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Tree in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

My Kenya Diary Part Five: Pauline's Empowering Project

By Jane McLellan

Last updated: 30th July 2011

Thursday 14th July 2011

My alarm got me up bright and early at 5:45am so I could meet the project coordinators. We jumped in a minibus to our first destination Naruk. It took about two and half hours to reach the first project, where we visited a women’s group, an amazing project founded by a lovely Masai lady called Pauline. I could immediately tell she was a very special person; she is famous in this area of Kenya and she is truly a fascinating woman with the biggest heart. I love this lady!

This organisation was set up mainly to help empower women. Apparently, in the Masai culture, men often oppress women as they don’t consider them important. Women have no involvement in decision making; in fact, the men often refer to the women as ‘children’. Many women marry through an arranged marriage and others are sold by their families. Some girls are married off at a very early age, often around 12 years old and it is not unusual for their husbands to be in their 40s. The men may have a number of wives. When a young girl gets married, she is usually pulled out of school and her education ends, meaning she often can’t read and write and has no choice but to rely on her husband for money and food. Many young girls and women are trapped in loveless and sometimes very abusive marriages.

Pauline’s project aims to promote equal opportunities as well as encourage sustainable rural development and poverty reduction. She aims to help women find self-employment and generate an income, which will in turn help with capacity building and self development. Through formal and informal education the project helps to empower women and make a real difference.

A serious concern for Pauline and her team is genital mutilation of young girls and also the related issues of giving birth. It is part of the culture to perform this ceremony on girls when they are aged between 8-12 years old. Usually the clitoris is completely removed. It is often not done hygienically and the aftercare afterwards is not effective, as all they do is bathe the girl in milk! After the mutilation, childbirth can be very painful, so when a girl falls pregnant she will often only eat porridge and drink water so that she produces a very small baby. Clearly this is not healthy for the girl or her child.

To make matters worse, many of these girls give birth at home. The women that help them give birth have really long thumb nails that help split the scar from the previous mutilation. The women’s nails are often not clean, and can be covered in tobacco, and if they do wash them it is in cow’s urine! After the girl gives birth, she doesn’t have access to medical care if she needs stitches, so the healing is painful and prone to infection.

Another risk of giving birth at home is the girl could lose at lot of blood and even die before help can be sought. This valuable organisation encourages both men and women to understand that giving birth in the hospital is the best way. These graphic details can be horrifying and hard to hear, but it is important to know, and not forget, that women are going through this around the world and projects like Pauline’s provide such an important, often life-saving service.

Pauline also helps to save girls that are very young or in abusive marriages. The organisation does not have a vehicle, so often Pauline will walk miles to get to the girl’s home. Pauline often risks her life rescuing these girls, and once she has removed them from their difficult situation there is often nowhere for them to stay, so Pauline kindly looks after them until they can find alternative accommodation.

Due to the fact that many of these women are pulled out of education at an early age, their job prospects are limited. This organisation helps re-train and educate women and give them better prospects for building their own future. Recent projects include buying cows, looking after them and re-selling for a profit when the cows are fatter, and others include bee keeping, beading, keeping poultry and tree planting – a diverse range of fantastic opportunities which are on offer at this inspirational project. There are so many ways that volunteers here can help; caring volunteers are really needed and can make a significant difference to these women’s lives, and help Pauline achieve her vision.

The organisation has been given a piece of land and Pauline’s dream is to build a new office so she doesn’t have to pay rent (often she can’t afford to keep up payments). She would like to build a room where rescued women can sleep as well as a classroom for teaching and training. Pauline also spends time encouraging men to attend the women’s groups with the aim to help re-educate and change their values towards women and it is already having an impact. On top of all this, Pauline is also mum to 8 orphans! I don’t know how she does it!

I’d been so wrapped up in finding out all the exciting plans for the project, that I realised it was high time for lunch. I invited Pauline and her colleague to join me and they were very excited about this because they don’t normally have time for lunch, let alone get the chance to eat out in a restaurant. As we left the office Pauline grabbed me and gave me the biggest hug, covered my face in kisses and then told me she loved me. She then held my hand as we walked down the street to the hotel. At 34 years old, I would normally feel a bit foolish holding hands with another grown up but with Pauline it felt really nice and natural.

So I walked with mama, met loads of her family and friends along the way (she knows everyone!) until we reached the hotel… well, it is a hotel but not in the way we would know it. Basically, it was a concrete room with tables that you would find in a canteen. I paid for 5 of us to have lunch and the grand total came to $10 but they were so appreciative.

We then went to Pauline’s house because this is where the volunteers stay when they come to help at the project. I had a look around and then Pauline gave me one of her Masai necklaces as a present, which was so generous. She really is a lovely woman! We said our goodbyes, which involved a lot of cuddles and kisses from Pauline, then jumped into a mini bus to travel on to Masai Mara, a ride I wasn’t likely to forget in a hurry…

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