya, were only 30 minutes apart. Yet 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 Hinga made the connection, “You’re Dekha’s daughter!”
Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, a Somali-Muslim woman who was internationally recognized for her peace work, had been his mother’s inspiration at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
Hinga’s mother, Waringa Hinga, had earned a CJP master’s degree in 2011. Noorow’s mother was a student at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute in 1998 and 2009 and an SPI instructor in 2011. She died in an automobile accident weeks after returning to Kenya in 2011.
“I don’t want her dream to die,” said Noorow, a junior majoring in peacebuilding and development.
Noorow is the eldest of four children. When one of her mother’s friends encouraged her to consider studying at EMU, she stopped 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. She hopes to one day earn a CJP master’s degree and connect her love of architectural design with her passion for peacebuilding. Noorow hopes to take a new course at this year’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, “Peace by Design: Architecture and Design as a Peacebuilding Practice.”
Noorow lived with her family four years in England and has traveled throughout Africa, Europe and Asia.
“Yes, I have wanderlust,” she said. “When I first arrived in Harrisonburg, EMU looked pretty small. I’m a city girl.”
In her first year, she 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,” she said. “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.”
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.”
She is preparing to continue the work her mother began, already having gained practical experience working alongside her mother’s network of friends and associates in Uganda and Southeast Asia.
Hinga describes a similar journey, prompted by his mother.
“She saw leadership abilities in me, but I wasn’t using them in positive ways,” he admitted.
Three years later, the senior computer science major 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,” he said. “Here, classes are small. The teacher knows if you’re slacking. They know your strengths and weaknesses.”
He and Noorow 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, Hinga has served on student government, campus activities council and as an organizer for a 20-school international student event at James Madison University.
He knows he’ll be a different person when he returns to Kenya in a year or two.
“I’ll go back a more outgoing person,” he said. “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, Hinga wants to achieve one more wish of his mother. “She always wanted me to take peacebuilding classes,” he said. “Next spring, I hope to take the restorative justice class.”