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Friday, February 13, 2009

Mary Walker: Fund makes all the difference

(From the Steamboat Pilot)

Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker works at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 with funding from the United Nations, and it provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker’s updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

At the time of my last update of my work at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Kenya, the nationwide teachers strike had paralyzed primary education in that country. I described the possible repercussions if the strike moved into secondary schools, which was to happen any day at the time of my writing.

Fortunately, the strike has been resolved, and all children in Kenya have returned to school. The conditions of the resolution are troubling, however, and do not promise a long-term solution to the woeful pay that teachers in Kenya receive from the government. The government has promised most primary teachers a 40 percent pay increase as long as there is “substantial” improvement in the Kenyan economy within two years. I don’t need to belabor the point that the chances of this improvement in a struggling, developing country at this time are nonexistent.

Nationwide events, such as the post-election violence of last year and this year’s teachers strike, pose a particular challenge to the majority of secondary school students in Kenya who attend boarding schools. When schools are closed and students are sent home for long, unspecified periods of time, their access to the resources and tools to guide their education come to a virtual halt for months at a time. The students who can manage the break are those who live in economically stable households with electricity and supportive parents.

But other students go home to living conditions that make studying very difficult. Lack of electricity, poor nutrition, lack of clean water at home and undereducated parents who cannot foster a positive learning environment all conspire against these children. For them, the boarding school environment is their only opportunity to succeed. It is not surprising that only 2 percent of students who complete high school in Kenya go on to college, university or vocational training.

The Tasaru Scholarship Fund is bucking this trend. With about 50 girls living at the rescue center, the fund currently is supporting two girls in teachers’ training colleges in Kenya with sponsorships in place for at least five more girls next year. I’m not a math whiz, but I think that represents seven times the national average in Kenya for college attendance. These girls are Maasai victims of female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. The impact of the opportunity that these girls now have as made possible by this fund is incalculable. They will be the vanguard in the effort to combat these practices through education. They will see the end of these practices in their lifetimes.