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Gentle locomotive


Kate Cummings | Posted September 6th, 2009 | Africa

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Neipamei Ngodia is the only girl in her family of 18 children and three mothers to go to high school.  At 14 years old, she refused to be circumsized (which leads directly into marriage), and was outcast by family and friends for her choice of school over marriage.  Now 16, Neipamei is determined to become a surgeon, and to return to her Maasai village so she can serve people where they are most comfortable - at home, speaking their native language with a doctor who understands not only their illness but also their culture.  Neipamei understands much more than most 16 year olds, and dreams bigger than her society would like.  Being in her presence feels both like standing alongside a gentle soul and a locomotive - she will not be stopped, smiling all the way home.

Video by Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices, 2009.

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The Gift of an Unwritten Future


Kate Cummings | Posted September 5th, 2009 | Africa

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In this interview, Kakenya Ntaiya talks about the freedom she has found in education.  Tracing her path back to childhood, Kakenya remembers her family hardships and the constricting nature of traditional Maasai values on her future.  But Kakenya was not going to accept her family’s selection of a husband-to-be for her at age five; and she was certainly not going to let generations of ritual and multiple father-figures with a limited perception of her potential stand in the way of her own dream.  Instead, Kakenya - with the support of her mother - rallied together the very community that resented her independence and convinced them to send her to college in the US.  Now, less than a year away from finishing her PhD in international education, Kakenya is still dreaming - but this time, for her entire village.

Interview by: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices, 2009.

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In Uniform


Kate Cummings | Posted August 29th, 2009 | Africa

We left Eldoret at six in the morning, piling boxes of shoes, shirts, socks, and a few extra passengers, into our rented matatu.  The sun rose as we descended from the hills – leaving the foggy damp that surrounded the city for the dried sugarcane beds of the valley.  When we arrived at Kakenya’s Center for Excellence, we climbed wearily out of the matatu doors to find a pressing stand of girls.  Their excitement was jittering in their feet and fluttering hands, despite admirable attempts to remain composed.

The last day of old uniforms
The last day of old uniforms
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

“Do you know what we have in these boxes?”  Kakenya said, descending from the cluttered doorway of the vehicle.  “Nooo,” the girls responded, the pitch of their voices rising with curiosity.  The men who transported us opened the back and carried the boxes – bulged and sagging – to the center of the grass outside the school office.  As the teachers worked the knotted twine, Kakenya built suspense: “What color do you think your uniforms are?”  Quiet at first, the girls started to shout all at once the possibilities: “BlueWhiteOrangeGreysockswhiteshirtBlackDress!”

Mama Kakenya with her children
Mama Kakenya with her children

Madam Lydia sorts through the boxes
Madam Lydia sorts through the boxes

Sorting through the piles
Sorting through the piles

Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Madame Lydia, Madame Margaret, and Kakenya’s mom carefully organized all of the items into piles according to size.  “Smallest sizes here,” Lydia would point to a patch of grass near Margaret’s foot, “and the next size beside it – like that all the way over to me.”  The children stood patiently watching the complicated sorting process, engrossed by every new piece of their school ensemble that emerged from the tired boxes.

Receiving her uniform
Receiving her uniform

Racing to try on
Racing to try on

Makeshift dressing room
Makeshift dressing room

Getting in order
Getting in order

Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

When the time came to distribute jumpers, socks, and shirts, the girls lined up and one at a time moved into the huddle of boxes and discarded plastic bags with hands outstretched to the madams, receiving a soft pat on the head along with the neatly folded clothing.  As soon as each girl had moved to the end of the weaving assembly line, she ran at full speed for the tin-walled classroom, eager to change.  All of the girls were eventually in the darkened class, tossing decrepit sweaters to the side, wrestling with new buttons in never-before-used buttonholes.  The lack of give in the new clothing was a beautiful struggle, and there was instant cooperation and comradery in the difficult task of fitting heads through starched cream collars.

Proud to be at the center of Excellence
Proud to be at the center of Excellence

Awaiting socks and shoes
Awaiting socks and shoes

When the shoe fits
When the shoe fits

Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

The students’ return to the outdoor gathering spot, still covered with uniform wrapping refuse, was as dramatic as their departure: the girls came running, legs barely under the control of their nimble frames, waving the stiff sleeves of their tucked shirts with their arm-wings in the warm afternoon air.  They were given their maroon sweaters, and everyone immediately put them on despite the heat.  The fitting of the shoes took longer, and each girl tried on – under the discerning gaze of their madams – both their black leather mary-janes and their tennis shoes (for when they have sports period in school).  With the mary-janes on, the girls marveled at their unscuffed toeline, the way they could bend their ankles from side to side and feel the support of the shoe’s intact heel.

