The Maasai sisterhood of education
It’s as if they speak with one voice, the young Maasai women who have escaped being sold into marriage—at least for now—to pursue an education.
Tanzanian law says it’s illegal to marry off young girls who have a chance to go to school.
“When I was at home I was not at peace because my father could take me to my husband at any time,” says Nashipay Lomayani (16) when we meet in the northern city of Arusha.
Lomayani had just finished primary school when her father said she must get married to an older man, as is traditional in Maasai culture. So she ran away, back to her primary school’s head teacher, who protected Lomayani when her father tried to take her home by force.
As Lomayani had not passed her final exam, however, no government secondary school would accept her. So her mother travelled, in secret, to Arusha and sought help from Emusoi, a centre helping young Maasai women get an education.
Emusoi helps pastoralist girls with remedial classes so they can pass entrance exams into secondary schools—private schools for those who didn’t pass the final primary-school exam.
The centre also raises funds to pay for school fees, uniforms, books and other essentials. It gives the girls a home while they are in pre-secondary school and, for those in boarding schools, during their holidays.
“I wanted to study to take my mother away from her problems,” says Lomayani when we visit her home village of Ngereyani in the Longido district near the Kenyan border.
“My mother has no voice in the family. That means she cannot decide on her own — she cannot own property. My father is usually beating my mother,” she says, adding that she was also beaten by her father when he wanted to force her to get married.
But Lomayani’s mother, Veronica Lomayani (50), is no shrinking violet. When her husband raises the issue of Nashipay’s arranged marriage so that he can finally claim his cows—the bride price—Veronica outwits him. He is illiterate, but Veronica has four years of primary-school education. So she waves a letter under her husband’s nose, saying it is from the government ordering him to let Nashipay stay in school if he wants to stay out of jail.
Build it and they will come
Sub-Saharan Africa is the home of more than half of the 69-million children in the world who do not go to school.
But Tanzania is one of the countries in the region that is in some ways ahead of the curve in the race to achieve one of the millennium development goals of universal access to education by 2015.
More than 95% of school-age children attend primary school in Tanzania, with 67.8% of children aged seven years enrolled in the first year of primary education, according to data from 2010 for the country’s education ministry.
Tanzania was able to increase enrolment figures dramatically by abolishing primary-school fees. But the huge increase in the number of pupils created new challenges, such as a desperate shortage of teachers and classrooms, the United Nations reported during a summit on the goals in September 2010.
To address the problem, Tanzania embarked on an ambitious programme of education reform, building 54000 classrooms between 2002 and 2006, as well as hiring 18000 additional teachers.
However, since 2006 Tanzania’s aim has been to ensure that every pupil who passes primary school goes to secondary school, says Raymond Mapunda, the education officer for the Arusha region. The area is home to many pastoralist communities, including many of the country’s Maasai people.
The secondary-school idea was a bit of an afterthought, says Mapunda. “We managed at least to enrol the majority of primary schoolchildren,” he says. “Then after completion of that programme, we thought: ‘So where are we going to send these children?’
“If we leave them without anything, we are going to create chaos in our country. So we have to find them somewhere so that they can learn and make them produce for themselves.”
Although the government is making big strides towards its ambitious plans of building new schools and educating teachers, there is still a lot to do. “It will take a long time. Maybe in 10 to 15 years we will be comfortable. For the time being it’s very difficult. The programme was so big, so big,” says Mapunda.
In the Arusha region alone there is a shortage of 3250 teachers and 720 classrooms. And a survey recently conducted by Tanzania’s Daily News on Saturday in one of the districts of the Tanga region found that “generally all the schools visited did not have chemistry, physics, biology and English teachers. [And] pupils shared text books at the ratio of 1:7.”
In the Arusha region the primary school enrolment rate for different districts ranges between 87% and 97%, says Mapunda. “Especially in the pastoralist areas, it’s very difficult to reach 100% because of the difficult situation of finding [the pupils] because they are always mobile with their parents,” he says. Pupils often drop out for the same reason.
