Forced to drop out of school because of female genital mutilation and early marriage, older women are going back to achieve their academic dreams
When the government launched universal free primary education in 2003, it is not just children who answered this call. At 84, the late Kimani Maruge was also not left behind.
Maruge’s journey became a major inspiration both locally and internationally. He was immortalised in the film titled The First Grader, a 2010 biographical drama film based on his true-life story.
Though his story was more of an exception at the time, today the situation is becoming increasingly different.
Women are going back to school in droves and this has been observed across counties. Traditionally, people went to school to get a job and make a living but an interesting trend has been gaining traction with a growing number of women with a solid financial base making the bold step to return to school.
There are those who are going back to school because they aspire for political offices that demand that the holder to have attained a certain level of education. Others want to set a good example for their children and there those who simply want to finish what they started.
But for others like Teresa Lokichu, it is all of the above.
Born in 1961 in West Pokot county, she was enrolled at Chepareria Primary at 10. Like many children her age, she nursed various dreams of being a teacher, a doctor or a pilot.
But in spite of her wavering dreams, one thing remained clear — she wanted to become somebody in society.
“I enjoyed being in school but when I reached standard eight, things changed in the blink of an eye and my life took a very different direction,” she explains.
Lokichu remembers the fateful day all too well when she went through female genital mutilation and was later carried shoulder high to her husband’s home.
This day set her on a journey that would leave her widowed with 11 children, with no education, or a way to make a living.
“I began selling illicit brew because I felt like I had reached the end of the road. With time, having being raised in a religious household, I had to look for an alternative source of income,” she says.
She ventured into selling seedlings, building materials and farming. “With time, my business really picked and my life was becoming more stable,” she adds.
As a result, not only was she able to put food on the table, but her children were able to go to school and to avoid going through various retrogressive and harmful cultural practices that characterise the life of many Pokot women and girls.
The mother of seven boys and four girls says none of her children have gone through FGM, a tradition she is fighting by setting an example herself. These children have given her 23 grandchildren.
Having all these children looking up to me as their leader meant making certain changes and sacrifices, she says.
“I have always been very passionate about education and I did not want my children and grandchildren to look at me and feel like education was not an important part of their lives,” she says.
Though she went to school up to standard six, after the cloud that is early marriage, early and multiple pregnancies passed, the silver lining came through sheer and unrelenting hard work. Her businesses have prospered; the shrewd trader is now a woman of means.
“I live a comfortable life but I wanted them to know that going to school is important. Education is not about getting good grades but learning how to interact with people, to identify and polish our skills, to have the stamina to go on even when things get tough,” she says.
“I decided to complete primary school where I scored 244 out of 500 marks after sitting Kenya Certificate of Primary Education,” Lokichu says.
Celebrity gospel singer Christine Otieno is one other shining example of women who have defied age to quench their thirst for education. Although she was already a household name, thanks to her hit Mungu Sonko Wa Masonko, she went back to school 21 years after dropping out just after finishing standard eight.
It was not her desire to drop out of school but as was the case in many communities at the time, she was ripe for marriage.
Her daughter encouraged her to go back to school as did her celebrity lifestyle where she found herself out of her league dealing and interacting with people who were much more educated.
With a stable source of income, Otieno is currently a student at the United States International University (USIU) studying entrepreneurship in business management.
She says women who were denied an opportunity to go to school can still access education by going through the adult programme, which is offered across the country.
These senior students continue to demonstrate that women stand to benefit from acquiring an education, even if it comes much later in life.
“There are many funds set aside for women to borrow money and start their own projects but they have very basic skills in reading and writing, so they go to brokers to assist them but end up being swindled off their money,” explains Elizabeth Kuria, who has also returned to school.
According to Kuria, 48, and a mother of six, women should not be afraid of becoming the laughing stock for going back to school with their children.
Lokichu concurs saying“they used to say that ‘Mama Teresa’ [as she is popularly known] is not educated, now they say that I am a good example because in 2016, I will be sitting KCPE.”
Experts say Kenya has some of the most gender progressive laws and or policy frameworks in Africa, presenting women with an opportunity to narrow the gender gaps in all the sectors of the economy.
This was one of the selling points for the much-hailed constitution. Unfortunately, Lokichu says the reality is dawning on many women that “they can see the promised land but cannot enter because we lack the necessary papers or skills that come from going to school and being educated.”
Consequently, Lokichu — a nominated Member of the County Assembly in West Pokot — says many women are still not able to fully exploit these opportunities because of their basic levels of education.
Looking back, she says she represents a whole generation of women who were denied an education even though they were raised at a time when the government begun to actively agitate for girl-child education to provide human capital for its young economy.
But harmful cultural practices stood in the way of these girls staying in school with some being married off to raise money to educate their brothers.
Kuria however says while drumming support for the older women to go back to school is key, “I am also encouraging young girls who may have made a mistake and gotten pregnant, go back to school,” she emphasizes.
“We no longer have big farms to be inherited, what you can inherit now from your parents is an education. And that is also the best gift that these young girls can give to their babies,” she adds.
But whatever the reason for going back to school, women are clear on one thing — that education is still the key to a bright future.
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