When it was all said and done, each girl had a bright new plaid jumper (a traditional Maasai design that is unlike any other uniform in the area), blindingly white knee socks (Kakenya cringes, “those will turn a different color within the week”), shiny new mary-janes and sporty hi-tops, a cream shirt with its crisp collar, elastic ties neatly tucked into the jumper’s front, and a wool sweater to keep them warm during their long morning walks to school.  “Soon,” Kakenya said, “I’m going to have leggings for them – it’s too cold in the morning for them to have bare legs!” But the girls, dancing like their entire bodies were made new by the clothing – weren’t thinking about leggings or their two-hour walk to school the next morning; they were too busy taking flight in waves of red checkers and shiny black leather.

Proud to be one of Kakenya's children
Proud to be one of Kakenya's children
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

2 Responses to “In Uniform”

  1. Mary Yerrick says:

    Kate,
    This is lovely. I was there at the ground breaking a year ago and this helps show the progress that has taken place. Thanks for all you are contributing to the advancement of women and girls in Africa. You are a true blessing.
    Mary Yerrick

  2. ankur says:

    kate

    what a beautiful chapter to this story. your photographs and words capture the texture of your collective pride so well: shiny and crispy and new.

    congratulations.

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Trouble in Umoja


Kate Cummings | Posted August 19th, 2009 | Africa

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I’m interrupting our story of Kakenya’s school and the people of Enoosaen to update you on the women’s village of Umoja Uaso:

Today, Wednesday, when Rebecca (the chief of the women’s village) was in the village hall for a workshop, her former husband arrived under the acacia tree, shotgun in hand.  He cocked the weapon and yelled for Rebecca to come out. I’m going to kill her, he said.  Waiting, he pointed the weapon at the other women, threatening anyone who got in his way.  When Rebecca refused to come out, he stormed through the village to the nearby campsite and locked all the huts and took the keys, declaring this was all his land and none of them had the right to be there.  As he was leaving the grounds, he shouted, “either I will die or Rebecca will.”  The land title is in Rebecca’s name, but because she is still considered married (can’t get a divorce in Samburu-land), her husband can claim the property as his own.  It is possible that he helped her register the land in her name for this very purpose. The women of Umoja scattered immediately, fleeing to relatives, to friends in other villages, some just running without a safehouse waiting for them.  Mr. Lolosoli (that’s Rebecca’s former husband) roamed in and out of the deserted village all day, gun at his side, a rabid predator.

No way out
No way out
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Umoja Uaso, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices, 2009.

I called Rebecca this evening as soon as I heard; her voice was noticeably hushed and her laugh shaky with nerves.  Is it because of the money? I asked.  Rebecca just recently returned from a crafts show in Sante Fe, New Mexico, where she brought in thousands of US dollars from the sales of Umoja’s jewelry that will be used to support the women collectively.  Rebecca paused on the phone: “I don’t know, maybe.  No – I just don’t know.”  Before the commotion, Mr. Lolosoli sent someone to beat Rebecca as a warning.  It was her own son.  I had to ask her to repeat herself: you mean, your husband sent your own son to beat you — and he did?  “Yes!” I didn’t know what to say next, so I asked what seemed like a useless question: what do we do now?  “The police are on his side, so there is nothing we can do.”  On his side?  “He is a big business man in town, you know, and he has connections with the county council.  The police will not intervene.”  What limb of power, what step on the ladder, is next when the national police force is out and the local government is holding the hand of the man who holds the gun to the face of 48 women and their children? In one act of unfounded retribution, the foundation of this revolutionary women’s village is cracked and shaken – because this man, this successful business man with his own hotel and restaurant, wants what he doesn’t have.  Rather, he wants what the women have.

Rebecca, like her Umoja sisters, has fled to a nearby town (also known for its instability, but here the tension is between the Burana and the Samburu), and she has no idea what comes next.  If you know anyone in Kenya or in the international community that can help Rebecca and her village against these injustices, do not hesitate to use your phone, computer, fingers, brain and heart.  There is no time to lose.

**Visit the Advocacy Project website for a thorough report.

Dtipayon, a resident of Umoja Uaso
Dtipayon, a resident of Umoja Uaso
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Umoja Uaso, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices, 2009.

