I grew up in a small Maasai village in Kenya. My father had two wives. I have eight sisters and five brothers. As a young girl, growing up in such a big family wasn’t easy, especially given that my father didn’t have a lot of wealth to educate all his 15 children. Girls lost out as educating boys was, and still is, more important than educating girls.
Subsistence farming was the sole source of income for my family. Despite long hours in the farm, infrequent rains and occasional draughts led to loss of livestock and poor farm produce. I vividly remember the many days we went to bed on empty stomachs. These incidences upset me greatly, but also inspired me to work hard in school to change our future.
Being a woman, my mother would not own property. She sold illegal brew to make ends meet. The police visited us often taking away the little cash she made. We made do with old clothes with exception of occasional new second hand purchases or the ‘hand me downs’ from our rich cousins. I got my first pair of shoes aged fourteen.
Mother encouraged me to study hard as this was the only way out of poverty. On trips to the river, she would say “I want you to work hard in school so that you don’t have to do this all your life. Education will help you buy me a water tank so we don’t have to walk all day for water”. A few years back, my mother cried with joy when I had a water tank installed at home. I remember her saying, “I can see you listen my child and you never forgot what I told you. Look at my feet, they are no longer as strong as they used to be. God bless you my child”.
I lost several years of my education as my mother couldn’t afford to pay my school fees when I was thrown out of school. During such times, I helped my parents and worked as a labourer in local farms for money. I was constantly coaxed to get married. I remember this old man who used to bring me presents. He argued that I was wasting my time at home seeking school fees, as other girls my age were already married. I told him I could listen to him if he paid my school fees (£10). He declined and I asked him never to talk to me again. I was castigated for “begging for education”. The thought of being married off aged fourteen gave me sleepless nights. I avoided anyone who mentioned marriage to me.
Mother’s attempts to fundraise for my fees were met with hostility as it would bring shame to the family. As a teenage girl, I was not allowed to speak directly to my father. I could not question his decision not to sell livestock or land to educate me, while he did it for my brothers. Long days spent as a labourer while other kids went to school infuriated me. I could not understand how being a girl meant l was to be treated differently. I became dejected and felt suicidal. I sought ways to approach my father by writing this poem in Maasai:
TAKE ME TO SCHOOL FATHER
Take me to school father
So I may be like Elizabeth
Who drives the red car
And who is always happy
For was she not a girl like me?
Take me to school dad
So I may not be like Naserian
Who has now five children
Strands of wire covered by skin
Is what they have for bodies
Skinny, scrawny, skimpy
With teary eyes they gaze
Despairingly at their mother
Who has naught to offer.
Take me to school father
For those children haunt me
Will I end up like Naserian?
Whose husband whips her daily?
For is she not his sixth sheep?
And by the way
A present from a grateful age mate
Why was I born a girl?
To become a symbol of gratitude?
Take me to school father
You tell me I will deviate
And I shame you with bad manners
Is rejecting an old man bad manner?
Is declining initiation bad manners?
Is planning my family bad manners?
Is dressing smartly bad manners?
Is being a girl child bad manners?
Take me to school now
For the symbol of labour
The symbol of pleasure
The symbol of gratitude
The girl child is mouse no more
She is a tiger ready to fight for rights.
He was extremely moved. We hugged and both broke into tears. This was the first time I ever saw my father cry. He sold his favourite bull and took me back to school.
He promised to get me the best education ever. Unfortunately, he passed away a few months later. The poem led me to make a commitment to myself, that my education was my own responsibility.
I sought scholarships for my secondary school. Despite losing two years seeking funds for university in Kenya, I was finally admitted for a four years course. During my second year, I got a scholarship to the UK where upon receiving a second scholarship I graduated with a first class honours in 2011. After working as a programme Coordinator for African programmes for three years, I got a scholarship to take an MBA at Nottingham Trent University in March 2014. I hope to start my PhD on Gender and Discrimination in 2017. I currently finance my brothers, nieces and nephews education.
One evening, when I was 11, my mother told me that I was to become a woman. The following morning, Female Genital Mutilation was performed on me. I went through unbearable and unforgettable pain and agony. The night before, I had thought of running away. But I didn’t know where to go or if I would ever face my family again. I would bring shame upon my family whom I loved so much. I would be a nobody among my people. Moreover, I had been told that was the only way to be clean, mature and marriageable. How would I ever get a husband if I ran away? I would always be dirty and the ugly coward no man would want to marry. So I stayed.
Over 15 years passed before I could stand any conversation about FGM. It was too upsetting. The turning point came when I realised my nieces were about to be subjected to FGM. To save them, I had to speak up. I started with my own family. I would cry on the phone begging them not to cut the girls focusing more on the impact it has on girls and women. I succeeded. My family made a commitment never to cut any other girls. They have been raising awareness in Kenya and beyond.
Unlike my brothers, I did not inherit anything from my father when he passed on. I ask myself “Is it that terrible being a girl that I cannot inherit a thing from my father’s 74 years of hard work?” It is sad this is happening to millions of girls globally. I am active in supporting equal inheritance for men and women.
I strongly believe what Michelle Obama said recently, that living without privilege makes you stronger. Even though some of my experiences affected me significantly, none of these challenges crashed me. I always found a way of coming back stronger because I always believed I could make a difference.
In March 2014, with no money and on a full time MBA, I registered the Mojatu Foundation, a charity dedicated to giving a voice to the vulnerable in the society. It focuses on Education, Training, Health, Gender equality and Community media. It works mainly with girls and women. The work we do has been part of my recovery from past painful experiences. Supporting and empowering girls and women to be the change they want to see has been my greatest source of joy. I never imagined I could be running a global charity, a media company and speaking about issues affecting girls and women. My experiences inspired me to empower others.
The challenges I faced gave me strength to rebuild my life beyond my scars and pain. Surviving my deepest wounds acted as the building blocks for a stronger me,beyond my understanding. I overcame the pressure to take my life. Yes I have lived in poverty, fought for my education, went through FGM, escaped child marriage and inherited nothing from my father. But I have built on that rugged past a shining future. Education gave me a voice. I give hope to others in similar situations for when they discover that spark inside themselves, they will light the world and shine a ray of hope to others. Use your experiences to the advantage of others because we women can actually make a difference!
Valentine Resiato Nkoyo
(Conference Bratislava,October 2016)