This is the word that keeps repeating in my mind as I reflect on this last trip to Kenya. Tangible, palpable are the other two words. As I’ve shared my trip experiences over the past few weeks, my hands immediately come together in a grasp or fingers rubbing together trying to express just how much one can feel and touch the change. It’s real. It’s taking hold. It’s profound.
My trips to Kenya are always multifaceted. This trip was no different – it was full of many experiences however this time, there were four experiences in particular which individually were fantastic, and that collectively combined to become the profound.
The first was during our visit to the Sook ADP in West Pokot. Sook is a place that was revered in a macabre sense in the Pokot culture – I heard it was known as the place where the ‘best’ Female Genital Mutilation ceremonies were held and they set the standard. Sook is in the mountains, beautiful, but rough and remote, with villages spread out over vast distances. World Vision established an ADP in Sook in 2009, and worked in the area for several years prior as a satellite outreach from the Marich Pass ADP when the advocacy work on Female Genital Mutilation was beginning. Part of the Child Protection through Education program funds World Vision staff to work with leaders so they can go back to their communities and educate and advocate against FGM and offer a new way forward with alternative rights of passage, as well as bring to life the power and promise of girls education.
We had the opportunity to meet with an area advisory council in the Tamugh village. There were 20 people in attendance who lived in 14 separate villages, each walking long distances to meet with us. This council was made up of 2/3 men, 1/3 women, a thrilling mix – both men AND women are leading the cultural change. The look of resolve on their faces were clear. Just as Ghandi said “Be the change you want to see in this world” – these people are doing just that. The leader of this council is an Assistant Chief and he touched me deeply. This man really cares about the girls in his community and fully acknowledges that nothing good comes from FGM. Now he is on a mission to ensure all in his area understands what he understands, and change their attitudes and practices as a result. Each person in the council spoke to us, sharing their very personal commitment to drive change and why. They thanked us for resourcing World Vision to provide the people, education, a meeting place with table and chairs, and a way to bring forward cases where girls were in danger of undergoing the cut.
Area Advisory Council
Most recently, because of this escalation model, one girl was rescued from harm. Two women in the council made a lasting impression on me. The first is a current midwife. She is an older woman and shared that her daughters were circumcised years ago before she knew any other way. I appreciated the solemnity and honesty of the remark. Now, as a midwife, she told of ‘seeing too much’ … babies stuck in the birth canal because the mother’s scar tissue could not tear wide enough to allow for a suitable opening, resulting in both mother and child dying. “Too much blood, too many long labors.” Another woman had a suckling baby, just one month old. As she was feeding her daughter, I asked why she was part of the advisory council and what she hoped for her child. She replied, so her daughter could be educated and have a better life. Wow. And, these people are volunteers. They still have to feed and provide for their families, but are going far above and beyond because this is so important – quite literally at times, life or death important. The importance of these councils and the people in them cannot be overstated.
My view: Change has dawned in Sook and the roots of change are becoming well established.
The second experience was once we arrived at St. Catherine Girls Secondary School in Chepnayl village also in Sook. I visited this school last year and documented my experiences in this blog (See Day 2: Sook and St. Catherine). Last year, there were 127 girls at the school (St. Catherine’s was established in 2010, with just 12 girls.) This year, there are 217 girls, a net increase of 90 girls in just one year … in Sook! 217 girls who are not being married early. The principal quipped to me during the visit that last year the parents heard my encouragement to send their girls to school, and this year they did. I know there was much more that has gone into this substantial change!
Members of the school board, officials
We met with the School Board and they underscored in no uncertain terms that they know ‘this school is real’ and they hold a tremendous responsibility for the education of the girls attending. School Board seats include the local chief, the county director for roads and public works, one of the longstanding nuns from the nearby catholic church. The government has just provided 5 new teachers in the last year (up from 1 the previous year), the senator representing West Pokot County sent his assistant to join us for the day to underscore his commitment.
Because of the Child Protection an Education program, there are sufficient funds to welcome back girls who have had babies and had to drop out -they now receive vocational training and sewing machines so they can become seamstress’ to support their families.
Dormitory under construction
The funds are also being used to build additional dormitory facilities so girls can have a safe place to live while pursuing their education. We had the honor to celebrate 42 girls who are in Form 4 (equivalent of grade 12 in high school) who soon will graduate from St. Catherine’s.
My view: The change in attitude is real and this school is a beacon of hope and positive outcomes.
The third experience was at St. Elizabeth Girls Secondary School and at Morphus Primary School, located in Cheparia in the Marich Pass ADP.
Primary School Dorm/Rescue Center
We had the honor of commissioning two primary school classrooms, see the work progressing on the construction of the expanded primary school girls dormitory and combined rescue center. At St. Elizabeth’s we laid the cornerstone on the new dining hall, saw the library construction progress, dedicated the new dormitory at St. Elizabeth’s and dedicated the rescue home on the grounds of St. Elizabeth, (where former rescued girls attending St. Elizabeth will live during holidays when the other girls go home.) There are currently 30 of the 34 original rescued girls attending St. Elizabeth’s in a variety of grades (whom I first met in 2009), which started this entire faith walk with God … more on the 30 girls later in the ‘fourth experience.’ We also had the honor to celebrate 29 girls in Form 4 who soon will graduate from St. Elizabeth’s (12 from the original rescue center group).