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Uniform Euphoria


Kate Cummings | Posted August 12th, 2009 | Africa

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We have made it.  This is a milestone.  We have matching, freshly starched uniforms for the thirty-one girls attending Kakenya’s School of Excellence.

School Uniform shop
School Uniform shop
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Eldoret, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Don’t be fooled by the manifestation of this baby-step in the revolution.  In fact, be convinced by it: with the simple gift of one plaid jumper, maroon sweater, pair of tan knee-socks, patent-leather shoes, and cream collared shirt, you will see each girl lengthen her spine to hold back her shoulders and smile with the confidence that she is, in fact, a miracle.  And I bet you some exorbitant amount of Kenyan shillings she will also do better in her studies - because it is clear someone is invested in her, and she is worth that investment.

Kakenya shows off her school's very own uniform
Kakenya shows off her school's very own uniform
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Eldoret, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Beaming for her girls
Beaming for her girls
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Eldoret, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Kakenya understood the gravity of this moment, and she was silenced by it (save this little clip just before her descent into disbelieving quiet).  She has completed one large orbit of her goal, one of the first rings of her Saturn.  This ring started with one fundraising event after another, visits to Vital Voices in DC, more and more time away from her son and husband, her dissertation; then it was a long trip last summer, another this February, and now one month back in her Kenyan home to see how the girls of her school - “her children” - are growing.  And during this packed month, Kakenya has taken an eight-hour matatu to the large town of Eldoret (“that’s too busy, like New York City”) and spent the whole day personally seeing to it that each girl has every piece of this elaborate outfit that leaves will eventually, on the dirt roads of Enoosaen town, leave all onlookers without a doubt in their minds: this girl is going somewhere.

Now, maybe,  you can see the multiplier effect behind the demure uniform Kakenya holds up in this short video.  You should have been there: adding rings to a planet is worth witnessing (and worth doing).

Video: Kate Cummings. Location: Eldoret, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

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Education as Inheritance


Kate Cummings | Posted August 12th, 2009 | Africa

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As the parents entered the gate to Kakenya’s school, I noticed the majority of them were fathers.  There were no couples, but plenty of men carrying their power sticks.  I was interested to talk with them, mothers and fathers, before the assembly began.  Here’s what a few parents had to say about the budding Center for Excellence and their daughters’ education:

Rhodah Chemonget
Rhodah Chemonget
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Rhodah Chemonget is 25 years old with 4 kids (2 of them girls).  Rhodah has one daughter attending Kakenya’s Center.

Q: Have you noticed improvements in your daughter since she started at this school?
Rhodah: She’s doing well. When she was in another school, she wasn’t concentrating on her work.  But now, when she gets home, she is always reading.  My other kids don’t read at home.

Q: How far did you go with your education?
Rhodah: I went to Class 5 [fifth grade].  I wanted to go farther, but my parents refused.  My life would have been better if I’d gotten more education.  But now, my life is hard.  If I’d gone to school, I’d be earning an income – not taking the donkeys to collect maize everyday.

Q: How do you want to raise your daughters differently than your parents raised you?
Rhodah: For a long time, fathers just wanted daughters to be married so they can get cows – but I, I want my daughters to go all the way with education.

Paul Murunka
Paul Murunka
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Paul Murunka is 39 years old with 8 kids (5 of them girls)

Q: What are your expectations for your daughter at this Center of Excellence?
Paul: I am expecting my child to prosper in education.  This school will be different than others.  Judging from the title, “excellence”, and its good foundation, I know it will be an excellent school.

Q: Has your daughter changed since she started school here?
Paul: My daughter is improving.  She’s speaking in English, and also she’s not shy like she was before.  I want to see her being among the first in the class.

Q: Why do you want for your daughter to receive an education?
Paul: Culturally, girls aren’t supposed to inherit anything from the family.  I want, while I am alive, for my daughters to inherit an education from me.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say?
Paul: May God bless Kakenya, because she is not selfish.  She is making more Kakenyas here [gestures to the children playing in front of the school].

Christian Saleh
Christian Saleh
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Christian Saleh is 33 years old with 3 kids (all of them girls – two attending Kakenya’s Center).  Christian was the only other girl in eighth grade w/Kakenya when they were at the end of primary school; all the other girls were dropping out to be circumcised and then married.

Q: Do you have expectations for your daughter at this school?
Christian: The aim I have is for my girls to finish school here and continue other studies.  I finished school up to Class 11 [eleventh grade] – I didn’t finish my schooling because I couldn’t pay the school fees.  I wish I had finished.

