Namnyak Nailishu is 12, a Class One pupil at Naning’oi Girls’ Primary School, a boarding school for girls in Narok. Her family lives in Olosongon, 11 kilometres from the school. Namnyak joined nursery school in 2017, when she decided that she had had enough, seen enough, and so ran away to escape a planned early marriage.
“My father advised me against going to school as he wanted me to get married, but I so much wanted to know how to read and write,” Namnyak says.
Her stepsister, who is 15 years, is also circumcised and stays at home awaiting a suitor, she added. Her three brothers too have never been to school. The three young men spend their days in the wilderness of Narok, herding livestock.
“My mother comes secretly to visit me in school, since it is something that my father does not support. I admire my teachers and when I grow up, I too want to be a teacher,” says Namnyak.
She is one of the girls perceived to be at a high-risk of not returning to school if they went home for the holidays.
“For their safety, they stay in school throughout,” explains Teresia Tikoishi, who is the head teacher at Naning’oi Primary School, located in Mosroi Ward in Narok County.
Naning’oi Girls’ Primary School, which has boarding facilities, was built by ChildFund Kenya in an effort to rescue girls in this area from early marriages.
It was then handed over to the government. The school has 320 girls, 100 of who took themselves to the school.
“These girls escape their homes to run away from female genital mutilation (FGM), a culture that threatens to prevent them from attaining their dreams because they are married off even before they get into teenage-hood,” explained Ms Tikoishi.
Rarai Loliyo from Mosroi ward is only 10, and unlike girls of her age, who are still playing with dolls, Rarai knows what marriage is, having been married off a year ago to a 24-year-old.
“I was married for one month and one week,” she says in a low tone, her gaze trained on her feet. The ‘marriage’, we’re told, took away her confidence as she was not only sexually abused, she was also beaten by her ‘husband’ severally.
“One day I just ran back home,” Rarai recollected, as she fought back the tears welling in her eyes.
That was in December 2017, but instead of finding respite at home, her father married her off again, this time to a 30-year-old man in the next village where she was expected to heard goats in the wilderness daily.
One day in January 2018, Rarai ran away from her marriage when her husband and mother-in-law went to the market.
This time round, she decided not to return home, where she knew she could not get the sympathy she needed, instead, she decided to go to Naning’oi Girls Primary School. “Some girls that I had met while herding goats had told me about the school and explained that I would be safe there,” she said.
She wants to be a teacher once she completes her studies:
“I love reading. When schools close, I do not want to go back home. I would rather stay here.”
Terenoit Mpeti, 15, is in pre-unit. She comes from Oldebe, within Mosroi ward. The first born in a family of five children, Terenoit has been married off twice.
Her first marriage was in November 2016.
“The man wanted to sleep with me but was unable to. We never consummated our ‘marriage’, and out of frustration, he would repeatedly beat me even as I herded cattle in the forest,” Terenoit narrated.
After a week, she could not take it anymore and so she went back to her parents’ home. Only for her father to beat her up. Reason? She had shamed the family. After the beating, she was taken back to the man’s home.
“The following day, I ran away into the forest where I stayed for three days. Due to hunger, I was forced to return home,” she recounted.
So determined was her father to marry her off, that she again handed her over to another man. She stayed with the man for two months.
“This second marriage was bad too — my mother-in-law would incite him to beat me,” she says.
Her lucky break came when her mother visited her one day. She knew that Terenoit didn’t want to be married, rather, desired to be in school.
“But she could not convince my father because he could not listen to her. She informed me of this school and one early morning, I woke up and ran away instead of going to milk the goats,” Terenoit narrated.
That was in late January 2017.
Naomi Tirishe is 11 years old and in nursery school. Naomi foiled plans to have her circumcised and married off in January 2018.
“My two stepbrothers one day threatened to circumcise me and marry me off, so I ran away,” Naomi says.
Naomi’s father long passed away, and her mother is a second wife.
She ran away from home to Naning’oi Girls Primary School, where her elder sister is in Standard Six.
She is a day scholar, and therefore returns home in the evening. Naomi too, wants to a teacher once through with her studies.
Nadupoi Nkoiduri is 11 years old. She is in Class One.
