Selina Nkoile is the kind of woman who sees possibilities where others see obstacles. In Kenya’s Rift Valley, many Maasai girls like Nkoile marry before they can finish secondary school. So when she learned that her alma mater, Naning’oi Girls’ School, the first and only girls’ school in the area, was at risk of closing due to low enrollment, she called together a community of volunteers to save it. “We told them that if we just sit down and wait, we can never have change,” Nkoile says in a YALI Voices podcast.
One morning, Nkoile and a team of volunteers borrowed a car and drove to villages around Kajiado County, knocking on doors to enroll girls in school. They were accompanied by police because then parents would be more likely to cooperate when Nkoile explained that girls’ education is compulsory under Kenyan law. In a few hours, they had enrolled 45 girls.
That day, they moved the girls four hours west of Nairobi to Naning’oi Girls’ School in Mosiro. Five more girls set out for the school on their own. “They would come home, find that their sisters are not there, and they ran to school,” Nkoile says. “So it got to 50.”
Nkoile does much of this work alone since other volunteers, particularly the young men, fear community backlash against educating girls. “They were saying that the parents will be angry at us and curse us. But I always tell them as long as you’re doing the right thing, there’s no way anybody can do anything to you.”
She organized another trip in June to enroll more students. “I know that education is the only way to a good future and education is the only way to an empowered society. So, my heart bleeds knowing that there are many kids out in the village who are being denied this opportunity. That’s what I decided I will do until I see that the girls are going to school.”
This Mandela Day, Nkoile wants the YALI Network to help others. “I just want to tell the YALI members to get out of their comfort zones and help a person who is not able to – to maybe help a child who is not able to afford an education or help someone who cannot pay them back.”
Listen to YALI Voices to hear more about Nkoile’s work through her nonprofit organization, Nashipai Maasai Community Project, or read the complete interview transcript below:
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: Selina Nkoile
SELINA NKOILE: I mean, there’s a lot to be done in the communities, but I just want to tell the YALI members to get out of their ways, to get out of their comfort zones and help someone who cannot pay them back.
VOICE OVER: This is the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. In this edition of YALI Voices, we spend time with Selina Nkoile.
SELINA NKOILE: My name is Selina Nkoile. N-K-O-I-L-E.
VOICE OVER: Selina is from Mosiro, in Kenya’s Rift Valley. She is a youth advocate and a fierce supporter of the right of women and girls to receive a formal education.
Right now, Selina is doing all she can to keep open a school dedicated to serving young girls in her Maasai community, including going door to door to make sure all eligible girls and their families are aware of their rights. It’s a very tough job, and one for which she receives no compensation. For her, the work of letting girls learn has its own rewards.
MS. NKOILE: Currently, I’m a community volunteer, and I’m also a trained youth advocate on sexual reproductive health and trait issues. And we’ve been working with the community ever since I completed high school, ’cause I did not get a chance to go to college because in my community, mostly, they don’t value girls and also girls’ education, so you will be so lucky to get a chance to go to college, ’cause that would mean selling off a lot of cows, which cows are the most important asset in our community.
MS. NKOILE: First of all, when I was growing up as a kid, my mom went through a lot of domestic violence and — but she managed to bring us up, and we were able to go to primary school. And I managed to go to primary — is through this organization that came to our village in 1989 and found out that girls’ education was at 0.2 percent, and they decided to construct a girls’ boarding school.
VOICE OVER: Selina got a chance for an education when Margery Kabuya, at the time director of the Christian Children’s Fund, came to her community and convinced the leaders to let her build a girls’ boarding school. It was not easy. Agreements had to be reached and attitudes had to be changed. Selina shares some of the beliefs the chiefs and elders held and then what happened next for her.
MS. NKOILE: They were saying, “No, no, no. We are not going to sign. I mean, girls are just girls, and they need to be married. They don’t belong to us. They belong to their husbands.” So some of them signed, and the school was constructed. And now that’s how I got to get the chance to go to school, ’cause our parents were talked to and they were told that the project wanted to book girls for education instead of booking them for marriage, so they will go to villages and draw children and take pictures of us, and send to the States and other countries and we will get sponsors and they will write us very nice letters and stickers.
And so with time we were able to complete school. I was among the first class and we did — we were like the best in the whole county and we all managed to go to high school.
