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Farewell, Enoosaen!

Cleia Noia | Posted August 20th, 2011 | Africa

I left Enoosaen this morning, and it will take me a while to fully grasp how the past 3 months have affected me. Spending time with the girls has truly been the highlight of my summer: they are the warmest, most genuine people I have ever met. They don’t ask anything from you, maybe just a little of your attention, but the amount of love they give in return is unbelievable.

I have learned a lot about the ups and downs of this type of field work, and I must say that learning and experiencing all this alongside Charlotte has been a pleasure. I could not have asked for a better colleague, and I have been incredibly fortunate for having also found a dear friend in her.

The KCE's girls and I
The KCE's girls and I

Living and working in Kenya has been a great opportunity for which I am grateful to the Enkakenya Centre for Excellence and to the Advocacy Project. But for feeling like I have a home and a family in Kenya I am really, truly grateful to Mama Kakenya, who received me with open arms since the moment I first arrived.

I hope that, by sharing what I was learning through my blog posts, I was able to shed a little light on the dynamics between the local culture and the issue of FGM in this region. This is a complex issue, but I’m leaving Kenya hopeful that there is a process in motion to end this practice. I don’t know how long it will take, but undoubtedly efforts like the one undertaken by Kakenya Ntayia in Enoosaen are extremely important in eradicating female circumcision.

In the past 3 months, I have learned a great deal, I have made countless new friends, and I have had the good fortune of experiencing another culture from the inside. For all of this and so much more, my humble thank you to everyone who helped me along the way!

One Response to “Farewell, Enoosaen!”

  1. Cleia – You and your posts have been absolutely amazing. Thank you for your groundbreaking research and your keen insight into the lives of the girls and their community. Doubtless you have taught them much both intellectually and with your caring spirit. Good luck to you!

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A woman’s power

Cleia Noia | Posted August 19th, 2011 | Africa

After living in Enoosaen for almost 3 months, I can hardly claim that I have a nuanced understanding of the local culture. However, what I did confirm first hand during my time here is the power that women have when they put their minds to something, with a good example being the number of single moms that I met who are taking care of their families and managing to support their children at school out of sheer will power. Thus, I am convinced that when enough women decide female circumcision is a practice that should be put to rest, FGM will indeed be nothing but a (sad) chapter in the past.

One of these strong-willed women is Rosemary Mesopir. A teacher at heart, she has worked for the past 4 years as the teachers’ advisor in the Kilgoris Division but, unofficially, she works as the local Area Education Officer, assessing the quality of schools in the region. Prior to this job she was the head teacher at St. Josephs for 6 years, and her involvement in the local fight against FGM comes from that time.

Rosemary Mesopir
Rosemary Mesopir

St. Joseph, as Charlotte mentioned in a previous post, is a government boarding school that doubles as a rescue center for girls who escape FGM, and Rosemary was the one who started this activity.

Although Rosemary’s mother never went to school, she knew that she wanted her daughters to be educated. Going to school unfortunately didn’t prevent Rosemary from undergoing the traditional female circumcision ceremony when she was around 12, but she says that “at the time it was not something people discussed. It was prestigious, it was painful, but it was a pain that you felt you had to go through to become a woman in our society.”

Because of the determination of her mother she was able to avoid the natural next step after FGM, early marriage, and she went back to school. She remembers that “by Form 3, I was the only girl from my village still studying, everybody else was already married.” Her mother had an elder sister who was an educator, had a job and her own money, so her mother always thought that education/work was better than marriage.

Rosemary grew up to marry a man she chose, and together they have 5 children. Even though she is the mother of 3 girls, she says that she never gave much tough to the issue of FGM until an organization called Maendeleo came to Kilgoris in 2000 and started running workshops explaining the risks associated with female circumcision. Maendeleo’s programs had the purpose of training local people who could then reach out to the community at large. They held many workshops, and made her really aware of the dangers of FGM. She says that after that she made the conscious decision that her daughters wouldn’t be cut, and she took them to the workshops as well because, as she says, “even though they were still young, I wanted them to fully understand all the consequences of female circumcision.” Her husband was worried about how his position in the community would be affected if he allowed his girls not to be circumcised, but Rosemary is a woman who can change people’s mind, and eventually her husband agreed.

Being a teacher at an all-female boarding school proved to be a great opportunity for her to reach out to girls. She used her position as a head teacher at St. Josephs to identify the bright girls in class and then tried to convince them to forget about FGM. She figured that, since early marriage is expected after FGM, if you are able to convince the parents to postpone the circumcision until after high school you can allow the girls to have time to mature and make their own decisions afterwards.

