Jessica Mitaya, 25, grew up shy, quiet and afraid to talk. She had a speech problem – she could not speak fluently and this made her avoid talking in public from when she was a child.
Difficulty in speaking influenced her initial relationships and she hardly socialised outside her family circle. She became close to mainly family members and had very few friends outside this circle. She also found it difficult making new friends and she developed a low self-esteem.
“When I was growing up, I played a lot but did not talk much. I only talked when I was asked a question,” she says. Jessica usually felt helpless when she wanted to say something, and she often resigned to being silent. This made her stay away from people.
“I was afraid because my friends would laugh at me. Everyone thought I was shy,” she says.
But the most difficult time was when she joined secondary school; everything was new and everyone a stranger. The fear and anxiety caused her to experience involuntary pauses in speech and to repeat initial sounds of a word, making her even more reclusive.
“During the first visiting day, my family discovered that I stammered but I’m grateful because they still keenly listened to me as I talked.”
Sometimes she wanted to participate in debate sessions, but she was afraid she would stammer so she passed up the opportunities.
But this did not stop her from achieving her dreams.
Her life in Form Two became better after she joined the basketball team.
“I knew that playing only involves actions and I would play my best to show people who I am. At least I was not required to talk much,” she says.
Apart from basketball, Jessica loved singing and she joined the Music Club.
“For me, singing was no problem at all. I loved it because the lyrics would just flow especially when we sang as a choir.”
She participated in the music festivals – the only functions she went to apart from basketball.
However, reality hit her every time basketball or choir practice ended.
“It was depressing after practice when I wanted to talk.”
Just like most people, she was excited to be invited to join the university in 2014. But having to start over with a new environment at Maseno University scared her, especially because her Bachelor in Education degree meant she would most likely pursue a career as a teacher.
“I remembered the experiences of my first days in high school and could not imagine that I was going to go through the same again. I was even afraid that my stutter would worsen,” she says.
Although making friends was a little difficult at the university, she was grateful because life at campus gave her space to be by herself.
“I had meditation sessions where I would sit alone and think. In those sessions I would say the prayer ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’,” Jessica says.
In the course of making new friends, she met other students who had speech problems and others who stammered.
“My curiosity rose when I found out that some [of them] were spoken word artistes and others even student leaders. This inspired me,” she says.
After this realisation, Jessica no longer felt ashamed of her condition.
She says she is grateful that her friends did not make fun of her, but instead encouraged her to be the best she could be.
She later joined various initiatives in school that gave her a platform to talk.
Among those initiatives was My Career Identity (MCI), a programme which offers mentorship to the youth and students on their career choices.
Jessica got her first leadership role as the MCI lead brand ambassador through an online competition in 2016 where she was among the finalists.
She thanks her mentor, who helped her build her confidence.
“My journey of self-confidence began the moment Mrs Kathleen Lihanda became my mentor. She inspired me and led me to the journey of leadership and confidence.”
Jessica has mentored more than 1,500 students from the schools she has visited as the MCI brand ambassador.
“I am grateful that I can now stand before a multitude and speak. I sometimes forget that I used to stammer. Sometimes I do not even understand how I do it. But yeah, I do it!”
Once she Jessica has also participated in Miss Kisumu beauty pageant, Miss Maseno and Miss Tourism Kisumu County, all which helped her build her confidence.
Apart from mentoring students, she also volunteers to help needy people in the community and people with special needs.
This year, Jessica and a group of friends organised her birthday celebration at a children’s home.
“I wanted to make an impact in the community so I decided to celebrate it with children at an orphanage. It felt great having an impact on little children,” she says.
And Jessica does not stop there. She has grand plans for her future.
“In five years, I see myself as a motivational speaker and a philanthropist. I have a passion for helping people.”
She urges children who stammer or who have speech problems to work to overcome their fear and speak out. “Stammering is not a disability,” Jessica adds.