Q: Was it difficult to be the only other girl w/Kakenya in Class 8?  How do you want your daughter’s education to be different from your experience?
Christian: Sometimes the boys would beat us and we ran away from them.  Sometimes I had to stay at home to take care of the younger kids, the farm – I had to miss school sometimes to do work for my family.  I want my daughters to do well in exams and go farther than I did.  I don’t want my daughters to have to stay home and take care of the animals.

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Parents’ Day


Kate Cummings | Posted August 12th, 2009 | Africa

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We arrived at the school for Parents Day, and found the girls  in their temporary schoolhouse, singing.  Through the shuttered windows, I could see them practicing their performances – call and response songs in Maasai, some memorized poems.  Outside, the teachers sat by the temporary office, preparing final exam grades so they could discuss each child’s progress with her parents.  This parents day is being held on the last day of the school term, before what would normally be a two-week break for the girls.  Because the school jut started in May, and the teachers are detecting some weakness in their math and English skills, they have decided to give the girls a three-day weekend and start again on Monday in an effort to catch up with their peers in other schools.

Over the next several hours, parents arrived at the casual pace that Kenyans attend scheduled events.  In the meantime, Luna and I played with the girls; we taught them one song after another and after they aptly learned the words they would scream, “another!” and so we rummaged with haste through our forgotten days of summer camp assemblies and campfire games.  I taught an unusually vocal session of yoga, giving each of the movements an animal sound to help the girls understand the positions (“downward dog – bark like a puppy!” “Woof woof woof” went the chorus; “now cat tuck pose, roar like a lion” – “ROAR!” went the fierce pride).  Luna has been teaching the girls Taekwondo whenever we have free time with them; by now, the girls have shirked their timid gestures and meek yells for the sharp “yah!” they throw with their nimble kicks.  There’s also the favorite pastime of touching my hair and face; there seems to be no end to the surprise of my uncurled hair and light skin – the girls have to touch my head and arms to believe it.  “Our Mom is so preeeetty!” They yelp with excitement, small fingers tracing my neck and eyelids.  And as sweet and touching as the love-session is, it can be overwhelming (see the picture below):

Taekwondo with the girls
Taekwondo with the girls
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Daily loving from the girls
Daily loving from the girls
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

When more than half of the parents had arrived, we all migrated to the unfinished classroom in the official Center for Excellence.  The school building is more than halfway finished, and will be the first two-story building in town when it is completed.  This is, already, a source of pride for everyone involved in the school.  The parents squeezed their knees under the small desks, sitting with bodies craned forward in anticipation – women in the center rows, men entirely separate in the row by the windows.  The girls came in and, with the signal from their teachers, formed lines in front of us.  Kakenya’s youngest sister, Nashipay, led the girls in a traditional Maasai song – all of them jumping down to the floor and springing up to the rhythm of the song.  After their performance, the girls listened along with their parents as the teachers talk of overall performance in the three months since school opened.  “Overall,” Madam Lydia said, “the girls are getting higher marks than they were in their initial exams.  They are also speaking only English in the classroom – if any student is overheard talking in her mother-tongue, she has to wear a necklace made of cow bones!” The girls laughed from their seats, hiding their heads in each others’ sweaters.  When they first started at this school, almost all of the students spoke no English; only a few months in, they understand all that Luna and I say to them, and can reply quickly with annunciation better than most Americans.

Proud mothers
Proud mothers
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Students watching the assembly
Students watching the assembly
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Parents and children - all are students
Parents and children - all are students
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Some parents stood up and spoke passionately about the importance of their daughters’ education – the fathers taking the lead.  They emphasized cleanliness and the need for new uniforms so the girls could have more confidence in themselves.  Good grades were acknowledged and higher marks were expected – said fathers and mothers, directing their eyes at the girls.  In my nearly ten weeks in Kenya, I’ve noticed that Kenyans are talented orators and talented promisers: they vow to make certain changes, and the passion of their promise sometimes outweighs the action taken.  At the end of this meeting, what I’d come to expect was not what in fact happened.