Her tactics to reach people proved to be quite effective. She chose not to be openly vocal against FGM with everyone, and instead she only approached the brightest girls at school. When I asked her why she chose to only reach a few girls, she said that “if you want to cross a river, you take a few cows first and then come for the rest later.” Head teachers have to choose the options of district, provincial, and national high schools for the graduating primary class, and Rosemary made a point of only choosing school outside of the Transmara region (mostly a Maasai area) so the girls could see what it was like to live without thinking about FGM, and see for themselves how other people didn’t think it was important.

From trying to save the girls from her own school, it was only a short step towards rescuing outside girls. She remembers that the first girl who came to her directly looking for shelter was a girl in Class 7 from a different school. Since Rosemary would use church meetings to also explain the risks about FGM, people were aware of her involvement with the issue, so it was natural that other girls would come to her for help. She is quick to point out that her talks were very technical, highlighting the advantages of keeping the girls in school and “postponing” the decision to be cut, and she stresses the importance of not being openly against FGM at the time for fear of alienating people. She played with the parents’ fears of having their girls raped, abused, or forced to get married after having them circumcised in order to convince them to keep the girls in school longer.

After the first girl came and was successful, others came in more and more, and soon enough she had around 12 girls living at St. Josephs. The District Commissioner had to work with the local Chief to convince the parents to protect and pay for the school fees of those girls. Not long after this, someone run a story on her in the newspaper, and then some sponsors started to help. By then, other than school fees, she was covering all other expenses of these girls.

After a few years, Rosemary decided to apply for a promotion so she could still be in touch with students, but now covering a larger area in the division. After all these years, she doesn’t feel there has been much change since FGM still goes on, and there is still need to rescue girls.

“people do it in secrecy, and before people were doing openly so it was easier to hear about a ceremony before it happened and intervene. The law exists, but nobody is doing much about it. Enforcement is important and it is still lacking.”
“people do it in secrecy, and before people were doing openly so it was easier to hear about a ceremony before it happened and intervene. The law exists, but nobody is doing much about it. Enforcement is important and it is still lacking.”

But she is not a pessimist at heart, and she does hope that things will improve with time. She mentions the efforts of the local religious establishment as very positive, and also says that having the Maasai compare themselves to other tribes who either don’t adopt FGM or have abandoned the practice is useful too. Many girls nowadays marry outside of the tribe, and often they will be surprised to learn that in their new neighborhood they will be the only girls who were circumcised. What is important, she highlights, is to help the girls have the information to decide for themselves.

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And what about those computers?

Cleia Noia | Posted August 18th, 2011 | Africa, girls' education

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As the end of my time here in Enoosaen approaches, I thought it would be interesting to report back on the computer lessons I have been giving to the girls.

During my time here I have also been teaching computer classes to the girls at Classes 4 and 6 twice a week. Electricity is a problem in the area, so the lessons didn’t start right away and were occasionally interrupted when the power was out, but overall I can say that I have taught at least one solid month of computer classes, if not a bit more.

This was a good learning experience for the girls, and it was an equally good learning experience to me. We take for granted our easiness around electronic devices, and it was fascinating to see those young minds exposed to something as mind-blowing as a computer for the first time.

Things that for us are second nature, such as moving a mouse around, were an exercise in patience with the girls. They were equally frightened and amazed at what that little thing could do, and fully mastering the motor skills to know how to move the mouse all over the screen while using a very small desk surface or the proper time to use the left or right button might still take some time.

The girls waiting to start a new computer class
The girls waiting to start a new computer class

We have 16 computers, so for the most part each computer was used by two girls. Keeping an orderly classroom was difficult at times, but things became better when we figured that the girls would be good at teaching each other as well, so I would usually explain something and then give them a little time to talk about it with their partners. By now, I’m happy to report that they know how to turn the computer on and off, how to open the WordPad, they are more or less familiar with the keyboard and can type most things at an acceptable speed for their age, and they know how to highlight something and change the fonts’ color, size and style.

I know that for many these accomplishments may sound unremarkable, and before I came I also had very unrealistic expectations about what we would be able to achieve with the girls. However, after being here teaching the girls I’m truly happy with what they have achieved in such a little time. Bear in mind that 99% of these girls had never seen a computer before, and 100% had never even touched one. If anything, this just demonstrates how efforts like these should be multiplied and expanded. Like most kids, they are very bright and learn very fast, and unlike most kids we know they don’t take these opportunities for granted and are very grateful for being able to learn, even if just a little.

I know that these new opportunities offered to them by the Enkakenya Centre for Excellence will have a huge impact on their learning curve. I have great expectations for these girls, and dream that maybe someday I will get an email from one of them updating me on all the amazing things they will certainly know how to do by then.

