Making a Difference for Girls in Massailand
I recently attended an event sponsored by the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institute called the Girls Education Research and Policy Symposium: Reaching the Most Marginalized. Earlier in 2017, I had researched strategies to engage girls in STEM learning. So it was a natural fit that I was the person from SSEC to attend this event focused on girls’ education. To say that the day was eye opening would be an understatement. Right from the beginning, I was awed by the women who stood up and described their own life stories and experiences about the struggle for girls to receive an education in the Maasai community of Kenya.
Damaris Seleina Parsitau and Kakenya Ntaiya spoke about the challenges of educating girls in Massailand. Before I listened to these women, I had never heard of Massailand and I had no idea of the kind of cultural norms that have such an impact on female education. The Massai culture is very patriarchal, to the degree that tribal elders who uphold tradition are the decision makers rather than actual lawmakers. As a result, some of the laws of Kenya are not followed in Massailand. Practices such as child marriage and female circumcision are still very much the norm in this community. According to Ms. Parsitau’s policy brief, these are the two largest factors for why girls do not receive more than a primary education. The health problems girls experience and the financial needs of the family can make it impossible for girls to go as far in school as boys.
Kakenya Ntaiya (Photo courtesy of Kakenya’s Dream)
Then Ms. Ntaiya shared her personal story of overcoming the odds. She was supposed to follow the typical life of a Massai girl—undergo the female cutting seen as a cultural rite of passage and be married by about age 14. But she wanted something else. She wanted to go to high school. So she negotiated with her father to go through the circumcision ceremony only if she could keep going to school. She was successful in her bargain. She went on to receive a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia. She could only travel there with the help of her community elders. Against the odds, she was able to leave the village with the money for a plane ticket to come to the United States. She made a promise to give back to the community in exchange for the opportunity she received to go to college. When she visited her home, she would see the young, married girls living a life she was fortunate not to. She kept her promise by providing what was missing for so many Massai girls—the opportunity to keep learning in a school. The school she built, called The Kakenya Center for Excellence, opened in 2009. The boarding school that started by serving 30 students now has grown to serve hundreds. Girls enrolled cannot be subjected to the traditional expectations for their gender. The momentous achievement of operating this school would not have been possible had Ms. Ntaiya not fought for her dream of a college education. Her story is truly remarkable and something that I will not forget.
Kakenya Ntaiya with students from the Kakenya Center for Excellence (Photo courtesy of Kakenya’s Dream)
To learn more and to support the Kakenya Center for Excellence, please visit www.kakenyasdream.org.
Parsitau, Damaris Seleina. 2017. “Engaging the Custodians of Tradition and Culture: Leveraging the Role of Multiple Actors in Maasai Girls’ Education.” Policy brief, Center for Universal Education at Brookings.