This post attempts to bring to life for you the second day of our travels in Kenya, in Sook, to see the World Vision’s work there.
I had been hearing about Sook since May of last year (2011) - it is only 26 miles from Chepareria (the ‘town’ where World Vision’s Marich Pass Integrated Program Area is based), and the location of St. Elizabeth Secondary School for Girls (our visit here will be the next blog post.) When the World Vision team talked about Sook, they would do it with a knowing smile and glint in their eyes … imagine hearing “We should take Margo to Sook” and then have that sentence accompanied by that smile and glint. They would proceed to tell me how arduous it was to travel there – it’s a 26 mile journey via a single-lane, dirt and rock road which traverses a fairly steep mountainous area. This one lane road at times becomes blocked by mud and rock slides, has no guard rails and no road shoulder to speak of.
The drop offs the side of the road are steep and long at some points along the way. So, the 44km trip can only be made in 4×4 vehicles and takes 2-3 hours. The Catholic and Lutheran churches have been working in Sook for years (along with the African Gospel Church and I suspect several other churches) however no non-church affiliated NGO was working in the area until World Vision arrived fulltime in 2009. Sook is inhabited by the Pokot people and female genital mutilation (FGM) and early/forced marriage are prevalent. I had heard that the FGM ceremonies conducted in Sook were considered by the Pokot as some of the ‘finest.’ And so, when Sook was included as part of the Kenya Child Protection and Education Program, I knew I had to go to learn and understand firsthand what was happening, and how this program would make a difference (and take anyone else along with an adventuresome spirit that wanted the experience as well).
Introduction and Background
The Sook division covers an area of 745,000 sq km (appx 450,000 sq mi), has a population of just over 22,000 people, and is situated in a beautiful, mountainous area with many hills and valleys. It has an idyllic quality to it.
The majority of the area is rough and lush green, but it also includes some semi-arid terrain along the Ugandan border (including Tipet – see previous post). However, because it is so remote and difficult to get to, and because the former Kenyan constitution investment model was to invest in those areas where there would be significant return, little government investment had made its way to Sook in previous years. (The Kenyan constitution changed in 2010 and will now invest in a more distributed way.)
World Vision began working in Sook as a remote outreach from Marich Pass in the mid 2000’s and established a full time staff and office there in 2009. World Vision’s Sook Integrated Program Area (IPA) covers 5 locations and has 3 strategic programs: Nutrition, Health/HIV AIDs, and now the Kenya Child Protection and Education Program. The World Vision model is to come in to a community for 10 – 15 years, so the Sook program is in its first stages.
Much has been accomplished in the short time World Vision has been working in Sook. They have built significant relationships with chiefs, elders, local churches and authorities, and played a key role in bringing the Kenya Department of Education and Department of Health to partner with them to invest more heavily in Sook. Severe and acute malnutrition is dropping in the area, as World Vision has focused its nutrition programs on children under 5 and lactating and pregnant mothers. They have established over 200 kitchen vegetable gardens. Because of the difficult terrain and remoteness of the area, their health initiative includes support for mobile health outreaches with comprehensive services such as curative services, deworming, malaria net distribution and education, breast feeding education and stressing the importance of immunizations. I share this just to give you a flavor of how basic the work is currently because these communities have been underserved by their government for years.
Sook Integrated Program Area: Education improvements from 2009 to today: As I mentioned, much has been accomplished to form a good foundation for the work now of the Kenya child Protection and Education program. Here are some education statistics from 2009 to today:
- 17.6% increase in child enrollment in school (2012: 9,768 children: 5,107 Boys, 4,571 Girls)
- Number of Early Childhood Development centers: from 39 to 53*
- Number of Primary Schools: from 34 to 49*
- Academic performance increase in primary schools: 9% increase (from a mean of 253 to 276)
*It must be noted here, however, while there is an increase in the number of schools and ECD centers, there is a wide variability in the type of structure used, many of which are not conducive to highly effective learning – from classes under trees, to mud and stick classrooms, to a tin roof and four metal poles vs. proper cinder block structures.
The girl-child: In terms of beginning the process to educate, change attitudes and provide a protective environment for the girl-child, the Sook ADP shared the following statistics when we were there:
- In partnership with Kenya Ministry of Education, 303 girls have been taught life skills to say NO to FGM and early marriage
- 17 girls have been rescued that were destined for FGM and early marriage and are currently enrolled in school
Now, on to our visit to Sook and St. Catherine’s Secondary School for Girls
After arriving from our visit to Tipet, we spent the night in Chepunyal, near the World Vision Sook office, in facilities provided by the Catholic church (primarily used by visiting nuns and priests). They provided us with a lovely dinner and breakfast; the rooms were clean and welcoming, furnished with a twin bed, sink, and a shared toilet and shower area.
