Global, Opinion

The power of education

22.06.2021, International cooperation

"I want women to be heard and to no longer be treated as the properties of men", says Joyce Ndakaru, Gender Officer at Haki Madini.

I grew up in a very traditional Maasai Boma, where all decisions were taken and all responsibilities assigned by men. As a young girl, before the age of 6, I had to milk cows and goats, collect firewood and sweep the house, wash the dishes and also cook some food. From about 8 years to 12, one is considered to be a growing girl that will become a mother soon, so one’s responsibilities also increase as one prepares to become someone’s wife. Girls can then start herding cows and start cooking heavy food and collecting more firewood.

Boys on the other hand don’t milk, they don’t cook or sweep, because they are men. But they do look after the goats. They also collect stones and play that the stones are their cows or they play that they are getting married. In that way, they prepare themselves to become powerful people, who own lots of cows. Girls do not have time to play, it is actually considered a shame if a girl is seen playing. As a child, I did not know anything about the rights of children, so I did not think it was unfair. I only came to realize that much later in life.

I was lucky to be able to go to school. I was actually not taken to school because I was loved, but rather as a punishment, as I was not very good at milking or looking after the goats. I was afraid, that the cows would kick me and whenever I had to herd goats, I always lost a few. I also did not like collecting firewood and went to collect it crying. So my father decided to take me to school in order to be disciplined. He thought I would learn to be a better child, because I would have to follow the teachers’ orders and I would receive corporal punishment. But I really liked school and I was actually performing very well. I was always the best in my class from class 3 up to class 7. My father however never intended for me to go on to Secondary School, he thought Primary School would be enough punishment. By the time I finished Primary School, he had also received many offers for me and he had actually chosen a man that was older than himself (about 60 at the time) to marry me.

I was going to get married, when I think the grace of God actually passed into my life. There is a school known as the Maasai Girls Lutheran Secondary School and they were going around Maasai villages, looking for poor Maasai girls at risk to be married off. They invited me and some other Maasai girls from other villages to sit a written exam. I did very well in the exam and was the only one among the group to be selected to go to Secondary School. They had actually planned to choose more than one girl, but I was the only one who passed the exam. However, the others did not fail because they were not smart enough, but because their families had advised them not to do well. I was actually also advised to make sure I would not pass the exam and I had promised my family that I would just write down illegible things, but in the end, I did not keep my promise, while the other girls kept theirs.

After passing that exam, the teachers asked me, if I thought that my parents would allow me to go secondary school. I felt very uncomfortable and told them in a very low voice: “No, I don’t think my parents would allow me to go. Can you help me?” So, they came with me to my village to tell my family that I was chosen to go to secondary school. I was very scared and thought that my parents might kill me, because I remembered a time, when the primary school teachers had asked me to write down my young sisters’ name, so she could be enrolled in school. When my father found out what I did, he punished me and chased me out of the house. My sister was never allowed to go to school and now leads a very tough life.

But the teachers and I that day told my family that I had passed the exam. My family was very angry with me and told me that I was a disgrace, that I was disrespecting my community and abandoning my culture. I tried to plead with them, but in the end my father said that I was no longer his child and they ripped all my Maasai ornaments off me and let me go. My mother could not say anything, because she is a woman and has no power.

So, I went to school with nothing and stayed there without any visits for several years. I could also not visit my family, since my father would surely marry me off, if I went home. It took him a long time to accept that I was not coming home, but after a few years he came to visit me at school one day. He told me that they had decided that I could finish secondary school and asked me to come home during the school breaks, promising that they would not marry me off. Even though he kept his promise and did not marry me off, my family tried everything to discourage me from going to school and to make school look like hell. They were telling me that my class mates all had several children by now, that they all had their own homes and families and that I was lost and did not even know my culture. Although, they could read my name in the newspaper every year, as I came out top of the class year after year, they kept up the pressure and did not support me financially in any way.

Thanks to an anonymous sponsor, I was able to finish Secondary School. After that, I did not know what to do, as it is expected that after Secondary School, your family helps you through university. But again, I was very lucky, as Reginald Mengi, the former owner of IPP News, was a guest of honour at our graduation ceremony. During his speech, he asked, how many of us would like to go to university to study journalism. Me and some others raised our hands, not knowing what he had in mind. He took down our names and then paid for our university fees. With that help he took me to where I am today - a degree holder, a program officer with over 9 years experience gained working for different NGOs in Tanzania, a gender activist and a responsible mother and role model for my family and the Maasai community, especially for Maasai women.

Today, my village and my family are all proud of me. My former class mates, who are grandmothers by now, because they were all married at 12 or 13, admire me. Back then, they were laughing at me and telling me that I was disrespecting my parents, but now they all wish that they could also have gone to school. They tell me that I am very lucky to be able to look after myself, while they depend on their husbands for everything. They even tell me that I look much younger than them, because of the lifestyle I have. Many are now sending their kids to school, taking me and some others who have gone far, as role models and telling their kids to be like us. Even my dad is proud of me now. I send money to support him,my siblings and other family members. Although none of my father’s other daughters have been allowed to go to school after me, some of my brothers are sending their girls to school.

Slowly, things are changing, although many of the girls who go to school now still end up getting married and leading a traditional life, but if you look at them, you can nevertheless see some differences. They are smart, they look after their children better and cook healthier food. Some men are realizing the value of having an educated wife. I just wish for all Maasai to be enlightened and take their boys and their girls to school and to realize that allowing their daughters to go to school is not a bad thing and does not remove them from being Maasai. I also dream ofone day  opening my own NGO called “Maasai Women’s Voice” to raise the voices of marginalized Maasai women, who have been oppressed for many years. I want to establish a platform, where their contributions and their voices will be appreciated. I want women to be heard and to no longer be treated as the properties of men.

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