Monday, September 1, 2008
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 who have been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage.
The other day, I accompanied a girl from the safehouse to her home. Jennifer completed secondary school last year and recently was reconciled with her father. While awaiting entrance into a preschool teachers training program, Jennifer has spent time at home and at the center while apprenticing at a local preschool near the safehouse.
Jennifer graduated with a D-minus average. There are many reasons for this. The Kenyan education system is challenged severely by several factors. Having adopted the British style of education, 50 years after independence, this system now is broken and illogical in this cultural environment.
School teachers, two and three generations away from having been taught English by native English speakers, struggle to instruct students in our language. English is compulsary in all schools, but it represents usually the third language of students and teachers (behind one's mother tongue and Swahili). All teaching is based on memorization, not comprehension, and I often wonder whether the teachers even have a basic level of comprehension of what they are teaching.
Jennifer's English is not very good, so the visit to her Maasai home was quite interesting. As our car approached, children materialized from all sides. Although they were curious about the mzungu ("white person" in Swahili), they would not approach me.
Her mother came running out of their manyatta (mud and thatch) hut, very excited to see her daughter, proud to have a mzungu at her home. After some time, Jennifer's father came out of the fields to greet me more formally. He greeted his daughter without words, only the traditional Maasai greeting whereby a child slightly bows and is lightly touched on the crown of the head by the adult.
Several family members live in the immediate area, including Jennifer's grandmother (Kenyans pronounce this with the accent on "mother," giving it a very elegant and warm nuance). If you can picture Michael Palen, from "Monty Python" fame, dressed in Maasai drag, perhaps you can have some idea of what the grandmother was like. She was old and permanently stooped from a lifetime of hauling firewood and water on her back, and she wore eyeglasses literally the thickness of coke bottles. She came running out of her hut, laughing, crying and shouting all at the same time.
Apparently, every word out of her mouth was fun and joking, as the children would laugh hysterically every time she said something to me or about me. Because of the language barrier with Jennifer, I have no idea exactly what the grandmother was saying, but I, too, got caught up in the fun.
I committed one of the worst social blunders as I tried to take my leave after an hour and a half of greeting everyone. I had told Jennifer that I had to return to Narok and would not be able to stay long. Jennifer was unable to express such an idea to her father directly (fathers and daughters do very little conversing), so I asked my driver to explain to the father that I needed to leave. After much heated discussion, the father said it was OK for me to leave. Another 15 minutes later, after being draped in beads from all of the women of the family, I finally was able to go.
When Jennifer was reconciled with her family several months ago, at first her father threatened to kill everyone in the house if she stayed. She spent several weeks with her uncle as her father slowly came to accept her. She now is able to return home whenever she wants or needs.
Having had just this brief exposure to the demeanor of Maasai fathers, I now feel a bit more comfortable with them, although I always will question their rejection of their daughters for making a decision that saved their lives. I am grateful there are mechanisms, such as reconciliations, that seem to bring these families back together under the right circumstances.
Jennifer is terrific with small children and, in spite of her grades, I believe she will make an excellent preschool teacher if she is given the opportunity.
We are trying to match Jennifer with a sponsor to cover the costs of this training. The payoff to her family will be that she is able to provide some economic assistance to them. In contrast, if her father had sold her off in marriage, her worth would have been five cows.