The father and his staff engaged us in a fantastic conversation so we could learn about the area and what it’s like to live there – their hospitality was exceptional. Right before going to bed, one of the sisters brought me boiling water in the largest teapot I’ve ever seen – it must have been at least 18” in diameter. The water was to be blended with cold water in the morning for my shower. The sister placed the hot teapot in a wicker basket outfitted with a tea cozy as insulation against the cold night. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a more excellent ‘shower’ in my life – the teapot water was a perfect temperature in the morning and I gladly poured it over my head!
St. Catherine’s is the only secondary school for girls in all of Sook. Think about it – in a 450,000 sq mile area, it’s the only one. That said, St. Catherine’s is a shining example of the progress this community is making to change its attitude towards the girl-child with respect to early and/or forced marriage and genital mutilation.
The progress is also a testimony of the long suffering work of the Catholic church in the area (they’ve been working in Chepunyal for about 25 years, promoting as part of its ministry to value children, and girls equally with boys), and of the positive change that are brought about by a strong partnership with World Vision and the various Ministries of the Kenyan government (e.g. Ministry of Education). The parish father who started the church 25 years ago dreamed of a day when there would be a secondary school for girls, and the current father is a teacher at St. Catherine’s.
St. Catherine’s Secondary School for Girls was established in 2009 with just 12 girls in Form 1 (equivalent to the US 9th grade), with classes conducted under a tree. They call these first 12 girls the pioneers and truly they are. Imagine for a moment being one of those first 12 girls … I’m sure they were excited by the opportunity to be the first ever in the area to go to secondary school – but, as pioneers, they were forging very new ground by not conforming to the centuries-old way for girls. What bravery! In 2010, the school population grew to 35 girls, however 40% were pregnant. But in just two short years, the 2012 enrollment at St. Catherine’s now stands at 121 girls and the pregnancy rate has dropped to just about 1%.
Providing educational facilities for girls is so powerful – it provides families with an alternative to the centuries-old practice of early/forced marriages and the early pregnancies that result before a girl’s body is truly ready to bear a child. Attitudes towards girls are indeed changing in Sook!
Arriving at St. Catherine’s, we were greeted by one of the most joy-filled, energizing welcoming’s I’ve ever experienced! We all felt like royalty. The girls of the school, the teachers and community leaders sang and danced their hearts out! Smiles abounded as we were engulfed by girls and were swept up in their procession towards the school. Along the way, we stopped and each of us was afforded the honor to plant a tree on the school grounds as an enduring symbol of our visit, and an enduring reminder to the girls that people in foreign lands care about them and their future.
The Head Teacher is a strong woman with a vision for the girls and this community. In a very humble way, she proudly took us on a tour of the school, introduced us to the teachers, school board members and the local authorities.
It was easy to see she deeply loves the girls at the school in a protective, motherly kind of way – only wants the best for them and has high expectations with the standards of behavior and performance to match. She knows she’s a role model for the girls, and in many ways is a pioneer herself. She shared with us her vision and told of us the new curriculum around nutrition and computer training she was adding to augment the classwork the girls were required to complete. St. Catherine’s is still a new school and the concept of educating girls past the 4th or 5th grade is still new in the community’s mind. I’m trying to convey just how special this woman is – living in a culture where women and girls are still very marginalized, it is these early standard-bearers that establish the path for many to come afterwards. I’m 53 years young, and remember the day when Title 9 became a reality in the US (I had just turned 13). I have been so grateful through the course of my life and career for all of the women who went before me, that did the really hard work to break through for girls and women’s rights and forged a path for me to subsequently travel. This head teacher at St. Catherine’s is one of those early leaders in the Kenyan context. (Note: unfortunately with all of the excitement and activity I forgot to write the head teacher’s name down! I’ll get it and post it.)
Are you a circumcised girl?
