Fifty-seven-year-old Loice Olobiis wishes for a different kind of life.
The resident of Oldonyonyokie village in Magadi Ward, Kajiado County, was married off at a young age – soon after undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM). She officially became wife and went on to deliver six children.
Her work remained herding and taking care of the children.
Now, all the cattle have died due to drought.
“We sleep hungry most of the time unless there is some food donation. My children are not in school because we cannot afford to educate them,” she says through a translator, as she cannot speak Swahili or English.
“I could have been a doctor had I gone to school and none of my children could miss school.”
Ms Olobiis is from Maasai, a pastoralist community in the semi-arid region in south Kenya. Here, FGM prevalence stands at 78 per cent, nearly fourfold the national prevalence, 21 per cent.
FGM is a deep rooted cultural practice and men’s, the custodians of the customs, active participation in advocating against the vice significantly contributes to saving the girls from the cut and keeping them in school.
Meanwhile, 34-year-old Jennifer Mandala’s experience is not any different.
She struggles to speak the little Swahili, learnt from her regular social interactions. She can neither write nor read an English word.
She is drying her 10-year-old girl’s hair inside a hot iron sheet salon in the village, instructing her in the local dialect, Maasai, how to position her head.
She was 15 years old when she was cut and later married off. Her parents had not enrolled her in any school. Instead, she spent her childhood herding the family’s cattle.
“During our time, FGM was so common and it was unimaginable for any girl to refuse the cut,” says the mother of four-three girls and one boy, through a translator.
She would carry her breastfeeding babies along to her herding errands, a task she describes as physically and emotionally draining.
My life would have been different had I gone to school, says Ms Mandala who is sad she cannot access information that will help her improve her life on her own.
“I see girls who have gone to school doing big things. I wish that was me,” she says.
She would have been a teacher of English had she gone to school, she says.
Her husband allowed her to seek a means of income after being enlightened on the importance of women’s economic empowerment in eliminating household poverty.
She started working at the salon eight months ago, but cannot do any other work apart from blow drying, a role she learnt through apprentice, courtesy of her 22-year-old employer, Josephine Sumaili.
“I want to do many other things that a salon offers, but I don’t even know how to read, so I only depend on others to learn,” says Ms Mandala who is enthusiastic about becoming financially independent to support her husband and raise their children.
Three of her children are in school, and the lastborn is a year old. She says none of her daughters will undergo FGM and they will do their best to educate them.
Unlike Ms Mandala, Ms Sumaili was not subjected to FGM. She says her father had been exposed to the dangers of FGM through sensitisation campaigns in the village. He, therefore, sent her to school, seeing her through a diploma in cosmetology.
Equipped with skills, she opened the salon in January this year, giving Ms Mandala an opportunity to earn an income and escape from dependence on her husband.
This is the only salon in this village and although the business has not picked up, Ms Sumaili is optimistic it will eventually grow to employ more girls in her neighbourhood. For now, only the two run the salon, attending to the three or four clients who trickle in daily.
“I look at my age mates who were married off at an early age after undergoing FGM, and feel sad for them,” she says as she points to a herd of sheep that she could be watching over as a housewife had she been subjected to child marriage.
“They look old. Many of them have four children and they do the hard work of herding cattle,” she adds.
Kenya is making strides in ending FGM. In the next generation, there will be less of Ms Olobiis and Ms Mandala’s stories and more of Ms Sumaili’s.
At the national level, President Uhuru Kenyatta has pledged to end the harmful cultural practice by 2022, mobilising his administration to action.
On the ground, local anti-FGM campaigners are heightening their advocacy to change the society by stopping the cut and keeping girls in school.
Mr Patel Kimnyak, is one of the 24 morans in Kajiado County campaigning against FGM.
Under their group, Meguarra Morans (includes nine morans and 15 girls and young women) the members aged 15 to 28 years use chants, plays, folk and traditional songs to sensitise their community to stop child marriages and FGM. They also encourage families to enrol their daughters in school at the age of four, the legal age for starting school in Kenya.
