Even today, for many young Masai girls, basic human rights continue to be overshadowed by traditional beliefs and practices that leave so many of them with no education and forced into an early marriage—sometimes as young as age seven. Often they are left without the basic necessities to live.
This lifestyle for the young female Masai is what prompted a group of Seventh-day Adventist women from the NewLife Church Women’s Ministry in Nairobi to begin the Kajiado Rehabilitation and Education Center. Begun in 2000, the center offers shelter, education and friendship.
Girls between the ages of six and 12 are picked from diverse backgrounds, but the common factor is extreme poverty and forced marriages. Some of them have been sexually abused.
“When they come here, some of them have never even seen a bed,” says Jacinta Loki, principal of the center. “So you teach them everything—how they make their bed, how they need to shower, and even how they’re supposed to put on clothes, because back at home, they only put on sheets, and even some don’t have clothing.”
Today, the Kajiado center, which in March 2000 opened with 15 girls, has 61 young Masai who are being looked after by a staff of four guardian-teachers. “Thirty-two are boarding with us here. They are the victims of early marriages, destitute and orphaned. They stay on campus every day, and that means no holidays at home. This is their new home,” Loki explains.
“Kajiado is home to them until they graduate. We operate only a four-grade school here and we need teachers to grow into a more comprehensive educational center,” she adds.
During their four-year stay at the center, the girls are taught to read and write, and they are taught about God. The girls can be seen playing out in the field at the center, singing and enjoying their newfound freedoms. But this takes time.
“At first they are very shy,” Loki explains. “This is due to the culture because in the Masai culture, a woman has no right. We normally try to talk to them, do some counseling, try to socialize, play, do some work together ... Nowadays they can even open up. They are free to discuss and tell you everything, especially if there is something that is disturbing them. They are free.
“Compared to what they experience back at home,” Loki adds, “here they are happy because they are assured they’ll get enough food—breakfast, lunch and everything—just like any other normal child. And also they get enough clothing and education.”
Loki says she has rarely seen a father come to visit his daughter at the center. In the Masai culture, females are not valued highly in society. Several mothers have come to take their daughters back to their homes—back to their former lifestyle. This has been a challenge for staff at the center, Loki says, but she adds that there are many Masai mothers who visit their daughters on a consistent basis and are happy for the young women they are becoming.
Loki points to Sopiato Seyaloi, a smiling, “I-am-in-charge” type. “She is a born leader. Just look how she is taking charge of everyone playing there. Her mother came once to claim her back. When she got to the manyatta [home], she refused to enter and slept outside for two nights. Her mother, in desperation, returned her to the school.”
Another challenge for the center is fighting against female genital cutting (FGC). “When a girl is seven years old, they [the Masai] believe that immediately they circumcise this girl,” Loki says. “To them, she’s a big woman now, ready to be married. Considering that these things have been happening in the whole of the Masai community, in the interior part, if there’s anything that can be done to tell the people that this is wrong, [then] at least they’ll come to their senses and realize this isn’t right.
“We try to talk to the parents of the girls from time to time. And I’m very happy because some of them have started realizing that even the government is against FGC. When you educate these girls, I believe we will have educated the whole of Masais and they will give the girls a chance, which is really needed in the Masai community.”
The Kajiado Rehabilitation and Education Center receives funding from individual contributions, church allocations, and from World Servants International, a Christian non-governmental organization.
The principal adds that the biggest help comes from the church itself. She points to a building on the compound and explains that “each of the girls has a surrogate mum, a church member at Karengata or at the NewLife Church in Nairobi. They visit their ‘daughters’ once per month.”
The center has helped dozens of girls and has become a source of hope for many Masai women. A visitor to Kajiado catches a glimpse of a ministry of compassion at its best.