One Response to “And what about those computers?”

  1. Annette Scarpitta says:

    Fantastic work, Cleia! I sincerely hope that someone will be able to continue this project with the girls in the future. So much potential for continued learning and so many more horizons for them to discover! Thank you, and send our best wishes and congratulations on a great job to all the girls!

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Cleia Noia | Posted August 15th, 2011 | Africa, girls' education

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Yesterday we held the first Spelling Bee contest at the Enkakenya Centre for Excellence. The whole event was a success: the girls were very excited to participate, the teachers were great at keeping the event going in an orderly manner, and the gifts brought by two different groups of visitors who came to the school in the past couple of weeks made for amazing prizes for the girls.

Ready to start
Ready to start

The whole idea behind the Spelling Bee was to help the girls learn new words and stress the importance of improving their English skills. With this in mind, we had the girls take note of the difficult English words that they encountered in their lessons during a week, and then I went over those words and compiled different lists of 100 words each for Classes 4 to 6.

In spelling position!
In spelling position!

When the lists were ready, we went to each class, explained the concept of a Spelling Bee, wrote the words on the chalkboard and clarified any initial questions that they had about pronunciation. The girls then had to use the dictionaries to look up the meaning of the words, and after this was done they had to study them and memorize their spelling. We gave them around 3 weeks to study, and a new group of visitors (all native English speakers) helped the girls go over the words one more time on Saturday before the big day.

Places 1 to 10 in Class 4
Places 1 to 10 in Class 4

I must say that I was slightly apprehensive about the whole thing as I was not sure if the girls had really understood what was being asked of them or if they were taking the Spelling Bee seriously enough, but in the end we all had a great Sunday afternoon and the event was amazing, from beginning to end.

Places 1 to 10 in Class 5
Places 1 to 10 in Class 5

I cheered for each girl as they came in the room for their turn, and hoped that all of them would get their words right. Alas, that is not possible (or expected) in a Spelling Bee, but I still felt really sorry for the ones who got their words wrong. When a girl got her word right, the others who were watching would erupt in a loud cheer, and it was great to see all the girls who did get their words right go outside of the room jumping with excitement as they greeted their classmates and got back in line for another round.

Places 1 to 10 in Class 6
Places 1 to 10 in Class 6

Even though we stressed several times that the prizes were not the ultimate goal of the Spelling Bee, the girls were still more than happy during their awards ceremony. We awarded everyone with a beautiful, colorful sticker for their participation, and places 1 to 10 got bigger prizes that included stickers, pens and pencils, headbands, sweets and other shiny objects. I was happy (and relieved!) to see our girls doing very well throughout the competition and we even had a tie for 1st place in Class 4.

All the winners!
All the winners!

I certainly hope that this was the first of other Spelling Bees to come, and truly hope that our girls found this activity useful in their learning process. Personally, this will be one of my most cherished memories from my time in Enoosaen, and will certainly remember the joy on everyone’s faces at the end of the day.

One Response to “S-U-C-C-E-S-S”

  1. Bravo to you and Charlotte for organizing this fabulous event, to the teachers for their support, and certainly to the girls! What a fabulous experience for all!

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Stories worth telling

Cleia Noia | Posted August 8th, 2011 | Africa

Enoosaen is primarily a Maasai region, inhabited by those who decided to leave their wandering ways behind them and settle here. The Maasai culture is notorious for its chauvinism, thus working with a group of adult women on the quilting/beading project makes a lot of sense, because unlike our girls at the Enkakenya Centre for Excellence, the vast majority of the women have not had access to education, had to undergo FGM and get married at an early age, and have overall endured all the difficulties associated with growing up as a Maasai woman. This makes for incredibly interesting storytelling, and the women of the Rehema Widows Group are not disappointing in that department.

Storytelling through pictures
Storytelling through pictures

After meeting with the women a number of times, explaining to them the idea and importance of the project, we took note of the stories they wanted to tell. Some of these were personal accounts, but others were more of a group effort since so many of their struggles are experiences also common to other women. After this we approached a couple of people who could help us with drawing their stories onto fabric, but this turned out to be a difficult part of the process since they were not very keen on helping with our project or were just very busy.

Saying no to female circumcision
Saying no to female circumcision

But our very own Charlotte came to the rescue and showcased her artistic abilities by drawing all the stories herself. I might be biased because I could not do this myself as I lack the drawing skills, but to me her drawings look amazing and true to the stories told by the women.

The artist
The artist

We later distributed these drawings to the women, and gave them all the material (beads in different colors, strings, and needles) necessary to start the beading. They are very excited about the project, and some are almost done with their first panels. After seeing the work done by their fellow group members, other women who were not initially participating are now eager to join our project, and Charlotte has already collected new stories to draw.

