Mary Walker: Life at the Ritz Carlton
December 5, 2009
Editor's note: Clark resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002, and it 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.
Imagine that you have just started your first job. Your boss tells you that you are soon to go to stay at the Ritz Carlton on the Riviera for a one-month conference. Oh, and you are given a budget to buy some new clothes for the trip …
Seven new girls arrived at the center last week. One of them has horrible wounds on her hand from getting caught in a barbed fence when she ran away from being circumcised. It's in situations like this that the neosporin and Tylenol I bring with me come in real handy.
Six of them never have been to school. They are in their mid-teens and don't even speak Swahili, only Kimaasai, their mother tongue. Girls of this age are difficult to put into school. So the center is paying one of the young women from Tasaru that currently is in teachers college (on holiday right now, as with all students throughout the country) to instruct these six girls during December. The hope is that if they are able to write their names, maybe count, recite the alphabet and do some simple math, they will be able to enroll in the equivalent of third grade in January. It's a start.
All of these girls came to the center with nothing. Not that they had much at their homes to begin with. … I gave them toothbrushes the other day, and you would have thought I'd given them the moon. Pencils and a small notebook put them over the edge. They are working so hard at their "class work."
I hear lots of reciting of the sounds of the alphabet all day, and they continue into the night while they are eating supper. Many of the other girls around the center will sit down with them and work with them after their "class" has ended for the day. It's really amazing to watch. Many of the girls at the center were in the same position themselves when they first came to the center. And life here at the center is the Ritz Carlton for them. …
Maasai girls routinely are denied access to education, circumcised and forced into child marriages. It is not uncommon in the Maasai Mara, Kenya's premier safari location, for primary school classes to have no girls — they've been either denied or taken from school by their fathers in order to be married off.
Three girls from the center who just completed high school were sent to their homes the other day. Theoretically, now that they have received an education and know their rights, they are not at risk of being married off. We all have to wait three months for their exam results that determine whether they will qualify for a college or university program. I've seen photos and some video of one of the girls' reconciliation with her father. Fortunately, he has accepted her back in spite of the humiliation he felt from her running away when she was 14 and his repeated rejection of reconciliation attempts throughout the years. From my cultural perspective watching the video, it was hard to see where the "reconciliation" the other day was — he seemed pretty emphatic and clearly had a lot to say about what he felt he had been through because of her running away to avoid a forced marriage, after having been circumcised when she was 9. She was shaking as he lectured her.
She is almost 21 years old.
Unfortunately, there is little for her to do at home except haul firewood and water, take care of her mother's youngest children (the youngest is 2; the mother is 36) and cook. I gave her a copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird," a college-level dictionary (and told her to learn 10 new words a day) and some Sudoku. She and I have come to enjoy doing the puzzles together at the center during the past couple of years.
Some toiletries (these girls have all become accustomed to soap, toilet paper, menstrual pads — remember, they've been living in a Ritz Carlton at the center!), some credit for their cell phones that I buy for all girls when they complete high school, a couple of pairs of underwear and new bras … that is about all that I can do for them at this point. I am scheduled to bring them from their homes for computer training in early January. The director of the center refused to allow me to put them in driving school during this interim period while we wait for their exam results. I have no relationship with their fathers to build on yet so cannot ask of them that they allow me to step in any other way, yet. I am hoping that this may change soon if I am given permission by the fathers to visit the girls in their homes. I will be so happy if that happens.