Mary Walker: Post office? No. Facebook? Yes.

Maasai girls suffer from disjointed exposure to developed world

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Mary Walker

Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker’s updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

There are six girls at the Tas­aru Girls Rescue Centre who have just completed high school. According to the rules at Tasaru, they now must go home.

My role is to assist them with any further education or job training they may be able to pursue, depending on how well they perform on their final exams. The education and care that they have been getting from Tasa­­ru for several years comes to a very abrupt end at this point in their lives. It falls on me to provide them with what little I am able to financially to ease this transition.

Further education or job training is a must if these girls are to achieve any degree of economic livelihood and independence in Maasai culture. Otherwise, their lives will remain pretty much the same as what they were rescued from in the first place — an arranged marriage by their father so that he can receive a dowry, and a lifestyle that does not differ in any real material way from that of a slave to their husband.

Today, I will spend the day with the six girls buying them the most basic necessities for their lives at home as we wait for their exam results. A suitcase to carry their few personal items home, a small budget so they can buy clothes (about $30), some toiletries (menstrual pads and toilet paper seem to be what they fear the most not having at home), a cell phone so that I can continue to communicate with them, some tea and sugar as a gift for their mothers, and some sweets for the young children in their homes.

One of the girls asked that I buy them phones with Internet capability. I wanted to just laugh at first, but then I understood this to be a request deriving from the very disjointed, and often irrational, exposure that these girls have to the developed world. They’ve never been in a bank or a post office, but they’ve heard of Facebook. They don’t know how to type, but think e-mailing is an essential communication tool. They won’t have any money to load their cell phones (Kenyan cell phones work on a pay-as-you-go system; there is no charge for receiving a call, only making a call), but think that Internet is free. In fact, Internet access is far from free in Kenya. Cell phone companies subsidize their dirt-cheap cell phone call rates with their Internet service, which is based on the size of downloads. Going on Facebook or YouTube for a couple of minutes ends up costing a fortune.

No, these girls will get the most basic cell phones I can find. Unfortunately, this means they will be of questionable quality and dubious origin. But at least I’ll be able to communicate with them while they are at home in the bush. Almost all areas of Kenya are within range of one of the several cell phone networks — or within a long walk, anyway. The girls who don’t have network at home will walk to find it and then flash me. This will cost them nothing because I will call them back so that I end up paying for the call. It’s a fantastic system.

I know that the Internet request will resurface after the girls complete some computer training that is donated by a safari camp in Maasai Mara for girls from Tasaru. They will come in from their homes for this training in early February; a much anticipated getaway from their homes. I’m sure their arguments for why they need Internet at home will be much refined by then. I’ll be ready with my rebuttals.

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