So now that’s when the problems began, ’cause now the community would wonder how on earth girls will outshine boys and how they will do well than boys, and that was unacceptable. And they started attacking the project, and the project just decided to hand over the school to the government. And they were not yet finished with the project because they were still constructing more structures like the dining hall and the child’s quarters, but now they stopped it there and, as we speak, the management changed. The managing director is no longer Margery, but now her dream of 1,000 girls — she didn’t mean 1,000 girls enrolling to school, she meant 1,000 girls enrolling school and completing primary education and secondary education and even maybe get to university or colleges and change their lives and the lives of their families.
VOICE OVER: With a change in management of the school, the prospects for reaching the goal of educating 1,000 girls dwindled, and the number of girls enrolled in the school dropped below 100.
MS. NKOILE: The project departed, so they were no longer supporting the school and the sponsorships became less, ’cause when we were there we had a lot of sponsors. The sponsors were not helping us directly, they were helping the project, meaning the school will go on so well, we would have food, they would buy uniforms for us, and we would have free boarding facilities, so we didn’t pay anything for school fees. So now when the project departed it meant that kids were supposed to pay school fees now ’cause boarding fee and water, but now everything just changed and girls had to pay school fees.
It was now different ’cause most of the Maasai families are polygamous, and you can find a man with let’s say three wives, and the three wives have maybe 10 kids each, or one might have five kids — and you can imagine 10 kids being paid 3,000 per term for school fees. That will be so much for the — for our fathers and they will just prefer marrying off some of the girls. And, usually, they don’t even — the husbands don’t pay much; they just pay some cows. And due to this drought and the climate change, ’cause I believe we are the ones — us, the pastoral communities, are the ones who feel the climate change the most, ’cause droughts are now longer than they were and cows have nothing to eat. So now they just prefer selling off girls for some cows so that they can get some money. So that’s what brought a change to the school, ’cause now girls who are not being enrolled, like before, it was just a few girls coming to school, and the performance also started going down. So, now girls who are not excelling and there were no numbers of them coming to school anymore. And that’s what made the enrollment go down to less than 100.
MS. NKOILE: So I started a community-based organization. I named it Nashipai Maasai Community Project. Nashipai is a Maasai word meaning happiness, and it also — it has like two meanings, ’cause nashipai is a place where people are happy, and also nashipai is a Maasai name meaning happiness.
And we started with a friend of mine called Geminy Maw from the U.K. and, yeah, I was just giving her this idea and she — she just advised me that we start it. And also I was able to talk to some girls from my community, one called Beatrice, and we were able to bring together some youths from my community and explained to them what was going on and how we need to come in and be the change that we really want to see. And most of these youths we called were the youths who are educated and who went to school, who know the importance of education and who are even earning from education, ’cause you know, if you have an education it’s easy for you to get a job — and we brought them together.
I remember we held the meeting at Kiserian, it’s somewhere in town ’cause it was after — at some training — we were being given some jobs on — it was voters’ registration. So there were many of them, so we called them and explained what is happening in the school. The school is called Naning’oi Girls and we told them that if we just sit down and wait, we can never have change. So we just asked them that we really need to do something about these, ‘cause this school will be even shut down by the government, ‘cause if there are no kids in school, they’re performing very poorly, then there’s no future for that school. And the aim for that school was to empower girls and to let girls learn, which is now something that’s not being seen.
So we came to a conclusion that we are going to borrow some organization’s cars, ’cause we don’t have any car, and we will also see if we can get some policemen, ‘cause it’s in the village and people still fear law and they — if they see the police, they cooperate.
So we went to two organizations, but it’s only one that gave us a car, and our plan was to do this for three days but, unfortunately, we only did for one day, and it was just one trip. So we went to one of the villages, called Eiti, and we brought 23 girls. And the next – after that hour we went to another village, called Ngila, and we brought 22 girls. There was like 45 altogether. And after that, the driver and the police ate lunch and they left. So that was what we were able to do. And then after that, some five girls also ran away by themselves, like they would come home, find that their sisters are not there, and they ran to school. So it got to 50.
VOICE OVER: Selina shares more about the challenges facing young Maasai girls in her community and why it was so important for her to get them into the school.