We had a fantastic opportunity to spend time with the girls at St. Catherine’s during a sudden and fierce rainstorm that temporarily suspended the community celebration at the school they had planned for us. So, we all crowded into a single classroom and split ourselves up so we could talk with a small group of girls and get to know them better, learn what their lives were like, what their hopes and aspirations are, and answer any questions they had for us. It was a treasured time. Initially, my group of girls was quite reserved, not asking many questions – it must have been daunting to spend time with a foreigner in such a close setting. So, to get the conversation started, I told them about where I lived, what the weather was like, how we had mountains as tall and even taller than their Mount Kenya. I talked about having four seasons, comparing our four to their three seasons (short rains, long rains, and dry season). I live in Seattle, and it was difficult for them to fathom that, during our winter (analogous to their long rains – especially in Seattle J), the average temperature was 7 – 8 degrees Celsius . They thought I was kidding at first – how could anyone live where it was so cold? (I didn’t tell them about North Dakota or Greeley, CO!) As they got comfortable with me, the questions started coming – those that were really on their hearts. The first question: “If I go to tertiary school in Kenya, can I get a job in the United States?” I took this question as a means for the girls seeking validation for how important their current education is and the doors of opportunity are opened if you score well enough to go on to college or university. We talked about job opportunities in the US along with job opportunities with many international companies in Kenya and elsewhere. Working at Microsoft, of course I had to ask if any of the girls had ever seen a computer, and to my surprise, some had. They were excited to learn that we were planning for a computer lab as part of the new project we are raising funds for. I asked some of the girls what they wanted to do when they grew up and the range of answers surprised me a bit: from doctors and nurses (including one girl who wants to be a pediatrician), to journalists and engineers, from police women to lawyers to policy makers – these girls were not shy about what they dreamed of in life. As our time progressed, the girls were getting comfortable with me and quite literally the physical space between us continued to shrink. Girls crowded around to hear and join the conversation; some sat on desks and leaned in over the shoulders of others.
Then came the zinger question, the question which, to their core, they wanted to ask and finally had the courage and trust to do so: “Are you a circumcised girl?” The space between us narrowed yet once again and I could feel their yearning to know and the anticipation of my answer. When I answered ‘no,’ many smiles broke out on the faces of these children – validation once again that the path they were on was a good and right one. I also shared that circumcising girls was not done where I lived and most girls did not marry until they were in their 20’s or 30’s. They then asked about rape – did that happen where I lived. Wow, I thought – what lives had these girls lived and what had they seen and experienced? I had to answer ‘yes’ and augmented that it wasn’t acceptable to rape, and told them of our police and prosecutors whose job it is to find and punish those that rape women and girls.
With some of the biggest and most serious questions off their minds, the questions went to child-like curiosity – this one really surprised me: “Do you have pets?” Pets, I thought! How did they know to ask about that?
Anyway, I shared that I have 2 cats as pets and they live inside my house – the girls started laughing in disbelief and the laughter intensified as I added, “and at night, I let them sleep with me!” With that question, the rain had stopped and our time was up – all too soon for every one of us! I asked if I could take their picture and many girls crowded in – when I turned the camera to show them the image on the LCD screen, squeals of delight and ‘there I am’ erupted!
As I’ve traveled in Kenya, I have experienced such a deep and genuine gratitude for the assistance World Vision, and by extension, we are providing. Sook is no exception. The celebration the school and the community held for us was so incredibly joy-filled. We were treated to a wonderful feast of chapatti bread, beef stew, goat meat, rice, cooked cabbage and carrots, ugali … a type of feast reserved for the most important of guests and did we ever feel like it! Head teachers, chiefs and assistant chiefs from all of the communities in Sook where World Vision worked, members of the Kenyan Ministry of Education, church leaders all came to celebrate with us, as a show of solidarity and of respect. Even Evelyn, the head teacher from Tipet traveled to come to Chepunyal to be with us.
We were treated to Pokot traditional dance and song,
and to the St. Catherine girls celebrating their Pokot heritage along with CELEBRATING they were GIRLS and should be counted as equals with boys!
All the while, I was intensely mindful of the all people in Finland and in the US who were not there and who have given generously to World Vision in the past specifically for Sook – those who made the initial school, the advocacy against FGM and early marriage, the health interventions, the mosquito nets, the nutrition teaching, and so much more all possible by their giving. I was also mindful of those that have now given to the Kenya Child Protection and Education Program, some of whom are reading this blog post, knowing this is one of the beneficiary areas. I knew on that day we were ambassadors for many enablers and in that spirit received the gifts graciously. I had the opportunity to address the community and the girls, and spoke of the many people who were not with us but that cared deeply for the children and people of Sook. Everyone clapped in thanks!
What will the new Kenya Child Protection and Education Program fund for St. Catherine’s?
The Kenya Child Protection and Education program will invest to expand and modernize St. Catherine’s, bringing it to current Kenyan education standards, with construction beginning in October. Here’s what we’ll be funding:
1. A new dormitory. The existing dormitory will be augmented with a new dormitory which will alleviate the current overcrowding and provide a place for more girl-students. The current dormitory is over capacity and some girls are living in one of the classrooms because there’s just no room for them in the current dorm. With the new dorm, classroom capacity will be back to acceptable levels for the coming couple of years.
