April 3, 2008
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It's been a year and half since I submitted a piece to Steamboat Today. As many of you know, I had been writing updates about my experiences, observations and insights from my travels to Kenya for several years to assist a group of Maasai girls with post-secondary education.
The other day, I was sitting in an upscale restaurant in Karen, a very upscale suburb of Nairobi where many Kenyan politicians and non-Kenyan non-governmental organization workers live. As with all of the other upscale neighborhoods in Nairobi, Karen is within a stone’s throw of a sizeable slum — it’s a fairly common parasitic relationship between the "haves" and the "have nots" in Kenya whereby the Haves need myriad numbers of house help and the have nots need menial jobs.
There are some cruel ironies about empowerment. As good as it sounds, empowerment means nothing to a marginalized girl or young woman in a developing country unless it leads to economic well-being, the ability to independently care for oneself or to provide food, shelter and medical needs to one’s family.
I have written a lot the past couple of years about the challenges of trying to deliver empowerment opportunities to girls, specifically in my case, to Maasai girls in Kenya.
As many people know, there was a horrific attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September. I was not in Kenya at the time and have not felt like commenting on it — until now.
I am in Kenya now for Christmas. An intense rainstorm flooded the town of Narok last year during Christmas, leaving the town market underwater.
I cannot claim to have rescued hundreds of girls. I haven’t raised millions of dollars. I haven’t held lavish fundraisers. I don’t have a celebrity spokesperson. But I don’t care, because I have seen to it that eight Maasai girls have gone to college and university in Kenya.
I recently contacted a famous international nonprofit organization that provides a specific product to impoverished people in developing countries about how to, as I described it, “put an individual into the pipeline to receive the assistance that your organization provides.” I got no response.
A high school education in a developing country does nothing to train youths, particularly young women, with the skills they need to be fully and sustainably employed and empowered.
In the 2007 aftermath of a botched election with no transparency and blatant rigging, more than 1,000 Kenyans killed one another and as many as 600,000 were forced from their homes.
I recently watched a TV segment featuring the two founders of a partnership called the One Woman Initiative, which, as they describe it, promotes entrepreneurship and job opportunities for women in developing countries. Among other things, they described one of their projects in Uganda, a trust fund for women farmers, and noted that a $150 microloan can change the life of a woman, her family and her community.
Celebrations at the rescue center focus on Christmas dinner, which is served anytime between noon and 9 p.m. depending on how motivated the girls are to do all the preparations.
One of the first rescued Maasai girls to benefit from the Tasaru Girls School Fund is Janet Semerian Pere. Janet’s uncle brought her to the rescue center when she was a young girl to protect her from a marriage to an old man that Janet’s father had arranged.
In the case of Maasai girls at risk of female genital mutilation and child marriage, some self-professed girls empowerment programs think that what girls are subjected to should not be called “mutilation” and that being sold as wives to men old enough to be their grandfathers is well-meaning social welfare.
In anthropological academic circles, there is no such thing as human nature. But I now think there may be a nature to being human, and if so, it’s called greed.
In 2003, the Kenyan government announced “free primary education for all,” funded by various international education initiatives, as well as programs of the U.S. and British governments.
The project I established four years ago to provide college and university opportunities to Maasai girls from the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya, now is helping six girls in various programs throughout Kenya.
I saw a sign in Nairobi the other day for Ultimate Spa and Beauty Palour and it got me thinking of all the funny, wonderful and sometimes very ironic advertising that one sees around Kenya.
Whenever I get home from my trips to Kenya, one of the toughest things I encounter is trying to keep on top of news from Kenya.
Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the international Green Belt Movement, was never a big hit with her own Kenyan government. But when she died, she was honored with a state funeral.
Today, four years after starting this effort with little more than the best wishes of friends and family, there now are several young women from Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya, who have completed or are pursuing college and university programs with the assistance of our program.
With pressure mounting on the government to do something concrete about the latest in a long line of mishandling of public funds, officials announced that indeed they could release money to schools to supplement their food stocks until the normal closing date.
Water levels and seasonal rains are unpredictable, cause hardships in Kenya
The high water in Routt County this season (and elsewhere in the country, for that matter) is causing all kinds of problems for a lot of people. Meanwhile, in Kenya, it’s the complete absence of any predictability about water supply every year that causes life-threatening problems for its people.
On this Mother’s Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to share the story of Nailois Kamwaro, who completed high school in November and has begun her studies in engineering.
Maasai girls suffer from disjointed exposure to developed world
One of the girls at Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre asked that I buy them phones with Internet capability. I wanted to just laugh at first, but I understood this to be a request deriving from the disjointed exposure that these girls have to the developed world.
Mary Walker, who is home from Kenya until early December, will screen a documentary at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Library Hall at Bud Werner Memorial Library about the girls at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Center in Narok. “Escape: Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage in Kenya,” is a movie that depicts the context surrounding the rescue center and the challenges the girls face.
In East Africa, ‘mzungu’ is not a straightforward concept
Swahili, the “trade” language throughout much of East Africa, is not a uniform language. Under what circumstances it is used and how it is spoken varies widely throughout Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Aid programs offer hope as Kenya struggles despite new constitution
The new constitution for Kenya was promulgated a couple of weeks ago. The new constitution, supported by more than two thirds of the voters, has become law. The event included the signing of the new constitution by President Mwai Kibaki and some minor gaffes.
