Danie Mahirane is a graduate of University of Ottawa where she studied international development and globalization.
University of Ottawa is one of six partner schools of the Pathy Foundation Fellowship. Graduating students from these partner universities are eligible for this yearlong Fellowship program which offers training, mentorship, and funding support for young people to implement community-driven social change initiatives, develop as leaders, and build professional competencies that will serve them for life.
If I can only hold one person’s hand, and that person starts to hold somebody else’s hand, or if one girl will be able to sustain herself as a young mother, that will be the greatest success.
Developing the Idea: Life for Pregnant Girls in Kyaka II
Before moving to Ottawa to pursue her studies, Danie lived in Windsor, Ontario, a place she calls her ‘Canadian hometown’, because like many, Danie has more than one hometown. Soon, Danie will return to another hometown, The Kyaka II Refugee Settlement in Uganda, for her Pathy Fellowship initiative which aims to support underage pregnant girls.
“As a Congolese-Canadian, I was a refugee in Uganda for more than a decade,” Danie explains.
The Kyaka II Refugee Settlement was established in 2005. Its original purpose was to accommodate Rwandan refugees after Kyaka I overreached capacity. This shifted over time due to renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A 2022 report states that 95 per cent of the settlement’s current population originates from the DRC. The report also states that 81 per cent of Kyaka II residents are women and children.
“Where I come from, once a girl is pregnant, she is punished for it,” Danie explains.
“Nobody cares what her situation is, what she went through, where she comes from. Even in cases of rape, she is still responsible – she should not have been there.”
Danie began to imagine a way to support these girls in 2019 but didn’t necessarily think it would come to fruition.
“Whenever something is really dear to me, I write it down,” she explains.
So, she wrote it down.
Then, one of her professors gave her class the option to either write a final exam or complete a written assignment where the student proposes a project as if they were seeking project funding. Meanwhile, another professor asked Danie’s class to write a similar proposal. Each of these opportunities gave Danie the chance to further develop the idea she jotted in her notebook years earlier.
Danie’s professors encouraged her with positive feedback, and soon after, she discovered the Pathy Foundation Fellowship where she would pitch her idea for real.
“In 2019, my idea was to support pregnant girls and make them more contributing members of the community,” Danie explains. “But now looking back, the idea has changed.”
A Process of Growth and Change
I no longer see myself as the person who is going to bring change. I want to be a member who will support other people, and at the same time, let the community bring the change to their own situations – because that will give them not only more power over the initiative, but they’ll be accountable to what happens, and they might be more willing to sustain the initiative if it belongs to them.
After completing the Fellowship’s Foundations for Community Change – an experiential learning component where Fellows explore asset-based and community-led approaches to development as well as topics such as leadership styles, working equitably with communities, participatory project planning, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) – Danie says she began to view her idea from a new perspective.
“I no longer see myself as the person who is going to bring change. I want to be a member who will support other people, and at the same time, let the community bring the change to their own situations – because that will give them not only more power over the initiative, but they’ll be accountable to what happens, and they might be more willing to sustain the initiative if it belongs to them.”
In addition to the apprenticeship and skill-building opportunities that will be offered with the girls, Danie has also developed an awareness-building component for topics associated with young pregnancy.
“We do not just want to support [the girls after pregnancy], but also deal with the root causes of the problem,” Danie explains.
“If everybody in the community is involved, it won’t just be battling from one front, but from different fronts for the same purpose. Not only girls will benefit from it, but the entire community.”
Entering the Community Phase: Returning Home
Danie says her biggest challenge in beginning the Fellowship’s community phase, where she will travel to Uganda to implement the initiative alongside the community, will be adjusting to the many changes that have occurred since her time living in Kyaka II – and the fact that she is now, in some ways, an outsider.
“The last time I was there was in 2016, and that’s a really long time … because wherever people are, they do change the norms,” she explains.
“We have more than 230 tribes, tribal groups, and ethnic groups in Congo. So now, with the spillover conflict within other provinces, it has brought many more people with many more cultures that might be new to me,” she adds.
Danie expects that the communities she grew up in – Budiba in the Bundibujo district, Kyaka II in the Kyegegwa District, and Kampala – have since changed; she also expects that her return will be shaped by the fact that she is returning as a Canadian.
“I’m still Congolese. If somebody asked me, the first thing I would say is ‘I’m Congolese’, because that’s who I am,” she explains. “But I’m also coming from Canada – from a Canadian university. I’ll still be an outcast for a very long time [after I arrive].”
But Danie says she’s excited to learn all about the communities that have formed, grown, and changed since her time living there.
“I’m there to learn from them and to hear what kinds of solutions they expect, or think will be helpful for the community.”
“The challenge will be me putting aside my knowledge and my beliefs because it’s their initiative. I’m trying to make sure it’s community driven.”
When it comes to success, Danie says it’s not about the numbers, but about human impact.
“If I can only hold one person’s hand, and that person starts to hold somebody else’s hand, or if one girl will be able to sustain herself as a young mother, that will be the greatest success.”