Father gives a speech at Parents Day
Father gives a speech at Parents Day
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Kakenya stood in front of the parents, expressing her gratitude for everyone’s support and for the girls’ hard work.  At the end of her talk, she mentioned that the school would be open for the holiday, unlike neighboring primary schools, and they would need donations for food during these two weeks.  And within ten minutes (okay, maybe 20), the parents had completely taken care of it.  “I can bring 5 kilos of sugar!” shouts the mother with the polka-dot cape; “I have 10 kilos of maize”, yells the father in the tan suit.  And like this, every child’s snack and lunch were accounted for.  Kakenya was impressed, and so was I.  “Wow, these parents!” She said afterwards, as we all sat on the lawn with our lunch of beans and rice. “They are really committed.  I guess I can call on them more often.”  And in just one day, she did – one of the fathers (one that I interview in the next blog, Paul Murunka) offered to travel to Kisii with us the next day (a town about 2 hours away) to handle the negotiations of ordering construction materials.  And only a few days later, one of the mothers – who has traveled very little outside of Enoosaen – volunteered to join us on the long seven-hour journey to Eldoret to collect the girls’ new uniforms.  Where there is support from parents – we all know because of lack or abundance in our own lives – a child’s chances for happiness and success increase exponentially.  It seems that Kakenya has, in her unfinished classroom of parents and children, what it takes to have a true Center for Excellence.

Kakenya addresses the parents
Kakenya addresses the parents
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

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Life on the farm and in the family


Kate Cummings | Posted August 7th, 2009 | Africa

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Life at Kakenya’s homestead has been as rich and full of learning as our time working on her projects; I feel like I’d only be telling only half the story if I didn’t mention the goats, the kitchen hut, and Kakenya’s family, who are now my own.

The small town of Enoosaen consists of one main road of single-level buildings and shacks – most of them a mix of phone charge shops and convenience stores carrying the essentials.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays the town is bustling with the local market, drawing people from neighboring villages.  On a regular day, though, the earthen streets are dotted with children playing and idle donkeys.  On the sides of the road you can often see large tarps laden with corn – the cobs litter the road, becoming part of the uneven pavement during the rains – and sometimes millet, all drying in the sun after a harvest.  The road leading to Kakenya’s house is lined with sugarcane fields, the tall lush grasses on the cane waving their soft swish swish.  There are plenty of cornfields, too, and small mud huts with thatched roofs (some with aluminum sheeting) and children sitting in the shifting shade.

The youngsters
The youngsters
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Old women sell tomatoes and sacks of corn along the road leading home, their earlobes stretched long and adorned with beaded bands, their shoulders covered by a colorful shawl patterned according to their age (red polka dots or bright pink for younger women, checkered design for elders).  And finally, after a winding walk of about 45 minutes around the mountain on the right, we arrive at the next, smaller dirt road that skirts the edges of rocky fields, trees dangling yellow orchid-like flowers, to the wooden gate of Kakenya’s house.  If you’re feeling tired, ask any motorbike in town to take you to Kakenya’s, and they’ll know.

View over the grain houses
View over the grain houses
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

The family compound’s size seems small at first.  Upon entering, you first see the main house with a tin roof, a smaller house with a thatched roof, and some rotund huts made of wicker down the hill.  But as you wind down the footpaths, you find there are other homes and smaller huts – the homes for sisters and brothers, the huts for grain.  The chicken hutch is just behind the kitchen – conveniently placed near our bedroom window where the roosters are in clear earshot.  The goats’ pen sits on the slope of the hill, past the homes, and just above it is a wooden fence that encompasses the cows – a few dozen of them.  And I haven’t even mentioned the shampa (farm): it covers a long stretch of land opposite the main house, where Kakenya’s mother grows all the corn, collards, pumpkin, potatoes and tomatoes that we eat.  The people who live on this sprawling property, are: Anne (Kakenya’s mom, or “yeiyo”), Nasiegu (Kakenya’s younger sister, about 26), Kishoyian (younger brother, about 22), Toto (the youngest sister – about 14), and Nasiegu’s children (Chesang – maybe 2, Manu – around 8, Michelle – a few months)…I think that’s everyone.  If you have trouble keeping everyone straight, you are not alone.  Nasiegu sleeps in a house near the cows, her son Manu sleeps in the kitchen hut (there’s a cozy bed by the fire), and Kishoyian has his own house (being a warrior and all) closer to the river.  Kakenya has more siblings, but they live in other parts of Kenya and one in the US.