Discussing the picture
Discussing the picture

It might not be possible for me to see all these panels finished before I leave Enoosaen in two weeks, but working on this project has given me incredible insight into the lives of these remarkable women. I have learned, for instance, that in the Maasai culture the woman is expected to build her home after getting married (the traditional mud houses are called “Manyatas”), and that is also the woman’s job to take care of the “shamba” (the farm).

A beading work in progress
A beading work in progress

These women carry a heavy burden on their shoulders by being widows in a society that privileges men. They have to fend for themselves and their children as their deceased husband’s family and their communities often turn their back on them. They are amazing, strong women, and I feel extremely privileged for having had the opportunity to meet them and learn more about their stories.

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Some schools have teaching aids, others lack walls

Cleia Noia | Posted July 29th, 2011 | Africa, girls' education

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the projects Charlotte and I would work on during my time in Enoosaen was to conduct a background research with key schools in the area. The purpose of this research was threefold: to evaluate KCE’s strengths and weaknesses when compared to other schools; to have a better understanding of the other options for primary education in the region; and to learn about different structures of management as information for future projects. All the other projects (quilting/beading, needs assessment survey, spelling bee, etc.) are still underway, but we have finished the background research and I wanted to share some of the information we gathered.

This is an example of a school with great teaching aids
This is an example of a school with great teaching aids

In June and early July 2011, we visited 8 schools (both public and private) in the Transmara West District. In 6 of these schools we conducted brief observations and spoke to the administration to gather targeted information through a semi-structured questionnaire, at the other 2 we made brief observations and conducted a general informal interview with the administration. Although a post is hardly the appropriate venue to go about our finds at length, some of the findings included in our summary will help give a brief, but hopefully interesting, general view of the topics we observed:

      • Type of school: although the easier access to funds is definitely an advantage that the private schools have over the public/sponsored ones, it seems to us that a school’s academic success is more dependent on the teachers’ commitment to the students rather than on the resources available. All of the schools have at least some religious affiliation, but it is not a financial benefit to them overall when compared to other sources of income.
      • Student body: even though the total number of girls may be greater than the number of boys in certain schools, it is possible to see a shift from the fourth grade on, when boys usually outnumber girls. At the lower performing public schools in particular, it is also noticeable how the size of a class shrinks in the upper primary. These observations were more obvious from our visits to the schools which were not subjected to our semi-structured questionnaire.
      • Staff: most of the schools visited do not offer any incentives to teachers, and this seems to be an acceptable practice in the area. Interestingly, private schools pay teachers less than public schools, but they are still able to hire quality staff due to the high number of professionals in the market. Finally, it was not possible to see a correlation between the teachers: student ratio and the school’s academic performance.
      • Nutrition: public and private schools alike seem to suffer from the high price of food, and therefore there was no clear correlation between the type of school, the success rates, and the quality of food provided (meat, for example, is expensive and even private schools may not serve it). There was, however, a clear bias towards boarders, who are consistently offered better food.
      • FGM/early marriage: on this topic, they all indicated their disagreements with the practice, but there is no consistency on how this is treated by the schools’ administration.

A small "grocery store" to help the kids learn math at one of the schools.
A small "grocery store" to help the kids learn math at one of the schools.

    • Infrastructure: the income differences between the schools visited is more obvious when we assess their infrastructure and assets. Naturally, private schools offer their students better infrastructure, although it was interesting to notice that all schools had some sort of semi-permanent building that was not consistent with their main buildings.

Although this was not the norm, we did encounter a school the classrooms of which had no walls!
Although this was not the norm, we did encounter a school the classrooms of which had no walls!

  • Familial support or community education: it seemed to us that much of a school’s success can be attributed to the degree of the participation that the parents have in the school’s life. In terms of community outreach/education, none of the schools are outstanding.
  • Success rate: the schools visited, with few exceptions, were considered to be high performing schools in their respective districts. However, it is important to contextualize this by mentioning that the great Transmara area is considered to be amongst the areas with the poorest performance when ranked on a national level. Still, it is remarkable that public schools can sometimes be better ranked than private schools, and send their students to national and provincial high schools (the secondary school system in Kenya is divided into district, provincial, and national high schools, and your acceptance into one of these categories will depend on your grades, with national schools being the most competitive ones).

All in all, this research was a very interesting one to conduct, and by closely observing these schools we gained invaluable insight into how to improve KCE and what mistakes to avoid. We saw firsthand the abysmal differences between certain schools and how much some of them lack; yet, it was heartwarming to see teachers who are truly committed to their professions and parents who are concerned and involved in their children’s education.

