Every once in a while, you meet someone who completely blows your mind. This happened to me on my trip to Kenya, when I visited the Enkiteng Lepa Community School and met Hellen Nkurayia.
Hellen is a tiny, round woman with a huge smile, an infectious laugh and the traditional dress and shaved head of the Maasai. She came bounding out of her office to greet us, and gestured towards the school building, which is painted a bright lavender. “You have seen our cows?” she inquired. “They are all colors! Brown, black, white, gray…many colors! But have you ever seen a purple cow? No, you have not! Well – this is our purple cow!” And she laughed her bubbly laugh. “Our cows are everything – and this school and the education we give to our children – is valuable as cows. So we call it the Cow School.”
“Enkiteng Lepa” literally means “Cow School.” Not a school for cows, of course, but an attempt to teach the people that giving your daughter an education is far more valuable than trading her at a young age for two or three cows. (“Because the cows may die the next year, and then you have nothing – no daughter, no cows! But an education can never be taken away! So I tell them – educate your daughter! Do not marry her off for a few cows!”)
The school motto: “Shule yetu, nguyu yetu” means “Our school, our strength” in Swahili.
We visited a kindergarten classroom, which had its own little garden plot.
Hellen brought us into a bright and cheerful classroom, where 37 girls are taught. These girls are aged about 7 – 11, and are all boarding students, which means they have been rescued from the prospect of early marriage and FGM (female genital mutilation.) They live at the school until they are educated and old enough to make their own choices. Then they are reconciled with their families. Hellen is fiercely protective of her girls and keeps them safe and secure from anyone who might come into the compound. There have been incidences of girls being “snatched” from the school.
The girls were all very cheerful and respectful, even though they giggled a bit at my bright white hair. In Maasai culture, women and men both shave their heads…and gray or white hair is highly unusual, as are white people in western dress. Hellen told me that once, after a visit by some mzungu (white) people from a sponsoring organization, the girls had decided amongst themselves that “mzungu men had breasts.” She could not understand why the girls had made this conclusion, until she realized that the women in the sponsor group had all been wearing trousers. In the girls’ way of thinking, it was more likely that these were men with breasts, than a woman would wear such an outfit!
The girls sang and danced for me and recited poetry and later on, I taught them a song with sign language. I was thrilled a couple of days later when I saw Hellen again and she told me that they were still singing that song and doing the signs!
Hellen showed us the weekly schedule for the pre-school and the primary school. It included maths, science, social studies, English and Swahili and also a class called “CRE.” This is “Christian Religious Instruction” and is required by the Kenyan government. Hellen shrugged as she told me that she was not a Christian, and neither were any of the children, but in order to pass the government exam, the children had to know about this religion and so, she taught it to them. However, all the government supplied materials had illustrations of a decidedly white Jesus and a white mother Mary and the children would challenge her as she taught. “They ask me why they should pray and worship a mzungu man?” Hellen said, with a laugh. I suggested she give them a brown crayon to color the faces in the pictures.
Later, we were shown the kitchen and dining room where the children ate. Hellen said that several local churches wanted to come and instruct the children, but she refused them. “Religion here in Kenya is big business,” she told me. “The ministers who come ask the children for money, and want them to spend their Sundays sitting in church. But not one church has sponsored a child who needs it.” She grinned at the children, who were sitting at the table. “Pretend you are getting ready to eat,” she said. The children bowed their heads and parroted a grace that they had obviously been taught by rote. “See?” said Hellen. “That is what the ministers want them to do. But we are Maasai. We believe God created everything, and that we are all part of God. And we believe that every one of us has a star in the heavens with our name on it.”
I told her that it sounded like a good belief system to me and I saw no reason why she should change it.
I also told her that I wanted to sponsor a girl. For an entire year, the cost is $600. $50 dollars a month…
In addition to the boarding students, the school also has day students and classes for teenagers and adults in the evening. One of the projects is teaching young women to sew, so that they can sell their products and make a living. Hellen showed me the sewing room, where there were about a dozen sturdy Singer machines…the kind with a treadle you work with the foot, as electricity is scarce. Colorful shopping bags and backpacks hung on the walls, as examples of the wares being made and Hellen told me that the students were now learning how to make school uniforms, since every school in Kenya requires them. (Her school is one of the few schools where the students are allowed to wear their native Maasai dress.)
“This is our latest project,” Hellen said, showing me a packet of three objects. “Do you know what they are?” I examined what she showed me…and they did look somewhat familiar. There were three oblongs, made of a thick, soft material, with a lining of plastic and a velcro attachment. Hellen laughed and said, “These are reusable sanitary pads!”
She then went on to explain that about three or four months after she first started the school, some of the women came to her and asked her why she never menstruated. In the very remote and rural world of the Maasai, (as well as other poor areas) when a woman has her period, she needs to stop everything and spend her time sitting – usually over a hole dug into the ground or on some sort of bucket. So most women are unable to go about their daily tasks for at least five or six days every month…and here Hellen barely ever even sat down!
How else could a woman cope? Disposable “feminine supplies” were much too expensive and besides, there was no way to obtain them and no good way to dispose of them. So, Hellen acquired a pattern for a simple, reusable product, bought the fabric and set about making them in sets of three. “We have bright sun here,” she said. “So I tell the women – after the first one is used, you wash it and set it to dry in the sun, and by the time you need it again, it will be dry enough for you to use!”
I saw Hellen again after our trek across the Loita Plains…at the second Widow’s Village. Using land again donated by Salaton, the widows here have created an oasis in the midst of the plains and Hellen decorated it with various artifacts from Maasai culture – old leather bags, horns originally used to carry water or milk, jewelry that the widows didn’t think was “good enough” to sell. Most of the other Maasai find this very odd – theirs is a semi-nomadic culture and using broken and cast-off items as “art” does not make sense to them. But Hellen convinced them that the “mzungu tourists” would like it…and this mzungu definitely did!
I heard more of Hellen’s story over a bottle of wine she had somehow procured. She was going to be forced to marry at age 11, but ran away and was helped “by a Roman Catholic nun” she told me, crossing herself rather incongruously. “So now, I try to give back.” she said, quietly. She has never had any children of her own (despite taking part in a lengthy “fertility ritual” where she had to take a 3-month leave of absence from her job as a government head teacher!) but she has an adopted son. Working with Salaton, she has traveled to places such as San Francisco and New York City to speak about her projects and her people. (Since Maasai keep no birth records, it took her over a year to get a passport, as a birth certificate had to be created for her!) She is fierce and dedicated and determined to teach her students to “hold your culture in one hand and your education in the other!”
If you would like to read more about the school and the widows projects…and donate to an extremely worthwhile project, please visit the website HERE.
(This picture is from the Facebook page of the Make It Real Foundation.)