Sheep in front of the kitchen
Sheep in front of the kitchen
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Home in the evening
Home in the evening
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Morning with the cows
Morning with the cows
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Kakenya and her clan
Kakenya and her clan
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Every morning, Yeiyo (that’s Mom) and Kakenya get up before the sun and milk the cows.  I’ve tried this; it is not easy.  All the teets are different, some are dang hard to get a grip on, and good luck getting the steady stream of warm milk to hit your jug with a satisfying fizz they way Yeiyo can.  After milking, there’s plenty more: washing dishes outside of the kitchen (there’s no running water, so fetch a bucket from the main house and fill it with one of the barrels that has river-water), cooking pumpkin and some millet porridge fresh from the farm, pick around 70-100 lbs of tomatoes before the sun comes up so they can be sold in the market – and if you want a shower, make sure you boil water over the fire and mix it with the river-water for the right temperature (take it to the cement room next to the latrines and use the bucket to pour the water over your head – it takes coordination, so don’t be discouraged on your first try if you find you still have soapy toes afterwards).   There’s always washing the floors of the main house, but that’s usually Toto’s task: she is an expert at flicking water onto the mud floor and sweeping the moisture over the cracked surface so that it dries unbroken and firm.

The regular guests
The regular guests
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Laden clothesline
Laden clothesline
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Inside the main house
Inside the main house
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

There’s no electricity in our mud houses – or in any of the houses surrounding town, but a small solar panel on the main house roof provides us with a bright light for night’s first couple hours.  There’s usually milking again in the evening (5 liters sells for a good $2 every morning, and you need more at night for plenty of chai), and there’s always the skillful rounding up of cows by the men that Yeiyo has hired.  Manu is an apt cowboy himself – running with a light switch in hand in between the lumbering cows, his galoshes slapping his shins.  The goats are his specialty, and he manages to corral them into their wooden hut with ease.

Manu
Manu
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Goat house
Goat house
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Manu the shepherd
Manu the shepherd
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

I mentioned one day that I really wanted to hold one of the kids (baby goats) and he spent the next several minutes chasing the youngest ones, finally catching a brown-spotted hind leg.  We are developing a habit now – when it is evening, and the goats are being shepherded to their house, Manu runs to me, “hold goat?” And I invariably drop what I’m doing to follow him, his form dim in the fading light, as he leads me to the shuffling pack.  I’ve learned how to catch the kids off-guard and grab the hind leg – with audible protest – and cradle the soft body in my arms.  Manu stays with me, laughing at my affection and himself coming closer over time to pet the small head and rub the long ears.  Some nights when I am talking on my phone outside, under the bright night sky, Manu runs up to me and, finding himself without much to say, stands by my side; after a few moments, he rests his head on my waist, and I put my hands on his head like he is my child.  Inside the house, the evenings are lively, everyone talking about the day’s excitement, Kakenya’s two year-old running under legs and demanding that everyone participate in another recitation of “Twinkle twinkle little star.”

Nathan's nightly bath
Nathan's nightly bath
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

The food arrives around nine, and everyone is quiet with eating.  Kakenya is usually up late with her mom, and sometimes her brother, laughing with each other and gesturing wildly at the day’s drama – how could that guy have said such a thing?  Did you hear her when she spoke to me that way?  What am I going to do about this girl’s parents?  There is no end to the engrossing conversation topics.  From the comfort of my mosquito-netted bed, I listen to the energetic rise and fall of their voices against the steady hum of the crickets outside.  After some time, Kakenya goes to sleep in the room next to Luna and I, Kishoyian to his house, and Yeiyo takes turns at the main house and her daughter’s.  The cool night air only barely reaches us through the wooden windows, but it is enough to make the covers more inviting and my sleep uninterrupted until pinholes of light stream down from the tin roof, and the roosters have decided it is time to get up.

Morning alarm clock
Morning alarm clock
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

P.S. Check out my Flickr pictures for much more, from the farm and everywhere else I’ve been.  I’m always updating it with new images!

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Meeting with the MP


Kate Cummings | Posted August 7th, 2009 | Africa

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Just after arriving in Enoosaen, we visited Mr. Gideon Konchella, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Transmara District (Kakenya’s district).  MP’s in Kenya hold enormous power – and a good number use this influence to pad their wallets and hand out favors to friends.  Mr. Konchella is different.  On the day he was visiting the town near Kakenya’s home, he had a line of men from the area waiting for a moment with him.  There must have been one hundred or more of them, pouring out of the waiting room and onto the steps of the building.  But this is not unusual; what was quite different was the preference he showed for Kakenya.  We were among only a handful of women peppered amongst the crowd, and we waited for only a few minutes before being called into the MP’s office.  Mr. Konchella, his face warm and welcoming, was eager to help Kakenya.  He has already contribute $15,000 for the construction of her school’s dormitories; during this visit, he offered for his office to manage Kakenya’s funds when she mentioned some of her money had been misappropriated during the school’s construction.

