Education: The Key to Unlocking Kenyan Culture and a Catalyst to Change

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Writer / Stephanie Carlson Curtis

“Wherever you look there is opportunity to make our world a better place. We just need to choose to see.” — Nancy Noel, Indiana artist

Engaging her palette of creative vision, renowned artist Nancy Noel composed a rainbow of hope for poverty-stricken African youth, creating a safe haven for learning and the opportunity to dream of a colorful future. The Women Like Us Foundation (WLUF) honors Nancy’s humanitarian artistry and faithfully reaches out across our global canvas to aid a kaleidoscope of kindhearted advocates who have seen desperate need and faced insurmountable challenges in their quests to change cultures for the betterment of their communities.

“We strive to bring together those of like mind and spirit who want to make the world a better place by lifting up the work of women around the world,” said Linda Rendleman, co-founder of the Fishers, Indiana, based 501©(3) organization focused on women-led causes defined by education, environment, economic development and human services. “When we come together and travel to locations in support of dedicated women effecting positive change in the world, it becomes clear that we want to be a part of that change.”

In June, WLUF traveled to Kenya to deliver donations and to perform charitable work for schools and organizations founded by entrepreneurial women. After 30 hours of travel from America, the group trekked across the African bush from Nairobi, to Maasai Mara, Rusinga Island and Njoro, ending with a stopover at Mount Kenya before returning to Nairobi. While circumstances were different at each location, a common theme prevailed. These artists of change chose courage against all odds to boldly “see” and “do” what they believe needed to be done to rescue the destitute—especially young girls who are undervalued, often abused and denied access to education.

Tenderfeet Education Center

An inspiring story rises from the chaotic, dangerous filth in the massive rural slums of Kibera near Nairobi. As home to 600,000 people, with families crammed into 10×10 dilapidated shanties, it is commonplace to witness orphans wandering about, having lost their parents to AIDS, crime, drunkenness or accidents. Employed at a school in the slums as the “coordinator of everything,” Margaret Nyabuto was forced by the owner to turn away penniless children. “Commanding me to send these children home, he yells at me, ‘I do not need them if they cannot pay!’” Gripping her heart, recalling the pain of putting orphans back onto the violent streets, she resolved, “I can teach them! I am a teacher.” She explained in Swahili-laced English how awful she felt telling the youngsters they were not allowed to come to school. Eventually, she began teaching castaways at her home in the evening.

Her husband, concerned about their four biological children, initially wanted the orphans “out of the house.” But her family came to accept her innate desire to educate the waifs. Soon her students were calling her “Mama.” “When I educate these orphans, they go out and become better people. If I can change this small number, it will become a small number that changes another small number and eventually all will change.”

Rallying change is a constant struggle in places where change is not welcome. Mama Margaret has confronted setbacks, government intervention, financial strain, forced eviction, and threats to her life, and she has hurdled unimaginable obstacles. A decade later, building a catalyst to a better life, the Tenderfeet Education Center provides a solid foundation and promising future for 130 orphaned students. Mama Margaret believes, “Giving food and clothes does not change life. I give education to this small number and some day this changes the whole system.”

Embracing the spirit of charity, the WLUF group of 17 volunteers, including daughters, mothers, sisters and grandmothers, experienced what it might be like to grow up female in a third-world country, living in a culture where cows are of more value than females. Daughters are forced by their parents to succumb to barbaric circumcision ceremonies and are married off in exchange for livestock. The girls are denied an education and personal freedoms American girls take for granted. These harsh realities and the extreme poverty are difficult to grasp.

“I wasn’t excited because Africa is so far away from my home, in a foreign location that I was not familiar with,” said Makenzie Curtis, 19, a recent high school graduate headed to college in the fall. “But it was an incredible experience. The kids got a kick out of taking selfies and listening to music on my iPhone. I had the chance to talk with teenagers, kids my age, about my life in America. They asked me why my skin was this color and they loved touching my hair.”

The Olmalaika Home

Cutting into the heart of a society’s culture to motivate positive change is a massive undertaking with no end in sight. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a tribal tradition believed to be the proper way to raise a girl, preparing her for marriage. However, the procedure is harmful, unhealthy and horrific. “I believe every society has rituals and queer practices,” said Dr. Marcos Mugo, Sarova Mara Game Camp clinical director. He is responsible for providing medical treatment to the 29 young girls residing at The Olmalaika Home located on the Sekenani Primary School campus near the Maasai Mara Preserve.

“Girls come to us saying ‘my parents want to marry me off but in the process of getting married I have to undergo the female genital mutilation, so what should I do?’ That’s how the home came into being, through the great support of Global Village Ministries and the guidance of Kim DeWitt.” Olmalaika, which means “angel” in Kimaasai, was established in 2013 to protect and educate Maasai runaways. “When families come to get them we tell them ‘no,’ that this is their home. Their families are not happy.” Dr. Marcos added, “Girls come here to find peace. No one will force them to undergo the ax, to be married off—but they can find an education.”

Guided by the philosophy “to love, to live, to learn,” the girls greeted us shyly as we placed our hands gently on their foreheads in a gesture of hello. “Today, we help the girls with their activities. You can share with them and talk with them,” said Dr. Marcos. Together, we cheerfully gathered fresh water from the spring along the river, washed clothing and hung the laundry to dry, cooked beans and bread for lunch and made dainty beaded bracelets. As the shyness dissolved, we laughed, sang, played, shared stories, took photos and giggled at group selfies.