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What do you want to be when you grow up?

Cleia Noia | Posted July 10th, 2011 | Africa, girls' education

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Leah Moyiaso Rerai Siparo
Leah Moyiaso Rerai Siparo

One of my first projects here in Enoosaen was to work on the profiles of the girls from Class 4. We have three classes so far (4, 5, and 6), and Charlotte had already almost finished the profiles of the girls from Classes 5 and 6 when I arrived. The purpose of these profiles is to gather general information about the class, the girls’ background, and then follow them up as they move on to the next classes during their time in the Enkakenya Centre for Excellence.

The questionnaire I presented them (I asked something out loud, the head teacher translated into Swahili to make sure the girls understood, and they took notes to hand in their answers later) covered different information ranging from their age, their previous school, their family background, their favorite subjects and other similar topics.

Naomi Jepkoech
Naomi Jepkoech

In asking those questions, I learned some very interesting things: for instance, the concept of “favorite” was somehow foreign to the girls, and I also had to clarify, when I was asking about their siblings, if I meant the ones who lived with them, or if they were to include the ones from their father’s other wives. I was aware that polygamy is still very common in this region, but coming from a culture where it is not accepted, it was fascinating to see how this practice is still very much part of their lives.

After they handed in their answers, I took time to sit with each one of them and go over their answers in more detail, taking the opportunity to take some pictures of them for our files. This turned out to be an extremely difficult part of the process. The girls were very eager to wait in line to talk to me and have their pictures taken, but once they sat down to actually talk, they would suddenly go silent and shyly look away from me. After some gentle prodding on my part, we went over their answers and I got to learn a lot about these girls.

Some of the girls from Class 4 waiting to be interviewed and have their pictures taken
Some of the girls from Class 4 waiting to be interviewed and have their pictures taken

Out of 34 girls, 17 told me their fathers had more than one wife, with the maximum number of wives being three. These wives lived in different houses, and the girls would refer to them as “my other mom” or “my stepmom” most of the time. I also learned that, although the parents have to agree not to let their daughters undergo FGM in order to have them accepted by the school, unfortunately the ban on FGM was not something that had been previously embraced by some of those families: 13 girls reported that they had older sisters who had been cut. Luckily, none of the girls seemed to look forward to being cut themselves, therefore not placing importance on the practice as a rite of passage ceremony, even though most of them could not elaborate on why they thought that FGM was “bad”.

To the traditional “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, I got the regular answers of teachers, nurses, with some girls who wanted to be doctors, and a couple who wanted to be a lawyer…but I got quite a few answers from girls wanting to be pilots! The justification for this career choice was diverse: some said that pilots earn a lot of money, others said that they could visit different places, but a couple said that, by being a pilot, they would be able to fly.

Mary Potishoi Lemunge
Mary Potishoi Lemunge

However, my favorite question was “What is special about you?” and although the answers were somewhat disappointing, asking it was interesting nonetheless because it showed that we have some serious work to do in helping these girls improve their self-esteem. I don’t know if something got lost in translation or if they are just not used to having someone show interest in them as a person with individual qualities and characteristics, but the vast majority of the girls could not properly answer this question. Most of them answered something about having their parents pay for their school fees, and just one girl said “what is special about me is that I am always happy”.

Hopefully, these girls will grow more and more confident in themselves, and in the future will have enough self-awareness to never flinch when someone takes interest in them and thinks they are special. They are certainly special to me, and you can see here all the photos I took from these adorable little girls.

One Response to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

  1. Great posting, Cleia; thanks! I’m guessing the girls’ self-esteem improves with every year at KCE but that for some reason it’s taking these girls longer than it did the other two classes. Did Charlotte find significantly improved self-esteem in her interviews, I wonder? I hope these girls all know they have great fans like me in America, cheering them on their journeys.

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Education and Religion

Cleia Noia | Posted July 1st, 2011 | Africa

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When I first arrived in Kenya, I was impressed by the great number of universities and equally huge number of churches I saw around Nairobi. I have no idea if this has any correlation, but it is interesting to see a parallel in the roles played by education and religion in the fight against FGM.

Having talked to some people about this subject, a common argument that emerges is how key the education of the parents is in avoiding girls’ circumcision. Not surprisingly, in the majority of cases, educated parents will want their girls to be equally educated, and permanence in school is crucial in protecting girls against FGM and avoiding early marriages. However, I was somewhat surprised to learn about the local religious leaders’ participation in spreading the word about the dangers related to female circumcision.