248 Girls at St. Elizabeth Girls Secondary School
Overall, there are now 248 girls attending St. Elizabeth, up from 154 just one year ago. At the celebration ceremony, there were well over 500 people in attendance – perhaps closer to 700. Dignitaries from the local, county and national government participated. Boys and girls from four different primary schools and one boy’s secondary school came to perform to add to the celebration. One group of primary school girls in particular moved me so deeply. These little girls (probably 8 – 12 yrs old) walked from Ortum, a distance of 15km (9 miles) just to perform two songs. The subject of the two songs? ‘I will listen to the circumciser no more’and ‘my father (mother), please support me with education.’ Profound. (By the way, they walked back home just as far.)
My view: This community has hit the tipping point, and has crossed over. Thousands of girls are singing for their freedom from FGM and early marriage; their parents are beginning to hear and act differently. Mothers and fathers are sacrificing to invest to send their girls to secondary school rather than receiving a dowry in exchange for their daughter being cut and married by 12 years old. Boys are echoing with their songs of support.
The fourth experience I’ll share is the one most deeply personal to me. Many of you know that in 2009 I first visited this area and met 34 of the bravest girls I have ever had the honor to meet. They were living in the Morphus rescue center at the time. These girls, ages 8-12 had refused to be married early and refused to be mutilated. They had been ridiculed and beaten and in some cases had fled their homes and in other cases were rescued as their homes were not safe anymore. I didn’t feel worthy to be standing on the same ground as they, knowing I wouldn’t have been so brave when I was 8 years old. When I heard their stories and looked into their eyes I saw two things: very brave girls who had deep determination to live a better life, and at the same time the look of girls who longed to be validated that they were important and longed to be loved. The only thing they asked that day was to help them have a better life by supporting their education. It’s because of these girls that St. Elizabeth Girls Secondary School came to be.
This visit I asked to meet with the 30 original rescue center girls now attending St. Elizabeth. In my previous visits over the past 4 years, I’ve never asked to do this. World Vision had shared it was important that these girls become part of the broader community of girls at St. Elizabeth in order to establish some normalcy. I respected that. This time, however, some of the girls would be graduating and I desperately wanted the opportunity to talk with all of them once again, find out how they were doing, what their lives were like now, what were their hopes and dreams now. Walking into the classroom where they were seated, I was overwhelmed in part by how much they had grown up! As we began to talk together, the magnitude of the impact of having this school for them began to grip my heart. All expressed their deep gratitude for having the opportunity to go to St. Elizabeth’s. One girl started by saying “You’ve allowed us to become people.” Another girl shared that when she sees her friends who are the same age as she, who were cut and married four years ago and now have 2-3 children, these girls say that their lives are over – at 16 or 17 years old! Meanwhile, this ‘rescued’girl is just at the dawn of her future, and she knows it. A different girl said that she doesn’t dwell on her past. ‘My past is a stepping stone into my future’ she said. The girls talked of how the people in the community look up to them now. No one ‘bothers’ them anymore. (Peer ridicule and coercing is just one form of societal pressure put upon girls to undergo FGM and marry early.) Another Form 4 girl wants to go on to be a nurse then a doctor. When you talk to her, you are immediately drawn in by her enthusiasm and vision not only for herself, but how she is going to make this community far better. In this community there is no a hospital nor access to a clinic nearby with a trained medical professional. She wants to change all of that. She is going to become and nurse then a doctor and come back and establish a hospital in this community where she is the lead doctor. She’s one of the top students at St. Elizabeth, and I believe all she has set out for herself to do, she will do!
These 30 girls have gone from ridicule to honor. Today, they are confident, bright, self-assured, know they are loved and supported, have hopes and dreams for their lives that they fully intend to have come true. And they’re growing up. How profound is this!
My final thoughts: There were hundreds of details from this trip that I could share, and could correlate many stories from previous trips to even more deeply make the points, but I hope his report provides enough for you to get a true flavor of what the Kenya Child Protection through Education program is all about and the tangible changes it has brought about in so many ways. These were the experiences most profound for me. The others that traveled with us might have a slightly different set. We visited Matete and they’re doing some great work on early childhood development through this program. I didn’t talk about the increased access to education through expanding primary schools with classrooms and dormitories, and this factors into the program as well. But these four experiences were the standouts and the fabric that wove a picture for me of profound and transformational change occurring that cannot be stopped. And together we’re witnesses and contributors to it!
The FGM baseline assessment for the Kenya Child Protection through Education project area and subsequent follow up showed self-reported cases of FGM and formally reported cases are declining. However each is still way too high and far above the national average reported by Unicef. We have much more work to do together with World Vision. But the more we pour ourselves into this work, the faster the lasting change will come on a wide and scalable basis.
On behalf of the thousands of Kenyan girls that have been helped through this program, a heart-felt thank you. Without those of you who have chosen to become involved, bringing your love and willingness to provide your resources and talents, none of this would have been possible. There are a total of 92 adults participating in area advisory councils throughout the project area. And just like them, YOU are being the change you wish to see in this world. And I for one and am humbled and grateful to be associated with you in this work.