Mary Walker: Life in Nairobi is indescribable

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Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Center 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.

Mary Walker

Special to the Pilot & Today

I am spending a week in Nairobi before heading home. Life here is indescribably different than in Narok, with the girls, and at the rescue center. Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city and a hub for East African politics, commerce and tourism. There are something like 64 different ethnic groups represented within the city - black Africans, of course, Indians, Europeans, with "mzungus" (white people, in Swahili) making up a marked minority. Nairobi is one of several international cities that has banned the use of plastic, unrecyclable bags. Everyone that I have met in Kenya knows of Barack Obama. His grandmother lives outside of Kisumu. If he is elected president, I think there will be a national day of celebration here.

For the past few days in Nairobi, I've been staying with a friend originally from Narok. She is a Maasai woman who works as a "Fixer" for journalists, photographers, or businesspeople needing a translator, travel assistance, or general logistical help in Kenya. I met her at the rescue center last year when she accompanied a photographer from New York City to Narok to photo-document female mutilations and forced marriage among the Maasai. She is fluent in English, Swahili and Maasai and seems very comfortable moving between modernized Nairobi culture (with its supermarkets and upscale restaurants) and the traditional world of the Maasai people. She once told me that, as a young teenager, she was ashamed and disappointed that her parents had not circumcised her. This is how strong the tradition of mutilation and forced marriage is within the Maasai culture. Of course, she feels differently now.

Racial politics in Nairobi are not ideal. Even though white Kenyans are a very small minority here, they occupy an exalted social and economic status. After a few days with my Maasai friend, I am now at an acquaintance's home in Lavington, a very prosperous white neighborhood. I am reminded of suburban life in San Diego - shopping malls, video stores and Java House, the Kenyan answer to Starbucks. I enjoyed my first black cup of coffee after six weeks of tea at the center. Delicious.

I find that many white Kenyans are very involved in working to reduce the terrible inequalities between whites and blacks here by working for one of the huge number of NGOs in Kenya or making sizable donations from their business profits. As an example, The Rekero Safari Camp in the Maasai Mara assists the Maasai community in several ways, including offering a free computer training program to any Maasai person.

Last week, I escorted two girls from the rescue center to their respective teachers' colleges in Kericho and Eldoret. The environments at the colleges are very, very different from what these girls are accustomed to. There will be no caning for punishment or poor academic performance, they will be free on weekends to do what they please, and they will be with students who share their interests, if not their ethnic background (at each of their colleges, these two girls will be one of perhaps 4 or 5 Maasai). During the month-long holidays between terms three times a year, for the first time in many years they will go to their homes rather than back to the rescue center. These two young women have reconciled with their families and if all goes well at teachers' college, will be employed by the government in their village primary schools in two years' time. They will marry and bear children if and when they choose. They will use their earnings as primary school teachers to support their parents and in so doing, they will be a much larger economic benefit to their families than if they had been sold off in marriage for five cows. They will become part of the vast network of Maasai people who inform rescuers of circumcision or marriage ceremonies. They will be role models and mentors for other Maasai girls.

Before heading home, I will be going back to Eldoret to attend "Mothers Day" at Caro's boarding school. I cannot organize what I really wanted which was to bring Caro's real mother to the school. Although Caro has tried several times to reconcile with her father, he continues to reject her for her decision to run away from a forced marriage when she was 14 (she is now 19), and Caro's mother certainly would be beaten if the father found out she had visited Caro. I am hoping that, at the very least, Caro can use my phone to call her mother while I am there. It may seem very small, but it is a very big deal when girls from the rescue center have even just this contact with their mothers.

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