On Wednesday, Kenyan voters go to the polls for draft of a new constitution for the country. As an outsider, it is intellectually fascinating to witness the events leading up to this historic decision. But as one who cares deeply about many specific individuals in Kenya, it is incredibly difficult to watch.
It is a truly unique experience to be in Kenya right now during the World Cup. No matter that Kenya did not field a team, everybody here is committed, proud and intensely focused on the performance of the African teams that are competing.
Last week, two girls’ lives came together across thousands of miles and cultural differences. Natalie decided to raise the funds needed to assist Florence once she completes high school and leaves Tasaru in November.
At schools, churches, and homes throughout Kenya, one often will come across a “harambee,” or fundraiser. These events are meant to raise money for people to put on a wedding for a family member, build a library at a school, fund a church-run AIDS orphanage, finance a member of parliament’s election campaign, or help a family with unexpected medical bills. Not so very different from fundraisers here, right?
I had traveled from the rescue center in Narok, Kenya, back to Nairobi for what I thought were my scheduled flights to London and on to Denver. Although I read the Kenyan newspapers, at this point, there seemed little impact on life here in Kenya as far as I could tell. Then, my friend told me that Heathrow Airport in London was closed.
I was sitting in a traffic jam in downtown Nairobi on Thursday. We moved a couple of hundred yards in the span of one hour. What fun. But while you are stuck in these jams, men walk among the cars selling the coolest stuff — jumper cables, maps of Kenya, socket sets, sunglasses, newspapers, the proverbial Elvis.
I know that it’s time to come home from Kenya for a bit when I get all bent out of shape over a $30 difference on an intra-Kenyan airline flight. Its time to spend some time in the United States, where that amount of money barely buys you lunch out anymore.
I am not a political scientist. That having been said, the development of “coalition governments” to solve power struggles in African countries will not work in the long run. Sure, in the short run, convincing the sitting president (and losing candidate in an election) to share power with his opponent in order to avert violence seems like a good idea. In Kenya, it brought an end to two months of ethnic violence, more than 1,000 deaths, and 200,000 people losing their homes. In Tanzania, it seems to be helping with inflation so bad that a banana today costs what a two-bedroom house cost 10 years ago. Someone recently told me that a Tanzanian currency with 15 zeros is absolutely worthless.
I am accompanying three girls from the rescue center who just finished high school to a computer training program located in the Maasai Mara of Kenya, the premier safari location in the country.
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.
I have a new work motto now that I have started a blog to disseminate information about my efforts to assist Maasai girls in Kenya that have been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage: You can make some of the people happy all of the time (they are my favorite!), you can make some of the people happy some of the time and hopefully the rest of the people are happy at some point during the rest of the time.
The Narok area, in fact most of Kenya, is deep into a very serious drought. The long rainy season of April brought no rain to this area and at that time, thousands of Maasais and their cattle were migrating to areas as far away as Mombasa looking for water.
The national political situation in Kenya continues to destabilize. Kofi Annan, former head of the United Nations and the arbiter of the coalition government that has ruled Kenya since the post-election ethnic violence of early 2008, has given the government until the middle of September to establish an internal tribunal system to try the several members of parliament who instigated, organized and funded the chaos. If parliament fails to establish an adequate system for these trials, Annan has turned over the list of these men to the International Crime Commission at The Hague, and they will be tried as war criminals.
Continent's way of life is unlike any other in the world
From the movie "Blood Diamond" comes the expression, "TIA (this is Africa)," used when a character is trying to explain, justify or rationalize something in Africa that might be totally foreign to "westerners."
Community has helped improve, supply Kenyan rescue center
Whenever I am preparing to return to Kenya, as I will be next week, I take the time to reflect on the progress of the nonprofit Tasaru Scholarship Fund that I established just 18 months ago.
One Sunday, I was walking back to the Rescue Centre from church with Fridah, who at 10 years old is the oldest of four AIDS-orphaned siblings.
My formal responsibility for the girls at the Rescue Centre is administering the nonprofit college fund that assists them with post-secondary education and job training. But when I am at the centre itself three times a year, I become involved in the day-to-day operations of the centre and the challenges for all of the girls there - young and old - including their education, physical health and emotional well-being. It is unavoidable.
At the time of my last update of my work at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Kenya, the nationwide teachers strike had paralyzed primary education in that country. I described the possible repercussions if the strike moved into secondary schools, which was to happen any day at the time of my writing.
A nationwide teachers strike has taken hold in Kenya. About four weeks ago, KNUT, the most influential teachers union in Kenya, announced that all its members would go on strike Jan. 19.
Clark resident helps Kenyan girls deal with challenges
There have been several incidents at the centre recently that highlight the uncertainty, emotional roller coaster, and outright injustice the girls here face daily. As a cultural outsider, it is difficult if not impossible for me to involve myself in any meaningful way. Although the girls often look to me for assistance with their "problems," as they call them, I have to restrict my role and let the system itself take over. It can be excruciatingly painful to stand by while girls suffer emotionally.
Clark resident Mary Walker provides an update from Kenya, where she works at a safehouse for Maasai girls.
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 to escape or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker's updates from Kenya will appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.