“I am happy our advocacy through art is impactful. Now, morans are leading the fight against FGM and promoting girl-child education,” he says.
“They are saying, ‘Don’t cut the girls. Let them go to school’. We will marry them when they have finished their studies,” says Mr Kimnyak, adding that the morans are dropping nomadic pastoralism for education.
They perform at every available opportunity in public meetings including sensitisation forums and meetings hosted by chiefs.
Last July, they participated in the Moran Festival in Oldonyonyokie, which attracted more than 300 locals. The first was held in 2017 in Magadi town, in the same county.
The performances on FGM left the men in attendance in tears, he says.
“We cannot develop as a community and as a nation if the girls fail to go to school and complete their university or college education,” he reckons.
Jeremiah Kutanya, Executive Director of Pastoral Integrated Concerns, the organisation with the go on the Moran Festival, says enrolment and retention of girls has improved in Kajiado West Sub-county.
“From our 2018 to 2021 assessment of the impact of our anti-FGM campaigns in Kajiado West, school enrolment has improved by 17 per cent for boys and over 30 per cent for girls,” he says.
“Our campaigns involve morans championing for children’s rights, to education and girl-child rights,” he adds.
Mr Kutanya also acknowledges the significant role of other stakeholders including the national and county government, Anti-FGM Board, reformed cutters and teachers, in enhancing girls’ access to education.
In their analysis, he says, they found out that school dropout has reduced by 40 per cent for the boys and 29 per cent for the girls.
Oldonyonyokie Primary School head teacher Patrick Sayianka can attest to this change.
In 2001, there were 134 girls and 203 boys in the school. In 2019, the numbers increased to 191 for the girls but dropped to 164 for the boys in 2019.
Mr Sayianka says poverty contributes to the boys abandoning classrooms for herding jobs in nearby villages.
Through collaboration with the local administration, he says they succeed to trace some and bring them back to school, while others refuse to resume learning on grounds that life at home is unbearable.
In 2020, when Covid-19 hit Kenya leading to a nine-month closure of schools, a period during which girls were exposed to perpetrators of gender-based violence, their enrolment dropped.
A total of 184 girls resumed learning against 179 boys.
Data from Ministry of Health information system indicates that more than 328,000 girls got pregnant in the first year of the pandemic.
Further, a study by the Presidential Policy and Strategic Unit, which investigated the impact of Covid-19 on adolescents in Kisumu, Nairobi, Wajir and Kilifi counties between June and August, 2020 and February, this year, established that 250,000 girls and 125,000 boys had not resumed learning when schools reopened.
Of these were more than 100,000 girls aged 15-19 years, who had to drop out after getting pregnant or being married off. The study found out that the boys primarily failed to return to school either because they lacked school fees or opted for job opportunities.
To provide an enabling environment for girls in Oldonyonyokie to complete their primary school studies, the head teacher established a dormitory through the support of well-wishers and ex-pupils.
Established in 2012, the dormitory accommodates 64 girls at any given time.
“The dormitory is open to any girl in Class Five to Class Eight, but we give priority to those at risk of dropping out due to early marriages or teen pregnancy,” he says.
“Even if it’s full and I get a rescue case, I will admit her. She’d rather share a bed than let her fall into the risk,” he affirms.
He says local girls who had a chance to get an education, are among the donors who supported the equipping of the dormitory with beddings.
Now imagine, the whole village with girls who have attained the highest level of education. We will not witness the kind of poverty engulfing households here,” he says.
Families live in a cycle of poverty when their girls are uneducated, and eliminating FGM as a barrier to their access to education is the beginning of economically flourishing households and communities, says United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, Child Protection Specialist Haithar Ahmed.
“For instance, out of the 44 recognised communities, 35 communities practice FGM. Therefore, a bulk of our girls are exposed to that horrific act, which in some communities like Samburu and Maasai means readiness for marriage and no schooling for girls. Without an education, girls are not empowered to contribute to the economic development of a nation,” he says.