Thursday, November 20, 2008

Kila Nafasi

“When you educate a boy you are educating an individual. When you educate a girl you are educating a nation.” —Ibu Badir

As I wrote last time, the Maasai have not historically made education a high priority in their communities. Given the traditional roles of women as mothers and homemakers and men as cattle herders, this is understandable. Unfortunately for the Maasai, the widespread lack of formal education among their people has put them at a great disadvantage economically and politically with respect to the other tribes. It’s difficult to get strong representation in government without being highly educated, and with the growing spread of capitalism and technology, other tribes have taken advantage of education to make economic progress far beyond the Maasai.

Although Kenyan law decrees that all children must attend primary school, the rural nature of Maasai communities makes enforcement impractical. Many children still do not attend school, or attend for only a few years. Compounding the problem is the fact that school is not free in Kenya as it is in the United States, and in order to attend primary school you must be able to afford the fees.

But these fees pale in comparison to the fees one must pay to attend secondary school (equivalent to our high school), which is not required by the government. Eighth graders in their last year of primary school take a nationwide placement exam that determines which secondary schools they are eligible to attend. The students that perform the highest on the exam are then welcome to attend the very best secondary schools in the country…if they can afford it. Because all secondary students board at their schools, a secondary education costs approximately $450 USD per year. It is therefore easy to see how some families might view education as a cost they simply cannot afford.

This problem hits girls much harder than boys. Although some Maasai families are beginning to recognize the importance of sending their sons to school, most are still very reluctant to pay such high fees for their daughters. Female enrollment in primary school really tapers off in the later years of primary school: in the local Talek Primary School, there are only six girls in Grade 7, and only two girls who have made it to Grade 8. This is undoubtedly in part due to the fact that the girls know they have little hope of continuing onto secondary school, so there isn’t much incentive to finish primary school.

This trend has implications far greater than whether or not a girl can recite her multiples of eight or name all the planets in the solar system. Girls who attend secondary school are more likely to get a paying job, less likely to contract HIV, and more likely to then educate their own children. Girls who do not attend secondary school are more likely to be circumcised and married off at young ages of twelve and thirteen. “Female circumcision,” which is really just a euphemism for female genital mutilation, is illegal in Kenya, but is still practiced in rural areas. Beyond being cruel and unnecessary, it put girls at great risk for infection and makes childbirth very difficult. I have even heard horrifying stories of young women starving themselves during their pregnancies so as to have as small a baby as possible, because the nature of female circumcision makes a woman’s body prone to tearing and excessive blood loss during childbirth. Needless to say, undernourished pregnant mothers produce undernourished babies, many of whom then have developmental problems.

Okay, now that I’ve made you thoroughly depressed, I’m going to change the story a little bit.

Enter John. Enter Katy. Enter Audrey.

John (the same John from my last post) is an especially progressive Maasai man—one who values education for all, especially women, and decries female circumcision as outdated and inhumane. For years now, John has taken his own time and money and traveled around to rural Maasai communities, leading workshops for women on HIV prevention, the importance of education, and the dangers of circumcision. He has also used personal finances to fund the secondary education of girls who have shown academic promise but whose families could not afford school.

Upon hearing this in 2006, Katy, another student in the Holekamp lab, teamed up with the Infamous Audrey to help expand John’s efforts and educate more Maasai girls. The result was Kila Nafasi (“every opportunity” in Swahili), a non-profit organization based in the United States. Kila Nafasi’s sole purpose is to provide scholarships to girls who are academically qualified to attend secondary school but cannot afford it. I joined Kila Nafasi in 2007, and I am proud to say that as of 2009 we will be sponsoring nineteen girls (see photos), including several from the Talek area. We send the money from our generous sponsors (all tax deductible, of course!) directly to the schools, and we visit the sponsored students periodically throughout the year to ensure that they are receiving the education our sponsors are paying for.

Public consciousness of some struggles African women face—HIV/AIDS, genocide, female genital mutilation, poor health care—has increased dramatically in the past several years. Education plays an important role in the solutions to these problems (and countless more), and Kila Nafasi is proud to join the fight. As our organization grows and more students are sponsored, a secondary school education is becoming a realistic dream for primary school-aged girls in our area. Unfortunately, this means that the need for scholarships currently exceeds the available funding. If you’d like to help in any way, either by becoming a sponsor or making a one-time donation, please visit our website, where you can also learn more and see more photos of some of our students. For more information on the benefits of educating girls in underdeveloped nations, read Jonathan Alter's September 20, 2008 article from Newsweek.

I will close with this:
All of our sponsored students are remarkable, but the ones that really blow me away are the ones who had to defy their parents’ wishes to attend school. Imagine being fourteen years old and looking your mother and father in the eye and saying, “I know you want a certain life for me, but I am choosing a different path for myself.” What strength and courage these girls must have! After all, they know that their choices might very well make them shunned from their families and considered unwelcome in their own homes. John has been kind enough to open his home to some of these girls during school holidays, when they have nowhere else to go. Others stay in a church, surviving only on the generosity of their neighbors. These brave young women have had to fight so hard for an education many of us take for granted, and yet they keep fighting, keep struggling, keep sacrificing. Would we all were that strong.


Anonymous said...

For anyone interested in reading Jonathan Alter's article the old-fashioned way, it was in the issue dated September 29. (September 20 was the date it was published on their website.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Leslie, it was fun to see pictures of the girls we are helping by supporting Katy in her fundraisers!

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