The religious establishment in Kenya plays a central role in the fight against FGM, and the pastors (Pentecostalism is a rising trend here) are often very outspoken against this practice. However, many have criticized the Catholic Church’s efforts, saying that it has been mostly silent about this issue. Thus, it was particularly interesting to meet Father Sankale, a Maasai Catholic Priest who works at the Kilgoris diocese and who is known for being very active against the practice of FGM in this area.

Father Sankale in his office
Father Sankale in his office

Father San, as he is usually called, is not like your regular priest. Soft spoken, and very laid back, he was brought up in a Catholic family and first became interested in entering the priesthood when he saw the local priest, who had come from England, achieve great results assisting the Maasai people. That made him also want to be a priest and work with the people he knew, so he went to the National Seminar in Kenya for 10 years, and was ordained in 1999. When he first arrived in Kilgoris, in 2006, he took office both as the local priest and as the director of the Christ the King Academy, a private school started by the Catholic Church. The school had only classes up to Grade 6 and a total of 200 students; nowadays, the school, known for its good performance, also offers education up to Grade 8, it has around 600 students and other two branches in Enoosaen and Engararo.

Christ the King Academy
Christ the King Academy

According to Father San, “the social status places a person in an involuntary situation, and in Kenya the religious leaders are in a position to directly help people.” Knowing this, people naturally come to him seeking guidance and help when in need, and this is how he first became involved with the issue of FGC.

Besides helping the girls who come directly to him looking for assistance when they flee their houses in order to avoid circumcisions (the school has a small budget for scholarships and 5 rescued girls currently attend Christ the King Academy), Father San is behind a more direct outreach activity: the Church in Kilgoris has offered, for the past five years, a seminar/training every December (the time of the year when usually the circumcision ceremonies take place) in order to educate the community at large about the dangers of FGM. The seminar caters to both adults and a younger audience, and he makes sure that each one of the churches he coordinates (24 around the Transmara region) sends at least 3 people to those seminars.

Father San explains that the circumcision ceremony is a big celebration still greatly entrenched in the local culture, despite being illegal in Kenya when performed on a minor (the legal age in Kenya is 18). Traditionally, the girls are secluded for a few days after the ceremony, and during this time a local person comes to talk to them about womanhood, and the role the girl has now as an adult member of the community; in addition, there is an economical gain as the parents get gifts, but Father San tries to explain during the training that “this material gain is out of somebody’s suffering.” He also believes that, in order to be effective, any effort against FGM needs to address the sense of “belonging to the community” that some girls might feel after participating in the ceremony, and, in that sense, these efforts need to be carried out in a culturally sensitive way.

“Tradition is very, very strong. To go against that tradition, you need all the support you can get” – Father San
“Tradition is very, very strong. To go against that tradition, you need all the support you can get” – Father San

Recognizing the importance that the circumcision ceremony has in the Maasai culture, the seminars offered by Father San also include at the end what is called “Alternative Rite of Passage.” The Alternative Rite of Passage, sometimes referred to as “Circumcision with Words,” is a common tool in the fight against FGM and many organizations offer these alternative celebrations as part of their outreach strategy. The seminars offered by Father San usually last around 3 days, and during this time teachers will talk to the girls (the seminars reach around 50-100 girls every year) about their responsibilities as adults, talk about HIV/AIDS, early marriage, teen pregnancy, and then have a graduation ceremony the purpose of which is to substitute the circumcision ceremony so that girls can feel a sense of pride in participating in these seminars and, hopefully, avoid being cut afterwards. Despite these efforts, out of 50 girls, maybe 10 will still undergo FGM, and Father San believes that the real problem is that these seminars are not necessarily followed up by the girls having a wider access to education.

Education, it seems, is always a recurrent answer for curbing the practice of female circumcision, and Father San seems to place great importance on the education of girls, more so than the influence of the religion, in ending FGM. He offers anecdotal evidence: despite Father San constantly preaching against it, one of the chairmen of his Church stopped coming to services around September, before having his younger daughters undergo circumcision in December. By February, he was back in Church and his daughters slowly started to come back. When Father San confronted him about it, he said he just could not avoid having his younger daughters circumcised since his older ones had undergone it. Father San goes on to say that, in his experience, the fathers would easily accept not cutting their girls, but the pressure comes from mothers/aunts who underwent the cut.

As I mentioned above, female circumcision on a minor is illegal in Kenya, but enforcement is a problem. A lot of the advocacy against FGM is done through religious leaders, and some through NGOs, with the government doing very little to enforce the existing legislation. Father San says that, in reality, his ability to help the girls depend more on funds than on the law itself, but he agrees that the best way to end FGM is to get the circumcisers. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the legal age for marriage in Kenya is 18, and the police enforce the law against early marriage much more than the prohibition against FGM.

