Aid worker helps Kenyan girls get education

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Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 with funding from the United Nations, and it provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have run away from their families to escape or have been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage.

Mary Walker

Special to the Pilot & Today

This month, most of my time is being spent organizing two girls from the safehouse who are entering teachers' colleges in early September. These very first girls to attend college from the safehouse also represent the first wave of Maasai girls threatened with forced gential mutilation and forced marriage to break out of this cycle. Both are, of course, also the first girls from their home villages to attend college.

The list of things they need for college is very long, and it includes about 35 textbooks each, school supplies, bedding and clothing. Their families' financial situation is such that the college fund also will be providing their toiletries. Both of these girls have been at their homes for the past several months since completing secondary school because they were successfully reconciled with their families. As a practical matter, this means that the families have agreed not to forcibly marry them off.

In any case, the two girls now seem to have the support of their families to pursue education and employment, rather than be forced into marriage. But even so, their families cannot afford even the most nominal contribution to their college costs.

The challenges of enrolling in college in Kenya mirror the situation of the educational system here. Millions of school students of all ages typically travel several hours by matatu (small bus) to and from their boarding schools at the start and end of each term. There is no standard as to when exactly schools open or close - it is left to the decision of the headmaster/mistress at each school. This decision can change daily.

Just yesterday, the girl Caro returned to her school in Eldoret (a 10-hour matatu ride from Narok) for what is called "tuition," an extension that many schools add to their term to keep up with a national syllabus.

Yesterday afternoon, I learned from one of her classmates who came to see her at the safehouse that the tuition had been canceled. This would mean that Caro was faced with being alone at the school for two weeks until the regular term begins. Through a series of phone calls, I was able to contact her. Several other students also have traveled back to school, so she is not the only one there - they will continue with their studies on their own until the term begins.

With no teachers and no administrators, they will cook for themselves. Imagine such a thing occurring in the United States.

Life skills

Fortunately, it is only two girls that we are organizing for this next step in their lives. I give them all of the responsibilities for the phone calls, going from shop to shop to find what they need, and as much of the organizing as possible. It's important that they begin to learn what it takes to get by on a day-to-day basis here in Kenya.

They could survive in the bush for days, I'm quite sure, but know nothing of the cost of a textbook, how to open a bank account or how to assert themselves to get what they need. This perhaps is the most challenging - role modeling for them how to follow through on matters rather than accepting delay, inefficiency or downright laziness on the part of people from whom they need something.

It is a very unfortunate aspect of being a Maasai girl that they have no sense of their self-worth, their entitlement to be treated with respect or a confidence to interact as equals with those in the outside world - particularly with men. And yet, these are exactly the traits that they need to move forward.

I have always sensed that assisting these girls with life after they leave the safehouse would be very much a one-girl-at-a-time process. Some will go to college, some will be incredibly fortunate to find a domestic job, perhaps in Nairobi.

Others will open small businesses, and others may never be heard from again. Some undoubtedly will not escape the cycle of FGM and forced marriage of the Maasai inspite of everyone's best efforts.

But knowing that the first two are headed off to teachers' college in a couple of weeks gives me, and the many supporters of the college fund, reason to feel very hopeful and optimistic.

Comments

Steve Lewis 5 years, 8 months ago

Mary, Amidst this Steamboat cocktail of beauty, toys and privilege, your letters build a tangible connection with people far less fortunate.

Your long term effort to improve standards "over there" is an amazing example of priorities. Thank you.

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