Mary Walker: Everyone has her own life

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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 or who have been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage.

The girls living at the safehouse now have returned to their boarding schools for the school term. They will be back here in early December on holiday. Remaining at the center are a handful of girls, including the two I will take to Teachers College next week in Kericho and Eldoret. Another is doing an attachment in town (she failed to finish secondary school and is training to be a seamstress); two girls who are doing attachments at a local preschool awaiting Preschool Teachers Training programs in January; and two girls who arrived at the safehouse a couple of weeks ago have not been enrolled in a school yet. It is very quiet around the safehouse.

This morning, a girl named Soila disappeared from the safehouse. Soila came to the safehouse about a year and a half ago at age 14, having never been to school. She was enrolled in fourth grade in a boarding school about an hour's drive from Narok. In early August, she supposedly returned to her school for "tuition," the extended schooling that many schools practice. The other day, I was told she never reported to school and had been seen around Narok. Yesterday, Soila showed up at the safehouse in her school uniform. She said her father had taken her from school and locked her in the house. She said she escaped and "footed" to Narok and back to the safehouse. When we woke up this morning, Soila was gone.

The small group of us at the safehouse discussed Soila's apparent decision to go it alone. As an outsider, it is impossible for me to gain a full understanding of exactly what has happened to her. What she said may be true, or she may have come back to the safehouse only to gather some things and take off. As one girl said in lamenting Soila's decision, "Everybody has her own life."

Soila is not the first - and she won't be the last - girl to decide to leave her life at the safehouse and an opportunity to go to school. It is hard to imagine that life on the street or a forced marriage is preferable, but it is the reality for some Maasai girls here.

Two weeks ago outside of Narok, a 10-year-old Maasai girl bled to death after being circumcised. A rescue team contacted by an informant was unable to get to the girl in time. Her father and the circumciser have been arrested.

At the other end of the spectrum of opportunity, I accompanied a girl named Naeku from the safehouse to the hospital yesterday for one in a long line of appointments to address her rheumatoid arthritis. She is 15, and her hands become useless because of pain and stiffness, especially in the cold. It is surprisingly cold here, particularly in the mornings. I bought her gloves and extra socks. The doctor who saw her was a young Maasai woman. I only know this because Naeku told me as we were leaving when I commented that the doctor was a woman. I asked how she knew (although tribal identity is strong in Kenya, there are no physical characteristics that enable a distinction) and Naeku said her name was a Maasai one.

Whether a Maasai runaway from an FGM safehouse, or a young Maasai woman doctor - everybody has her own life.

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