he goal of Christian women in Nairobi, Kenya, to help girls in the rural Masai tribe is turning into a success story in the heart of Masai land, some 75 miles from the country’s capital. The Kajiado Adventist Rehabilitation and Education Center was established in 2000 to help accomplish this mission.
During a recent visit to Nairobi, Rajmund Dabrowski, director of communication for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, visited Kajiado and talked with the center’s director, Jacinta Loki. The interview that follows connects the center’s mission to provide fear-free Christian education with the acute need to repair basic human rights. These rights are often overshadowed by traditional Masai beliefs and practices that leave scores of Masai girls without education and force them into early marriages.
In 2003 Loki revealed the dire background of her young boarders: “When they come here, some of them have never even seen a bed,” she said, adding that they arrived scared, afraid of their own shadow. Now, one of the girls wants to become Kenya’s president.
DABROWSKI: The Kajiado Center opened in the year 2000 with a group of 14 Masai girls. It looks like you’ve expanded all around.
LOKI: Yes. We have 160 girls in both primary and secondary levels. The first group graduated in 2006; they are the ones who are in Form 2, or high school. The second group graduated in 2007, and now we have quite a good number that should graduate by the end of this year. What I like about these girls is that they are ready to learn, and despite their age and background, they are focused. They have a vision.
“Vision.” Can you explain what that means for young Masai girls?
It means that they know what they want in life. When you talk to some of them, they will tell you that they would like to be doctors; some of them would like to be pilots, like Nancy Nipinevoy, who is now in grade 8. I was talking with Sombet, another girl, and she said, “I would like to be president of this country.” So, you see, they are very ambitious. But when Sombet came here, she was married to an 80-year-old man.
Are all the girls staying here on the compound, or do some of them walk from nearby villages?
The 160 girls that I am talking about are the boarders. In 2002 we started a day section so children from around the community could come to school here. There is a small group that comes in the morning, and then they go back to their homes in the evening. This [helps them learn to] count and write, but also to mingle with others.
Now that you are well established in the community, what are people saying about your center?
Looking back, it was not easy [to establish a good reputation] because you are talking about the Masai community. I remember that one year after we started there was this rumor going around that this church is a cult. Some of the [people] spread bad messages such as their children will be eaten or something like that. But afterward, when we began interacting with them, they, in fact, started slowly changing that notion. Right now, many parents would like their children to come here. We are pleased, very happy, about that. They are very positive, and they are very proud of the center. [This is partly a result of the center’s] good performance.
The Kajiado Center was established as a home of refuge because of the abuse the girls encounter in their own homes or villages. Is this still the primary reason for operating the center?
Yes, we still rescue the young Masai girls who are subjected to female genital mutilation [FGM] and those who were supposed to be married off. FGM and forced marriages are interlinked. In this community before a girl is married she must undergo FGM. I think the [most recent] case that we have dealt with is an 8-year-old who was married to an 80-year-old man.
I remember when we handled the case—and we normally work together with the [government’s] Children’s Department. Together with the police we went to her village. This situation was very sad because she was still such a baby. I remember the Children’s officer holding her on her lap, and after a few minutes the child was deep asleep. Now she is in grade 8, and she is one of the girls who will be entering high school next year.
The community, as you say, is accepting the center; but on the other hand, there must also be anger when the girls are removed from their homes. How do you deal with the anger? How do the girls deal with the anger of the village when they return home for a holiday?
When you talk of a Masai marriage, there is an exchange of dowry. Dowry in this community comes in the form of cows, and cows are highly valued. After you have rescued these girls, if any of their husbands had taken cows, it means these men have to return all the cows they had taken. Some girls stay on the compound because they fear abusive treatment in the village.
Are the men angry?
They don’t see the other side; they don’t see it as abuse. To them it is their way of life. “So why are you interfering?” they argue. “After all, you are one of us. You know it is our culture. There isn’t anything wrong.” So, it has not been easy. Our prayer is that God will help us so these girls who are in high school [will be able to go on] to university or to college. When they start working, this notion that women are not only to be seen but also can be very important players in their community will reach the villages. That is our prayer, and we believe it is possible.
As you look at your present needs, what is the biggest challenge here at Kajiado?
The major challenge we are facing right now is that . . . our school ends at eighth grade, and these girls need to transfer to high school. School fees are hard to cover. We need to feed the girls who are in primary [education] and also pay school fees for those girls now in high school. The most urgent need right now
is to have our own secondary school. That would be great, because it means that after they have graduated, at least the burden of taking them “outside” will come to an end.
When you say “taking them ‘outside’” to a high school, are you referring to a neighborhood Adventist school?
All of them are going to our schools.
How is the Adventist Church in Kenya responding to your challenges?
Our schools have been very supportive. It is a big advantage that we have our own schools. But even so, as we took [our graduates] to high school, the principals accepted them, but their school fees are not yet settled. Considering what happened in Kenya after elections, everything here has changed—the cost of food and everything. So as much as [the schools] would like to help, we are not talking about a single girl here. We are talking about quite a number of children. The schools have been very supportive, but the school fees still need to be paid.
As you look back on your eight years at the center, what images offset the challenges you face today?
Despite the challenges, despite everything that the teachers and the children face, I would like to thank God for this center. Before, these girls didn’t have a place to run to. A good example is a girl named Eda, who is in Form 2 right now. This girl walked for [about 30 miles] carrying her
4-month-old baby until she arrived here. She is a very bright girl. In fact, she is university material, and she’d like to be a lawyer. There also is a 13-year-old Tempolee who would like to be a lawyer so she can protect other Masai girls. We have another one who is in grade 3 right now. When she came here she was only 12 and already pregnant. Later she gave birth, and we returned the baby back home. The girl is still in school. We have four or five girls who are under 15 years old and have babies, but we keep encouraging them that despite the difficulties, at least they will have a bright future. As we talk, we have quite a good number who have already been baptized into the Adventist Church, and most of their parents are coming to church through the witness of their girls.