MS. NKOILE: So in Kenya the age for marriage is 18 years and above. A girl can only be married if she has a national identity card. And also the age — the school age going, kids are usually between the ages of 5 and above. So the kids that we were bringing are the grown girls — the girls that are supposed to be in school. And, surprisingly, most of them were even booked for marriage, so it was even lucky for them to come to school ’cause three of the girls that we brought were already booked for marriage, and in a couple of weeks they were to be married in some few weeks and everything was done and some of them their dowry was already paid, but now we brought them to school. So we were bringing the grown girls and the ones that we knew will be married ’cause we interact with the community and we know the men who are — who don’t take girls to school, and we have one of the men who we brought five of their kids – of his kids to school. There’s also this child labor, but indirectly, like you give your kid to another home — you give her away to another parent to take care of the kids for her or to take care of animals. So that’s kind of child labor and that kid is supposed to be in school. So most of the kids we also found them in some other people’s homes, not their real homes. They’re from far but they’re at other people’s homes, so we were just bringing them all. We were putting them all in the car and bringing them to school.
VOICE OVER: For Selina, serving these young girls and helping them get an education is not about how she will benefit financially.
MS. NKOILE: It’s voluntary, ’cause if we wait until we get money that means there’s no future for girls in our village. So we just had to do it with the little we had, ’cause after we brought them to school, we called another youths meeting and asked people to support us, to just give anything they have, ’cause these girls needed uniforms, they needed soap and oil, and they needed to be comfortable in school — they needed mattresses to sleep on. So we had to like – we would have gone on collecting girls, but now where they sleep was a problem ’cause all the beds are broken and they don’t have mattresses and beddings. So we had to make sure that the 50 we brought are okay and they are comfortable in school so that we can go and get more — like 29th of this month we are planning to get more of them. We are making plans on how they will be fed and how they will sleep comfortably. So with the 50 we brought, at least they have uniforms. We were able to raise money and bought them school uniforms, and they stayed in school over the holiday and I also got money — I asked for money from friends and we bought them food and they were eating good food during the holiday. And also we were able to buy them mattresses through the help of Geminy’s friends; they fundraised and we bought mattresses and beddings for them. Yeah, it’s something voluntary and we don’t get paid for it.
MS. NKOILE: Currently, I’m the only volunteer at the community, ‘cause most of the other youths who are supporting are working and, actually, it’s only two of them, ’cause these young men are tending to shy away from this ‘cause I think they just fear. They — I don’t know why they fear, ‘cause they were telling me that, “Do you know what a curse is? Like, somebody cursing you?” So they were saying that the parents will be angry at us and curse us. But I always tell them as long as you’re doing the right thing, there’s no way anybody can just do anything to you. If anything, the parents who are marrying off kids at an early age are the ones to die of the curses that they are throwing to us. So most of them are shying off. I’m hoping they’ll join us through the — along the way. But for now, it’s only me and this one other lady working at Magadi and one of the school board of management — he’s the chairman. So these are the only people right now involved in this and just trying to help out.
VOICE OVER: This is clearly a very important project to Selina. It is one that she embarked on knowing that she was not going to make a lot of money or get paid for it, and yet she keeps doing it.
MS. NKOILE: It’s important to me because right now I can speak to you because I went to school and I know if I went to college, ’cause I only did a permaculture course. If I went to college and maybe got a degree it will be because of education, and that degree will earn me a job that will support me and my family, and my other family when I get married. So I know that education is the only way to a good future and education is the only way to an empowered society. So my heart bleeds knowing that there are many kids out in the village who are being denied to this opportunity to school, and so that’s what I decided that I will do it until when I’ll see that the girls are going to school; that’s when my dream will come true.
VOICE OVER: Every July 18th is Mandela Day. It’s a day of service across the world. What would Selina say to YALI Network members about what they should do to volunteer?
MS. NKOILE: I mean, there’s a lot to be done in the communities. Most of us are just staying there comfortable in the cities working and earning and making their families okay. But I just want to tell the YALI members to get out of their ways, to get out of their comfort zones and help a person who is not able to — to maybe help a child who is not able to afford an education or help someone who cannot pay them back.
VOICE OVER: Thank you everyone for tuning into another YALI Voices Podcast, and thank you, Selina, for spending time with us and for all the ways you serve your community.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.
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The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State, and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. Government.