Mary Walker: Saying goodbye - for now

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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 been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker's updates from Kenya will appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.)

I'm in Nairobi but will head back to the United States today after spending the past two days accompanying a girl from the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre back to her boarding school in Eldoret, Kenya. Eldoret was the site of some of the most unimaginable and brutal violence after the national elections in Kenya at the end of December. Although the violence has ended, the evidence and repercussions of the unrest are everywhere, particularly in a town such as Eldoret.

Here, there still is an internally displaced persons camp housing thousands of Kenyans who were uprooted from their homes because of the violence. These people have no homes to return to (they were burned or otherwise destroyed) or fear returning to their homes because of a lack of security and the real and palpable fear that they will be victimized again because of simmering tribal and ethnic animosities.

What has happened here in Kenya since late December is unimaginable I'm sure to everyone reading this. The girl who has just returned to Eldoret had transferred to a school in Narok in January when it was unsafe for her to travel to Eldoret. In addition to the situation in Eldoret, there were daily roadblocks whereby gangs hijacked and killed motorists deemed from the "wrong" tribe. As a Maasai, unable to speak the local Kalengin language, she would have been terribly vulnerable.

As with thousands of primary and secondary school students throughout Kenya at that time, traveling back to their boarding schools in January was impossible. Many students transferred to schools near their home areas. Thousands of other students missed the first term of school. It has stressed an already overtaxed, inefficient school system to its very limits. Luckily, the girl from Tasaru was able to transfer back to her original school in Eldoret starting with this second term. Unfortunately, she is having to repeat her third year of secondary school because of the disruption. She will be almost 21 years old by the time she finishes secondary school in November 2009. This will be an amazing accomplishment for a circumcised Maasai girl from the bush who ran away from her family when she was 14 after learning she was to wed a 45-year-old man.

I was nervous about traveling to Eldoret, knowing what had happened there so recently. Perhaps most newsworthy was the burning alive of about 50 women and children who had been locked inside a church. I wasn't eager to see the aftermath of such acts of human brutality.

It is the area of Kenya where most of the country's famous runners come from. I stayed for two nights with one of them - the brother-in-law of the secretary at Tasaru. He has a small chamba (farm) and is a marathon runner for Kenya. I was treated with great hospitality, genuine goodwill and friendliness that was very moving. These are desperately poor people (even though he runs for Kenya, he receives no financial support from the government). And yet, they are eager to do whatever their guest needs. In fact, they are honored. This can feel rather patronizing and demeaning, coming from a colonizing country myself. But I have come to realize that Kenyans do not practice the exquisite style of hospitality that they do because they feel subservient. They practice it because they love to welcome visitors, talk to them, feed them and make them feel comfortable. They quite literally give you the clothes off their backs.

Eldoret is a bustling, congested city. It is in the north Rift Valley, an area rich in agriculture and food production. It is often called the breadbasket of Kenya. As we drove from Narok to Eldoret, I was struck by how similar the terrain is to the Yampa Valley in late spring/early summer, when the green color seems almost unreal in its vibrancy. In other words, it is gorgeous here.

Upon returning to her school, the girl and I were heartened by a number of things. First, while waiting in the office to pay her school fees, a teacher recognized her and greeted her warmly and welcomingly. This girl is genuinely liked by everyone. Second, we went to the dormitory where she had left all of her things in November - a box filled with a school uniform, personal items, shoe polish, bedsheets, etc. Her box was still there, something that she had been worried about for months. Next it was on to her locker, or desk, where all of her notebooks had been stored. Imagine trying to continue with school without your notes. We were both very relieved.

I left her at school knowing that I won't see her for three months. I now know what it is to leave your child crying on the school steps.

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