To combat the problem of children dropping out of school because of poverty and their parents’ migration, Tanzania is establishing boarding schools at primary level. And it has teamed up with the World Food Programme to feed schoolchildren, Mapunda says.
The primary-school completion rate for the Arusha region is a little more than 80%. In sub-Saharan Africa, in general, more than 30% of primary-school pupils drop out before finishing the final grade.
A daughter in school = pension scheme?
In another small Maasai village, a little further north, called Engikaret, the father of Neema Laurent (18) also wanted to marry off his daughter when she was younger. But now he’s letting her carry on with her studies. He figures it might be lucrative, like a pension scheme.
“It’s important for Neema to get an education, so she can help us,” says Laurent Lesingo. “When Neema gets a job, she must help us because we are normally dependent on cattle, but there was a drought and many of the cows died.”
Neema recently passed her secondary-school exam and is applying for a place in nursing school. No one from her village has ever been a nurse and she’d like to come back to help her people. She says she enjoyed studying science at secondary school, as well as biology, chemistry and physics. “We used to mix chemicals and we used to test the different salts, and we used to go to the laboratory to look inside the human body.”
Neema’s mother Maserian Lesingo is grateful for the help with Neema’s education. “I am happy and thankful that Neema is at Emusoi,” she says, as we sit inside her small, dark Maasai hut. “When she gets an education, she will be different from us. ... I can’t even make decisions for the family. I have no voice at all in the family. Only the husband can decide.
“All these problems, like poverty, exist because we don’t have an education. But if Neema gets an education, she can decide for herself and not be forced to do anything.”
Less than 200m away is the hut where Neema’s 13-year-old half-sister, Theresia Lesingo, grew up. Her mother is the second wife of Laurent Lesingo.
When we visit Theresia’s homestead together, her mother is not at home. But we meet Theresia’s 20-year-old sister, Sindei Lesingo, carrying her child on her back.
She has just run away from her husband because he beats her. “I would love to go to school,” she says, but adds it’s not possible because she expects her husband will come to fetch her again at any time.
Theresia says her mother was receptive to the idea of her younger daughter getting an education because she saw the benefits of Neema and her brother going to school.
Theresia found out that she had been accepted by Emusoi in January. She rushed there, even though she had just been circumcised and lost a lot of blood. Circumcision of girls is still widespread among those still living a traditional Maasai life.
Theresia says that she wants to become like other Maasai girls who went to school. “When Maasai girls get an education, they take their mothers away from what they are facing,” she says. “In the beginning my father also used to beat my mother. But now he is old, so he doesn’t beat her anymore.
“My mother goes to the forest to prepare some charcoal and sometimes it endangers her life because she has no experience in preparing charcoal and sometimes she can be hurt by snakes and other animals,” says Theresia. “And sometimes she is destroying the forest. So if she is caught, she can be arrested.”
Teika Simango (27), who now has a law degree, already had a strong sense of justice when she was a teenager. “I wanted to know my rights as a woman and I was also seeing so many infringements on peoples’ rights, especially women. So I wanted to know how to protect myself and my community as well.”
She says the way the mother of her best friend was treated by her husband and six other wives made an especially big impression on her. The woman had “only” given birth to five daughters, who had already been married off, so the husband forced her to leave. She could not take the cattle with her.
“The husband said, ‘you must go’, simply because she didn’t have a boy to inherit the property, so the woman left and the remaining women divided the property of that woman among themselves,” says Simango. “I felt bad when I saw that situation. If that woman would have known where to go to claim her rights, she would have won the battle.
“I chose law because in our culture—Maasai—in our places, people are ignorant of their rights, for example land rights, property rights, in general, and if you have a problem, you don’t know where to start,” she says. “Now, whenever they need my help, I can help defend them.”
Simango was one of the first young Maasai women to be helped by Sister Mary Vertucci, who founded Emusoi. Simango is so grateful for her education that she is now back working at the centre. She is married to a “modern” Maasai man—of her own choosing—lives on the premises of Emusoi, and works as a resident caregiver for the young women.