(The community is already contributing, making bricks for the dormitory and science laboratory.)
2. A science laboratory. Kenya education standards require physics, chemistry and biology curriculum and laboratory experiments. Here’s a photo of the current laboratory
– totally insufficient for equipping the students with the necessary working knowledge of the sciences. You’ll see in the upcoming post about St. Elizabeth’s Secondary School for Girls the twin laboratory we just commissioned as part of the trip and it will bring you hope
3. A library – these children yearn to learn but don’t have access to the books they need to expand their minds to the possibilities of life.
Here’s a photo of the current library that also serves as a school supply room:
4. A kitchen and dining hall
5. 2 staff houses – in order to attract quality teachers to these exceptionally remote areas, it’s very important to provide them with adequate housing as an incentive to come.
6. The plan is to augment the current program budget and also install a computer lab so that these children are ready for the 21stcentury and can become significant contributors to their community and Kenya as a nation.
In addition to the school modernization, this program will fund and focus on the all-important cultural and behavioral change necessary to significantly reduce the incidence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early/forced marriage. Sook is the area in Pokot that is held up by the Pokot people as the center for female genital mutilation. Their ceremonies are renowned as exceptional. While the incidence of FGM is dropping in Sook and attitudes are beginning to change about early and forced marriage, Sook in general remains an area strongly holding on to those old ways. World Vision, the churches, the government leaders and the community leaders have a tremendous amount of work left to do to change culture and establish a safe, protective environment for the girls. A modern secondary school for girls is a critical way to visually demonstrate to the community that girls are to be honored and held equal to boys. As I mentioned already, providing families with an alternative to marriage for their older girls and giving them a means to invest in their girls through education is also a key component to providing a protective environment. That said, while formal education and a proper school and learning environment provides the means for girls to stay in a safe school environment and continue their education, it’s critical to set up the right formal and informal systems that will permanently change behaviors and attitudes away from FGM and early and/or forced marriage. In addition to the school building, the program will create and improve the channels for reporting abuse, and training will be held for law enforcement personnel, healthcare workers, teachers, and volunteers who handle and refer abuse cases. As this occurs, children and their families will receive the assistance they need, whether protective services, medical attention, legal support, or other aid to recover. Children will have access to psychosocial care and support reintegrating into their communities, including returning to school. World Vision will also provide the parents in the community with education on the short and long term health risks of FGM and early marriage, teach them with proper parenting skills, create and empower community action committees, engage the local chiefs to support anti FGM and early marriage, teach the children in school their rights and about the dangers of FGM (boys and girls), and engage the local authorities to enforce the law of the land.
The reality of rural road travel – a story of the CocaCola truck
With the celebration ending, our time in Sook was over and we needed to make the arduous 2-3 hour journey back to Kitale. We were swept up once again in a procession with the girls back to our vehicles – tears were shed, hugs were given, promises to return were made. The community, the girls, the amazing World Vision Sook staff firmly planted in our hearts.
Along the way, we were ‘treated’ to a firsthand experience of the struggles of traveling in rural Kenya. As we were heading down the one lane road, we came upon a CocaCola truck that was stuck, blocking all passage. People were scurrying about trying to get this truck out. Many in our traveling party joined in, digging under the tires and placing rocks for traction, unloading the fully loaded Coke truck to reduce the weight. We were there for over 2 hours trying to help, but nothing was working. Finally, our World Vision driver had had enough. He figured out a way to go down and through the bush along the side of the road, past the CocaCola truck and get back onto the road so that we could continue our passage. It was quite tense yet exciting to see him attempt this feat, and it was successful! We waved our goodbyes to the people and continued on with our journey, arriving back at our hotel well past 9pm.
We heard later that it took a full day to get the CocaCola truck out and the road open once again!
The girls at St. Catherine’s know they’ve been given a special chance in life. They know that many are watching their progress and counting on some of them to be first to go on to college and university and truly demonstrate that the girl-child should be honored and cared for equally with boys. Our visit firmly cemented this reality for them – I’m certain I don’t have a full appreciation for how encouraged the girls, the teachers, the parents, the church leaders, the government officials and the tribal chiefs were by our visit. Change has indeed come – the outside world indeed cares. To those who have given to this project, thank you SO much! To those considering giving, please know you will be part of something quite special in changing the life and course of a girl in a profound way.
Next blog post: our visit to St. Elizabeth’s Secondary School for Girls and Morphus Primary School – what started it all!