Still, Father San believes that FGM is a practice that is decreasing. In his school, for instance, only 30% of the students are Maasai, and the multicultural environment helps in a way because many tribes do not adopt female circumcision, and so the girls do not feel coerced into being cut for fear of peer pressure (see Charlotte’s post on tribalism for a better look at this).

Finally, Father San recognizes that all religious denominations are together in preaching against FGM, but he makes sure to mention that the Catholic Church does not have a presence in many places, so maybe that is the reason why many people are not aware of the church’s effort in the eradication of FGM in Kenya. But regardless of religious affiliation, it is great to know that the religious leaders are on the same page on this subject, and fighting as a united front to end this harmful practice.

2 Responses to “Education and Religion”

  1. Karin says:

    Excellent personal profile Cleia. I think us outsiders often wonder about the role of religion in the perpetuation of FGM and need to hear more stories such as these, of people who are striving hard to end the violence within this practice. It at least gives me hope that there are innovative alternatives to celebrating a young girls womanhood without this practice in this part of the world. The role of women who have also undergone FGM, as influential in the perpetuation of FGM, is an equally interesting topic and one worth exploring. Perhaps another blog post could emphasize this opinion, as it is very difficult for us to understand. Look forward to reading more.

  2. iain says:

    Very interesting blog, Cleia! How interesting that the squabbling churches are finding common cause about FGM! Between you, you and Charlotte are giving us so many insights into FGM and those trying to end it. We need more on the Alternative Rite of Passage. Any chance of you attending, and even recording? Also can you please get to one of these remarkable girls who decide to flee rather than submit to the practice. You are building up a remarkable dossier between you. Well done!

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As time goes by…

Cleia Noia | Posted June 21st, 2011 | Africa, girls' education

I have been in Enoosaen for two weeks already. Apart from the time we have spent in Kilgoris, the nearby “town”, I have mostly been at the village. As the days go by here in Enoosaen, I learn more and more the value of patience. The pace of life is clearly different than the one I am used to, and the people here function on a time clock of their own. Meetings will start when people show up, not necessarily when you schedule them; cars will leave when all the seats are taken, not at a certain time. It takes some adjustments, but I am learning that once you stop trying to control time and adjust your expectations accordingly, you will have a more pleasant experience. It does make planning difficult, and a lot of our work here depends on planning, but it does not mean that things will not get done. Charlotte has been great in imparting this knowledge, but it is something you can only really learn on your own.

We have discussed what projects need to be completed during my time here, and these are the ones we will be concentrating our efforts on in the upcoming weeks: to conduct a needs assessment research with the girls’ families in order to understand the demographics we are directly reaching with the school; to conduct a background research with key schools in the area in order to have a better idea of what are our strengths and weaknesses when compared to them; to work on a quilt project with the girls and with a local widows group to learn more about their personal stories (storytelling through pictures); to teach the girls IT skills through computer lessons; and to continue interviewing key people in the local fight against FGM/early marriage. All of these depend on other people’s time, so our plans/schedule can always change, but we will be working on them concomitantly, and as these projects progress we will be sharing more about them in our blogs.

These, of course, are not the only projects we will be working on, and we have discussed what other activities we could do with the girls. Charlotte and I agree on the need to strengthen their English skills, so we decided to hold a spelling bee contest at the school – more on this in the future!

Academic Day in Kilgoris
Academic Day in Kilgoris

After this general update, I want to highlight two events. Last Friday we participated in the Academic Day held in Kilgoris. As I understand, this was an event to celebrate the best schools in the division, and there seemed to be a huge attendance. However, what is important to note here is that the Transmara district is known for having an overall poor performance, and we were verbally informed during the event by a head teacher sitting next to us that the Kilgoris division as a whole placed 162nd amongst the 246 divisions in Kenya. As we sat there and listened to the officials congratulate each other, we could not help but question whether or not some self-reflection on their poor overall performance was also done. It is great to reward accomplishments, but these accomplishments should be contextualized. And although I could not verify the exact placement information that the teacher gave us, I was able to confirm an even more appalling statistic: out of the 100 best secondary students in the country in the 2010 national examination, only 22 were girls!

The prizes
The prizes

On a much more positive note, we had the first meeting with the widows group to discuss our quilt project with them. This group, called Rehema (“compassion” in Swahili), was started in 2006 and its main purpose is to serve as a forum for the local widows to discuss their hardships, but also to educate them about their rights.  At first the idea was to only work with the girls at KCE, but Mama Kakenya is a part of this group and had already mentioned it to Charlotte, who thought that working with them would complement the work with the girls. Working with Rehema makes the project more special, because with this group we can really explore the challenges of being a woman in the Maasai culture.

