A month ago, Susan Lekolie was your typical teenager. She was bubbling with the excitement of going to a new school and she couldn’t wait for the teacher’s strike to end. Fast-forward to last week, when she barely escaped being forcefully married off to the obligatory old man.
Susan Lekolei is 16-year-old girl with a perpetual smile on her face. She is one of the students sponsored by the Ol Pejeta conservancy through PA-MOJA bursaries. Despite her bright face, the form one student at St Francis girls has led a harder life than most, even by the standards of the marginalized settings where she was born.
As a primary school student at Ireri primary school, she had little hope of extending her education past class 8. Her parents could ill afford it and in any case, there often isn’t much motivation to budget for a girl’s secondary school education. The turning point in her life came about when a team from PA-MOJA visited her school and she was picked as one of the full bursary students. Once the PA-MOJA team pledged her fees, the Ol Pejeta Community Department identified a school for her and arranged her admission.
While to many people, going to school simply means getting an education, for Susan, it is so much more. Because Susan’s family is so poor, she often didn’t get enough to eat. Therefore, going to a boarding secondary school means she does not have to worry about going to bed or waking up hungry.
In addition, like many of her peers, she lives in perpetual fear of being married off to a much older man (from 30 to 60), possibly as a second or third wife. Sadly, this is a fate that is all too common for class 8 girls who end up in an arranged marriage instead of going to high school.
Susan dreams of becoming a teacher. To her that is the most important job she can do since it would give her a chance to impact the lives of the many little girls who ultimately lose control over their own destinies; these girls live in a world designed for men, by men. In a few years, she hopes to come back to her community and change the lives of young girls as a teacher, role model and mentor.
As schools were opening a few weeks ago, Susan came dangerously close to adding to the sobering forced marriage statistics in her community. The week before she left for school, her life was going on like that of every teenage high school student, finishing homework, mending a dress here and there and helping her single mum around the house.
However, unbeknownst to either of them, her uncle had been planning to marry her off to an ancient suitor for the past few weeks. The girl and her mother found out about the upcoming nuptials at the last minute and they naturally refused to have anything to do with the idea. Incensed, the man tore their house down (not a figure of speech). Being a mud and wattle structure of diminutive proportions, this was not a difficult job. Susan and her mother had to flee to stay with friends as they desperately tried to work out a way for the girl to escape and find her way to school unmolested.
Fortunately, a few local men were brave enough to escort the girl home so she could dig her clothes out of rubble that used to be the house. She finally managed to sneak to Nanyuki town where she met up with PA-MOJA coordinator, Emily Lerosion, who wasted no time in getting her to school where she could be safe from lecherous old men for what is left of the school term.
What happens during the long December holiday when she has to go back to the same home and community? Well, it’s impossible to tell. Instead of worrying about homework, Susan has to live with the unbearable possibilty of losing her education and innocence. For her, it’s a mere toss of the dice held by a group of old men who are backed by centuries of outdated tradition.
by Ian Mungai