Although it is certainly necessary to hear the statistics of injustices around the world, one of my favorite parts of this campaign is sharing stories: stories of real women who have faced real challenges, have understood injustice and have taken up their role in being the solution.
Today it is my joy to share an interview with Alice Sayo, an incredible woman from the Maasai tribe in Kenya who is meeting the great need for girls’ education in East Africa. Alice is the founder of Nasaruni Academy, a boarding school especially for Maasai girls.
Growing up in a Maasai background, Alice explained to me, she and her family faced quite a lot of poverty. It is the Maasai custom for boys to be sent to school, but young girls are married off. Alice’s sisters were each married by age fourteen.
“My father was never interested in sending girls to school. He thought that the best thing was for the girls to be married at an early age- that was the culture! My father died when I was still young, so my brothers took me to school. I wished that my sisters had also gone to school.”
As Alice reached the age that Maasai girls are normally married, one of her brothers suggested that their mother find Alice a husband.
“Somehow my mother, though she never went to school herself, refused this suggestion.
“She said, ‘Let her go to school.'”
I paused when Alice said this, commenting, “Your mother is a brave woman!”
I heard her smile over the phone as she exclaimed, “Yes, she is! She is a wonderful lady, almost 100 years now. She inspired me to try my best, so that she could also get the fruits of sending me to school.”
Because of their nomadic lifestyle, Maasai people don’t have many schools; so even if a Maasai girl escapes early marriage, there is the additional challenge of distance that prevents girls from going to school.
“Children have to walk many kilometers to access the schools that do exist. Most Maasai prefer to send the boys to go and the girls are left to do the housework.”
(Note: housekeeping in Maasai culture is a full-time job. Traveling to fetch water, gardening, tending to livestock, and caring for younger siblings are all responsibilities that a young girl may be assigned, in addition to typical household chores.)
“This is something that I felt pushing me. I wished that girls would not get married like my sisters. The plight, the trouble of the Maasai girl was inspiring to me. It moved me to start something to help them.”
Alice loved school and went on to pursue her undergraduate degree in Education. Many of her teachers urged her to pursue law, but she desired to go back to her village and begin a school.
“My heart was for teaching! I thought, ‘I will get an opportunity to change my culture- through the classroom!'”
Alice had the opportunity to share her dream with the International Leaders in Education Program, who sponsored her to attend a training at James Madison University in Virginia. When she returned to Kenya five months later, she had the support of many of her fellow students and the faculty members.
“They were the first group to contribute to Nasaruni,” Alice recalled. “I shared with them then and they still continue! That was really powerful!”
At the time, Alice and her husband were already starting plans to establish the school. They had a mission, but no money to start. They poured in a lot of their own resources and both of them were simultaneously working full time! Alice’s husband, Bishop Moses Sayo, pastors a local church, and Alice continues to direct Nasaruni while also serving as the principal of a local government school. (She has had great influence at the public school, too! When she first started, only eighty girls were enrolled and now over three hundred girls are in the public school!)
“I realized my passion kept on going and I could speak about my passion from any platform- especially the church!”
When Nasaruni first officially started in 2013, they had about ten girls. Now they have 120!
“I’m so happy; it’s a dream come true! When I see these girls, my heart is so happy. Most of them are from extreme poverty. We know them, we have identified them in the community, they were waiting to be married off, and now we have 120 of them in the school!”
Today the Maasai community has become very supportive. Alice and the staff at Nasaruni are adamant that although the school will promote Christian values and positive cultural changes such as girls’ education, they will uphold other Maasai traditions.
“Nasaruni means ‘a haven or a safe place,'” Alice informed me. “These girls come from difficult backgrounds. They need a place where they can be received and their dignity is upheld. We impress values such as honesty, humility, respect, and hard work. These are positive values in Maasai culture we wish to maintain, and we try to let the parents know that we are not doing away with their culture. I want our girls to have the same opportunity as any other girl in the world to see their potential- God has a purpose for them! They should not see themselves as people who are not important. Our culture gives such a disadvantage to women. In Maasai culture, women are regarded as children. They can’t do anything. I want to show that God can make these women to be great people!”
Alice and her husband are also careful to encourage the girls to grow in their faith.
“We know that when the Word grows in their heart, God will give them wisdom, even in their studies. Whatever they do, they will succeed.”
Nasaruni also teaches extracurricular activities that will develop life skills, such as sewing, gardening, and computer classes.
“Speak that which is in your heart! Start even in a small way!”
I asked Alice to conclude the interview with advice she would give to anyone hoping to make a difference.
“I would really say never quit dreaming big! Pursue your dream no matter the internal or external negative voices. Share your dream with others- you never know how God will use them! I didn’t know how God would use those people in the US. Speak that which is in your heart! Start even in a small way! We had just a few girls. I didn’t know that we would one day have 100 girls! Get started with the little you have. I was really praying that God would use me to be an agent of change in my community. I want to be a role model, that the Maasai can trust me with their girls. God is so great! My faith has grown- I’ve seen that nothing is impossible! I’ve really seen that God will really help you! This has strengthened my faith in God! Dream big! And trust God!”
Nasaruni charges a small boarding fee for their students, but they don’t turn away girls who can’t afford the fee. The cost of a girls’ education, housing, and meals totals thirty dollars a month. They also face the continuous challenges of a growing school: the need for more classroom space, additional teachers, etc. To learn more about Nasaruni, make a financial contribution, or learn how you can be involved, check out their website here.
Education is one of the most powerful ways we can promote change.
How are you helping to promote girls’ education? Let me know in the comments!
Chat next week,