The Rehema women
The Rehema women

Part of the AP’s activity with the partner organization is to have them work on a quilting project. This tool for storytelling is very effective for several reasons: it is a therapeutic activity, it is a great mean for self-expression, it presents a visual complement to their already compelling stories, it can be later used as an advertizing tool for the organization, etc. To make this project more personal, the women (and also the girls at KCE) will work on their quilts by using the ancient Maasai tradition of beading.

Charlotte shows examples of quilts to the women
Charlotte shows examples of quilts to the women

After explaining to them the reason behind quilting and why we think they would be a great group to work with, the women sounded really excited about the project and already started talking about possible stories to portrait on their panels. We will meet with them again this week, and hopefully more positive results will come from our next meeting!

2 Responses to “As time goes by…”

  1. iain says:

    We’re all really interested to see how your group will use Masai beads in making a quilt! That could be very cool. Also, can you and Charlotte put together a questionnaire to measure the therapeutic impact? We see this in other quilt projects, but have never go round to monitoring it. That would help a lot. Make sure that the quilt carries a strong and clear message. Remember, this will be a tool for advocacy and change…Good work!

  2. Amy says:

    Yeah! Maasai beads on a quilt, what a cool idea! Can’t wait to see.

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Muzungu, how are you?

Cleia Noia | Posted June 10th, 2011 | Africa

I arrived in Nairobi last Friday, and met with Charlotte Bourdillon, another fellow who has been working with KCE for the past 3 months. My luggage wasn’t as timely though, and Charlotte and I had to stay in Nairobi an extra day to wait for it. The weekend turned out to be a great opportunity for us to get to know each other and to explore the city.

On Monday we made the 7-hour trip to Enoosaen, which was actually quite pleasant considering we were crammed with other people (and our luggage) in a little van. This long trip was made better by the great scenery outside of our window, and I spotted an ostrich, gazelles, cows and the odd Maasai on the horizon, which is always a novelty to a bona fide city girl like me.

Before arriving in Enoosaen, we stopped in Kilgoris to change into a smaller car, and I was impressed with the activity in this little commercial center – it wasn’t quite Nairobi, but it was definitely not some remote little village. From Kilgoris we made the final trek to Mama Kakenya’s house, where I’ll be staying during my time here. We arrived to a warm welcome from everyone, and they had clearly missed Charlotte during her time away to explore Rwanda before my arrival.

The bustling city of Kilgoris
The bustling city of Kilgoris

The next day we made our way to the Enkakenya Centre for Excellence, and I heard for the first time what is sure to become the trademark of my time here: nearly every child we encountered along the way called “Muzungu, muzungu” as we walked by, which is technically the Swahili word for European, but loosely used to greet any white person. The Muzungu call was also followed by some child asking “How are you?”, which I happily replied to but got no answer back. It seems that they are only conversational in English up to that question, but have no idea what to answer in return.

Kids from a nearby school gathering to see the Muzungus
Kids from a nearby school gathering to see the Muzungus

After making a few other stops along the way (Charlotte is incredibly popular around here, many people knew her by name and I’m truly impressed with the Swahili skills she developed in only 3 months!), we finally arrived at KCE. This moment will be one that I’ll remember forever: the kids ran to meet us, and enveloped us in their collective embrace.

Some of the girls at KCE greeting us upon our arrival
Some of the girls at KCE greeting us upon our arrival

To introduce myself, Charlotte and I had planned to play a little game, and to reward the girls with some sweets. This quiz turned out to be great fun, and I got a glimpse at how smart these girls are.

A little quizzing game with the girls
A little quizzing game with the girls

My first impression could not have been better: the girls were so welcoming, so happy to see us there. It made me incredibly happy to be here, and grateful to be part of this amazing project. They are 94 girls divided into classes 4, 5, and 6, and hopefully with time I will be able to get to know each one of them.

One Response to “Muzungu, how are you?”

  1. iain says:

    Welcome, Cleia Muzungu! Great photos and a very nice piece of writing. The two of you will make a powerful team! Look forward to hearing about your plans in detail. How about finding some pen pals for your students over here?

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Fellow: Cleia Noia

The Kakenya Center for Excellence


Africa Alternative Rite of Passage computer lessons East Africa Enkakenya Centre for Excelence Enkakenya Centre for Excellence Enoosaen female circumcision FGC FGM girls' education Kenya Spelling Bee




2013 Fellows


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Laura Burns

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Caroline Risacher

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Charlie Walker
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Cleia Noia
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Walter James


Amanda Lasik
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2003 Interns

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