“I think most of us do not realize what ‘poor’ really means,” said Mary Ann Browning. “Imagine spending an hour each day collecting water from a stream. These children do this every day with song and laughter. Strangely, as you participate, you feel a deep emotion that is not sorrow, but rather a type of spiritual enlightenment and joy.”

N.A. Noel Preschool

While searching for children to paint on a retreat to Rusinga Island on Lake Victoria, Noel discovered 60 youngsters and a teacher crowded into a cramped, primitive hut doubling as a makeshift classroom. Witnessing a desperate need, Noel promised to “do” something.

“She showed up like an angel from heaven,” said Mrs. Phoebe Tom, who operates the school along with her husband. The couple has lived on-site since its inception in 1998, in the tiny back room of one of the older corrugated steel buildings. They share their living quarters with three additional adults and eleven children, six of whom are orphans. “I would like to see the orphans supported through distant adoption.”

Like a gaggle of red and yellow geese, 265 students flocked into the dusty courtyard, chattering, calling out “wazungu” (the Bantu Swahili term for many white people), waving and surrounding our safari vans. Sliding the doors open to hop out, several small soft brown hands grasped each of ours, intertwining fingers, pulling at our attention.

“You are strange to them,” Mrs. Tom smiled as she savored the excitement in the schoolyard. “We don’t get many visitors.”

“At first I thought it was weird that all these little kids wanted to hold my hand, but I realized many of these kids never get held or loved and it felt good to give away hugs,” said Gracie Curtis, a 13-year-old middle school student. “I liked holding them and playing with them.”

“They will talk and remember the day they got to play games, jump rope and draw pictures—all because women like us took the time to spend the day with them,” said Joan Browning Ketterman.

Due to Nancy’s support and generosity, in the past decade the school has expanded to several buildings including a new brick facility, trained staff and 265 students. As the school grows, so too does the endless list of needs—from being able to pay the teachers to erecting a fence and planting a vegetable garden in order to grow their own food. Most immediate insufficiencies demanding action are latrines and additional space. They are using the library for the babies right now. By virtue of a special relationship with Nancy Noel and her namesake school, Rendleman promised that WLUF would find ways to fund the Toms in their efforts to provide care and education to the most desperate children in the community.

“The children of the schools we visited were thrilled to have a hand to hold, to get a high five or a hug. It was a simple gesture we may take for granted, but not a gesture that is a part of the average day of these African children,” Ketterman said.

Teret Primary School

Our final stop took us into the depths of rural Kenya to the agricultural town of Njoro. Hundreds of children, clad in royal blue and yellow tattered uniforms, attend Teret Primary School, a scattered array of dingy, battered buildings set in the Mau Narok foothills. We were told these children had never seen an American. They were curious about our white skin and approached us cautiously. In contrast to the previous schools, there was no hand-holding or affection. Any attempt to touch the children caused them to shrink away or dodge quickly to escape physical contact. Even so, in similar fashion to the other places we visited, the children welcomed us with smiles, kindness and native music and dancing.

In order to encourage school attendance, Beth Wacera formed Victorious Teens Bridge International in 2010 to “empower and nurture teenagers for self-realization and development,” reaching out to the neglected by addressing personal hygiene and critical life skills through education. “Many underprivileged teenagers in marginalized schools drop out. Girls will leave when menstruation begins while boys may turn to crime,” said Wacera. The “invest in teens” drive collects sanitary supplies, undergarments and sports equipment, delivering the donations to impoverished teens.

According to Wacera, these children never see anything outside of their small village and they have a very limited view of the world. “We take them to visit new places such as hotels in populated areas and expose them to careers like being a waiter, manager or housekeeper.”

Seeing Need and Doing Something

Rendleman reflected on our journey. “Through this trip we have helped with access to clean water, built a latrine, and donated school supplies, hygiene products, music and art resources; we have set up sustainability programs for years to come for children, teens and women in Kenya.”

Catt Sadler, host of E! News and international spokeswoman for WLUF, is hosting a documentary including this trip, produced by Dream On Productions, due for release in spring 2015. “As a child I had multiple opportunities to follow my dreams. Most people don’t have the chance to travel halfway around the world to share their love and resources. We want these young Kenyans to realize they are beautiful, they have value and that hugs are universal.”

Deanne Greve traveled with her daughter Polly Bindley and two granddaughters, Gwen and Greta. “We three generations agreed that Kenya is breathtaking in its diversity, straddling tradition and modernity. Driving through the Maasai Mara Game Preserve, seeing the African animals and working with the children at each school were unforgettable experiences.”

Caroline Curtis, 16, a high school sophomore, is convinced she will return to help again when she is older. “The children were so happy to see us. The little ones at the N.A. Noel Preschool begged for attention. I realize now how hard life is in Kenya and how little they have. How fortunate we are in America and how lucky we are to be able to go to school.”

Mama Margaret turned to our teens before her interview ended. “When you get back to America, think about somewhere kids cannot afford to have a meal or go to school. You are privileged just to have a meal and education. Having basic education allows people to express themselves. Think of the child who cannot access education.” She clasped her hands as if to pray, and pleaded, “Tell your friends that you have visited and have seen that we are changing the lives of many through education.”

Woman Like Us Foundation

Tenderfeet Education Center

The Olmalaika Home

N.A. Noel Pre-school

Victorious Teen Bridge International
The Woman Like Us Foundation is holding an afternoon tea at Union Station on October 14
featuring CNN Hero Robbin Emmons and video of the Kenyan trip.
For more information, contact:
Women Like Us Foundation
11807 Allisonville Road, #301
Fishers, IN 46038
Phone: 888-958-3674
[email protected]