MP Gideon Konchella advice to Kakenya
MP Gideon Konchella advice to Kakenya
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Kilgoris, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

We seized on the opportunity to talk to a man in politics who actually advocates for girls education, and here’s what Mr. Konchella had to say:

Kate: Why do you think girls’ education is important in Maasai culture?

MP Mr. Konchella: It is so important because, first of all, girls have been left behind.  The process of FGM has been a terrible issue, also, because a girl has to go through this ritual before she is married.  And once the child has been schooled and then [goes through FGM], her mental attitude is now I am a woman and now I need to get married.

…The Maasai community has a very unique behavior – they do what they want to do because they’ve seen someone doing it.  If you have good cows – a good breed – everyone wants to have that breed because they will have more meat and more milk.  So when they see somebody who has a PhD, they say what?  What is a PhD?  So if she gets a job [pointing now to Kakenya], and she is articulate, then everyone wants their daughters to be like her.  So it is a very easy community to transform.  Other communities will be different.  This is a social community, where people live together…they know each other – they follow the one who is doing better.   So that is why I am encouraging education for girls – to transform the community.

K: So if women become educated, what changes will you see in Maasai culture – how will households be different, and families be different?

MP: Certain habits will not be there.  Like FGM or being careless about managing a home.  Cleanliness, health problems – and educating their own children – it is going to change…we have sent a lot of other people like her [points to Kakenya] to university in other parts of the world and out of that, they are working in the government and in the private sector… each one has put up a stone house, they have a car, and everybody says wow I want to be like them.

Luna: As a father, how did you educate your daughters – how did you encourage them to become more independent?

MP: First and foremost, I know the one who loves me even more than my wife is my daughter.  Because the daughter first and foremost thinks about the father – second, the mother [I look at Kakenya, confused.  She nods – it’s true, in Maasai, the father is who the daughter looks up to the most]…You don’t want a daughter dependent on a man who is a lousy fellow and doesn’t care because that will destroy their life.  It is very important for girls to be educated enough to decide what they want.  [If they are educated and] They get married, they can decide how many children they can have – when they are uneducated, they do not have that thing to decide.  Within 10 years, a girl married at the age of 13 or 14 – by the age of 25 she has 10 children.

K: What about the other side of the equation – if empowered women continue to be paired with men who do not take responsibility – do you see any need for actions to empower men in different ways to be more responsible towards the women they marry, and towards their families?

MP: The only way to empower a man is through education, – he has to decide his life for himself.  It’s very difficult to tell these fellows what to do.  When an educated girl reaches a level like her [points to Kakenya], you can’t mess with her – it is difficult to mess around with her.  That’s why our [educated] daughters end up marrying people from other communities – white people or other African[s] outside their clan.

Then, they take away all their knowledge to another community.  So it seems kind of pointless to educate her and then she goes away to America forever [Kakenya interjects, “I’m not going away to America forever!” laughing]. So there are good and bad about it.  Good because she’s better as a human being – a person – bad because the community will lose her in terms of support.
——-

Member of Parliament Mr. Konchella and Kakenya
Member of Parliament Mr. Konchella and Kakenya
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Kilgoris, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

The MP’s daughters are successful university students and professionals; it is clear he has prioritized their education regardless of gender.  And, in addition to his unusual and commendable support of girls education and women’s rights, I detected the line of patriarchy in some of his responses.  His notions of how a woman’s education level would affect her household – she would keep a cleaner house, have healthy, educated children; but where is the mention of her own life?  Her career choices?  He mentions only that she would be more discerning in choosing a husband and having a say in how many children she birthed.  In reference to Kakenya, he regards her acquisition of a car and a house in America as evidence of her success.  But I hesitate to draw much attention to these comments; Mr. Konchella is helping Kakenya, his own daughters, and many other girls who benefit from the schools he is helping to build.  Isn’t that enough?  [This is a real question]

I found the eloquent MP less prepared for my question regarding the responsibilities of men.  He seemed convinced that women’s choices could be transformed by education, but Maasai men – they are an immovable force.  And, in the end, he seemed to imply the lack of acceptance some men demonstrate towards women is not the issue.  And Mr. Konchella isn’t to be singled out for this: it is the predominant opinion of most men I’ve met in Kenya.  Mr. Konchella’s resolution to my question was that these educated women just marry men outside of their tribe; but is change going to continue in the community if women can only find men who respect their empowerment outside of the Maasai?

