“We went to the village chief who then warned Naisimoi’s father that it was illegal to marry off an underage girl,” tells Diana Parmeres, a beneficiary of BfE and teacher at Tembea. “But we felt that it was safer for Naisimoi to be at school. Her father agreed but he doesn’t want a scholarship for her younger sister.”
“My father is not at all supportive of girls being educated and believes that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and raising children,” chips in Naisimoi. “But my mother is very supportive.”
A top performer, Naisimoi plans to be a veterinarian specializing in elephants. Her role model is Dr Cynthia Moss, the woman who pioneered research in free-roaming elephants in the Amboseli ecosystem in 1972. Moss continues with her research in Amboseli and is also supporting Naisimoi’s education through Beads for Education.
Strolling through the school grounds to the vegetable farm that the girls tend to and which supplies the school for a hundred girls and their teachers, the youngster points to the vegetables planted in cardboard boxes and fed by drip irrigation. The girl speaks perfect English, is confident and cheerful. “Kajiado is very dry so Debby found out about planting in cardboard boxes so that we don’t have to dig the ground. We compost and mulch the plants and look how healthy they are without having to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It’s all organic.”
Naisimoi’s story with Beads for Education began in 2014. “I was in class 5 at a public school in Namanga. One day, some people from BfE came to school to interview us. I had no idea what it was all about. Twenty girls were interviewed and two of us passed.”
“I never imaged my life would change so much,” tells the young woman. Naisimoi recently won a competition where she addressed climate change and environmental degradation. “I have seen my mother cry when our goats and sheep died during the droughts of 2016 and 2017. Droughts used to happen after seven years in my area but now they are frequent.
“I also hate poverty because it limits education. If we could fix climate change my family and community would be prosperous again with our lives being supported by our livestock.”
Naisimoi also participated in the Yale Young African Scholars leadership program on zoom this year instead of flying to Ghana for it because of Covid-19. “The pandemic is a challenging time,” she quips.
Naisimoi and all beneficiaries are supported from high school to university by BfE. For many, they are the first in the family to attend school.
Soft-spoken and slender Parmeres is from Olgulului village bordering the world famous Amboseli National Park. She’s an alumni of Tembea Girls High School where she now doubles as a teacher and an accountant for BfE.
“If it wasn’t for BfE, l would probably be married off by now,” Parmeres states. “Our parents did not value education.”
If Parmeres had been married off at an early age in the village, she probably would be milking cows every morning, fetching firewood for cooking and subject to having as many children as her husband wished because traditionally children signified a man’s wealth. Family planning would not even be considered.
Instead today, Parmeres who graduated from Kenyatta University in 2016 drives her own car, is married to the man she met at university (by chance also a Maasai) and has a little daughter. She began working for BfE soon after graduation.
“I’m concerned about girls dropping out of school due to early pregnancy. They are then circumcised and married off, many as young as 13 years old. There are more cases now because of Covid-19 because there’s no money,” states Parmeres.
“I advocate for girls education,” continues Parmeres. “Today, l help my father support some of my 17 siblings from his two wives.”
Coming from a patriarchal society where the man holds power, Parmeres states, “I prefer my life today than that of the traditional Maasai woman.”
Beads for Education
In 1991, Debby Rooney a school teacher from the US came on a safari to Kenya as a regular tourist. She returned the following year. As fate would have it, the driver guide stopped to stretch legs at Isinya in Kajiado county en route to Amboseli National Park. It’s when Rooney met a group of Maasai women beading. Curious she asked them why they were beading. They answered ‘so that we can take our daughters to school and support our families’. It was the founding of Beads for Education in 1993.
“Debby started buying the beaded items from these women to market in the US until 1996,” narrates Diana Parmeres. “By then Debby was sponsoring twenty girls but the money from the beads was not enough to support them.”
Rooney then started looking for sponsors to support girls from high school all the way to university. Today there are more than 500 Maasai girls who have been supported by BfE, all doing well in their chosen professions.
“Each year we sponsor 30 girls from Kajiado, Amboseli and Maasai Mara,” continues Parmeres. “We work with the local authorities in the area, see the risk of the girl being married off and also their grades. It’s critical that the girls have creative thinking.”
In 2013, Tembea Girls High School opened its gates to the first batch of pupils. Built by supporters of BfE, the school is built around a courtyard with an impressive book-filled library many that l would love to borrow. The library stands between two rows of single storey buildings, one that supports the dormitories and one that supports classrooms. Each class has 30 pupils, spacious with light filtering in through the huge windows.
At hand are Rebecca Naisimoi and two friends. I’m surprised by their openness and articulate conversations.
“Ah,” states Parmeres. “When Debby started visiting Kenyan schools to admit the first girls she found that the teachers were dictating too much with little engagement from the children. So when she started Tembea, her criteria was that the girls must research and ask questions at class time.”
Outside the fence, stands Tembea Nursery School a cheerful mabati structure with brightly painted letters and animals. “It’s for the children of the local community because the nearest school is miles away. The children are taught for free by the girls who have graduated and waiting to start university.”
When l ask about the name Tembea, Kiswahili for walking, it’s from the walkathons between 2000 and 2013 that the girls and their sponsors did for a week, walking and camping between Isinya and Amboseli, a distance of 200 kilometers to raise awareness about educating the girl and the new school. A school that’s opening the world for the girls.