“I felt that I had to work here for a while and then go back to my field. I feel that the work here is crucial,” she says. “It touches me a lot. When I see what Sister Mary has done for our community, I see an angel sent to the Maasai ... She has changed lives. She has changed the community.”
Sister Mary, a member of the United States-based Catholic mission movement Maryknoll, started Emusoi in 1999 in response to the lack of educational opportunities for girls in pastoralist and hunter-gatherer communities.
“Sister Mary worked in different places in this country. And I think she realised that pastoralist communities, especially Maasai, were behind,” says Simango. “If you go to these areas, you hardly find anyone who is educated—especially girls.”
Simango’s father was a primary school teacher and very supportive of her getting an education, but her grandfather wasn’t. “My grandfather wanted my dad to drop me from [primary] school and wanted to give me away to someone in the village for a bride price,” she says.
“Because I’m the first-born, he would be the one to receive my bride price—my grandfather, not my father—in our tradition.”
Simango’s dad managed to convince his father to let her finish primary school before marrying her off. And when she finished, he arranged with a Maasai priest he knew to tell the grandfather he must also let Simango go to Arusha, where Sister Mary had promised to sponsor her education. Otherwise, the priest told the grandfather, the government would come after him.
That prolonged Simango’s respite from forced marriage for another few years. Three years later her grandfather was dead.
Education not contrary to Maasai culture
James Millya, the district commissioner for Longido, and a Maasai himself, often sets parents straight if they prevent their children from going to school.
“To the pastoralists, if there is no reinforcement of education they always think that a girl is there to be married. And the parents get a dowry out of her marrying,” he says. “They think they are products that can be sold and, in that selling, they get cows or money out of it.
“And this is one of the biggest problems we are getting ... But we are trying to solve it. Especially when we get very specific cases, we try to attack them, so that people get that the government wants everyone to get an education—especially the girls,” he says.
Millya had to fight hard to get his own education. In pastoralist communities even boys have been kept away from school to be close to the family and carry out herding duties.
His parents tried to get a witch- doctor to cast a spell to keep him from going to school, as was common practice in the past. But education is not contrary to Maasai culture and things are changing for the better, the commissioner says.
“Education in our areas is taking a big pace because we have come to understand that ... the key goal to a good life is education. If there is no education, you cannot fight against the challenges of globalisation ... you cannot fight against climate change and you cannot be a very good pastoralist if you have no education.
“Because it’s through education that you learn that you should take care of livestock in consideration to the land, which you are using for pastoralism or you are using for grazing,” says the commissioner.
‘On the cusp of a revolution’
Sister Mary, who acts and looks nothing like the stereotypical idea of a nun, has seen a dramatic rise in young Maasai girls going to school.
“When we started Emusoi, the opportunities for education were not that many ... There were not that many schools where girls could go. Now, within 10 years, there is a big change. There are schools and many of the girls pass to go to the schools,” she says. “But still the problem is will anyone help them or will anyone pay for them to go to the schools?
“There is still a lot that needs to be done to bridge [the gap] between the girls in the village and the schools,” says this non-habit-wearing sister, who is working on doing just that.
Sister Mary, whose warm and bubbly laughter never seems very far away, has created a hostel with classrooms where young Maasai girls are free to be themselves and to play like children again.
In the beginning about 10 pastoralist girls would finish secondary school each year with the help of Emusoi, but that number has now reached more than 100.
“That’s a powerful number,” says the Emusoi director. “I have a sense of a kind of critical mass coming from the number of girls that we started with.”
Of the 105 Emusoi girls who finished secondary school last year, many will go on to university or teacher-training colleges. And some of those who didn’t pass will be helped to get some kind of vocational training.
“But still those girls who even have a secondary education, and they got zero, when they go home and they get married, they are going to be, I think, a force for good,” says Sister Mary. “I’m thinking of the mother of Nashipay. I mean, she went up to grade four, but you can see a difference in her because of that bit of education.
“It’s almost like you are on the cusp of a revolution that is going to be happening and taking place in the villages, as these girls really go home — because they’ve been changed and you know that they are going to be a change for the next generation.”
This feature was produced in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust. For more visit African8.mg.co.za