This is where I continue to get stuck when I see girls and women’s empowerment programs that are thriving.  I wonder, how are the boys doing, the husbands?  Are they recognizing women as equals, as capable of earning a living or making important family decisions?  The answer is complicated.  For instance, some of Kakenya’s most committed and trustworthy supporters in Kenya are men.  At the same time, the majority of Kenyan women I meet have struggled enormously with gender discrimination from the men at work and at home.  I hold to the notion that, without men’s willingness to accept women as competent peers, girls education will only afford a girl a better future if her father, brother, or pre-selected husband says so.

Gathering firewood
Gathering firewood
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Kilgoris, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

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This can’t happen again, and it will


Kate Cummings | Posted August 5th, 2009 | Africa

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Kakenya got off the phone, shaking her head.  “Some bad news today.”  She stood up, then sat down again.  “One of the girls from my school – her teachers say she has been sitting in class with a blank stare, she jumps suddenly sometimes, closes her body up.  They think she’s been raped.”  How old?  I asked.  “Maybe nine.”  Who did it?  “They think it was a relative. “ What?  “Yeah,” Kakenya looks down, frowning.  “She was visiting her mother’s relatives in another area – they think it happened then.  Maybe an uncle.”  Kakenya looked up quickly, her braids flying back.  “I want to know that man so I can beat him myself.”

The next day we were in the yard, some chickens around our feet and freshly picked tomatoes piled nearby.  Kakenya started yelling to a voice behind the fence – come!  There was a yelp and then a girl, bright and running, appeared in the dirt drive.  “This is the girl – she lives just next door,” Kakenya said.  The girl leapt over stones, lithe and tall, her head shaved and her school uniform hanging loose on her frame as she moved without stopping into Kakenya, burying her face and laughter in her dress.  With both hands on the child’s head, Kakenya spoke softly, smiling down at the girl’s crown.  “How is school?  You’ve been working hard?”  The girl nodded with head tilted sideways, her eyes lit up.  Her embarrassment increased by the moment, so much attention, and she returned her face to Kakenya’s stomach.  “Have you been sick?”  Kakenya tapped the girl’s chin.  The girl shook her head.  “Because I hear you missed some school – you were not sick?”  The girl is quiet, her head movements less noticeable.  “We will talk, just you and me.  Come on Saturday?”  The girl looks up – yes, her head nods.

Young girls of Enoosaen
Young girls of Enoosaen
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

“I don’t know how to counsel a girl about this.”  Kakenya was sitting in the living room, elbows resting on her knees.  Since the girl’s visit, she had been noticeably distracted. “What if she cries?”  I think that would be good – I said.  That Saturday, during the purple in-between time of sunset and nightfall, the girl came back.  She was quieter.  The two of them retreated to one of the grassy hillocks near the edge of the farm.  Kakenya asked the girl to tell her what she remembered and, resting her body against Kakenya’s, she started slowly:

It was daytime.  I was alone in the house.  An older man, he touched me.  When I see men now, I think they are coming to get me.  They will do the same thing.  Sometimes when I am in class, I remember, and my body gets so tight.  I couldn’t see for two days [she went blind from the trauma].  I hear a ringing in my ears that lasts the whole day.

Kakenya could feel the girl’s heart beating rapidly, the muscles of her jaw, arms, thighs like taut rope.  She gave the girl a diary for writing.  “Whenever I am not here, write down what you want to say.”

I saw her the next day in school.  We came to visit the students, and play a few games.  I taught them a song, and watched the girl as she bumped shoulders with her classmates, eagerly mimicking my hand motions and tones just like them.  We repeated the melody, molding our hands into flowers, mountains – and in between the mountains and the hills, the girl dropped her hands, an almost imperceptible cloud covering her eyes.  She bowed her head, and passively moved her body out of the crush of students.

There is no healing ceremony for rape in the Maasai tribe, despite how often it occurs. What is present and too common is women and men’s reaction: “This is the girl’s fault”.  To hear rumor of this response sets fire to the disbelieving heart.  But to put your hands on the head of a nine year-old child, to see her eyes still remarkably bright, and to know that she is the one that mothers, brothers, fathers are blaming for a grown man’s brutality – this is enough to break even the observer.  I, like Kakenya, want to beat this man.  I want my anger to become a swarming force of violence that surrounds him in his home and tears apart any piece of him he thought was good.  And then I want her to know, this small girl, that she is perfect again.

School girls
School girls
Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

One Response to “This can’t happen again, and it will”

  1. Barbara Dziedzic says:

    This is so powerful, Kate. And told with such tenderness for her and righteous indignation for him. I’m glad you’re there to tell the story.

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Fellow: Kate Cummings

Vital Voices in Kenya


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