Her dream to attend school was realised in January 2017, when the area chief ordered that all children in the area be taken to school.
“I had never been to school. I was always herding goats in the forest,” she begins.
During school holidays, she remains in school, otherwise she would be circumcised and married off.
“I don’t want to go back home. My three friends went home during the school holidays in November 2017 and they did not come back. They were all circumcised and married off,” Nadupoi says.
Her dream? “I want to be a lawyer, make money and take my siblings to school,” says Nadupoi, the fifth-born in a family of seven children.
Yamoi Dema, 10, comes from Olokere village in Mosroi ward and is in Class One.
In February 2017, her father took Yamoi to live with his sister, who is married in Ntulele. He had heard that girls in their village were resisting marriages by running to Naning’oi Girls Primary School, and feared that his daughter would do the same.
That December, her father brought items that he had bought to have her circumcised and later married off.
“I asked him why he didn’t want to take me to school yet my two brothers were in school, but he told me that I have to obey him,” said Yamoi who spent eight months herding cattle and goats at her aunt’s place in Ntulele.
“I decided that I would also run away to the school. It was on Christmas Day and I waited until everyone else went to church, then I escaped,” Yaimoi narrates.
She wants to become a medical doctor.
The school is home to 320 girls, both boarders and day scholars.
The school’s enrolment keeps rising as more girls seek refuge from female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage.
But some parents, especially fathers, at some point find themselves tempted to withdraw their daughters from the school.
“It is not unusual to find one of them going head on with the watchman at the gate. Severally, I have called on the police to assist,” said Ms Tikoishi. In June 2018, she had to call the police when a parent who wanted to forcefully withdraw his daughter from the school appeared at the gate, brandishing a panga. “The man had said that the community does not have in-laws, and that the school was keeping their girls. He added that her daughter’s stay at the school would deny his family seven cows. I called the police who were on patrol and they immediately heeded my call,” she recollected.
Such persistent animosity between the community and the school had over the years seen many teachers seek transfer from the school, citing insecurity. In 2017, Ms Tikoishi had to source for seven teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) and three others who are employed by the school board of management.
“The situation is now very calm, I thank the police and the local administration. It has not been an easy journey,” said Ms Tikoishi. She adds that though the local community had seen the fruits of education, it had not accorded it the importance that it deserved.
To change this mindset that girls have to be married off at a young age, this long school holiday, Naning’oi Girls’ Primary School has organised an alternative rite of passage for the girls.
“We are working with five non-governmental organisations to train the old men, the Morans, the young girls and some 15 circumcisers that girls should be allowed to enjoy their childhood, and to go to school. They also have to understand that girls who are not circumcised should also be welcomed in the community and treated with respect,” explained the principal.
Some 46 girls live permanently within the school compound as they have nowhere to call home, she added. “They have been disowned by their families after running away from female genital mutilation,” she shared. During parents’ days, the teachers engage and counsel parents of the 46 girls. This has seen some of the parents soften their hard stance, Ms Tikoishi added.
Due to her engagement with the parents and the local administration in Naning’oi, Ms Tikoishi has become a household name such that young girls who are in danger of being married off, run into the school anytime of the day.
“They just bring themselves. “Some three girls, aged eight years, from Mariaini recently knocked at my door at 8pm. They explained that there were plans to have them circumcised and married off,” she disclosed.
In Naning’oi, once circumcised, a girl is considered ready for marriage.
“It is a threat to their life. If not undone, an entire generation will be wasted, especially because of drought,” she added. In times of drought, many families in the community marry off their girls in exchange for food and livestock.
Early marriages expose young girls to the danger of paralysis as they give birth, due to the struggle.
“Given that they are still children, their pelvic bones are less developed,” she added.
Ann Kasura is the ChildFund Kenya sponsoring missions officer at Naning’oi where 850 girls are being sponsored with educational scholarships.
At Naning’oi Primary School, 150 vulnerable girls are in the sponsorship programme and ChildFund has also constructed the school buildings. “We also provide school feeding programmes in Early Childhood Development Education centres and pay some of the teachers,” said Ms Kasura.
Early pregnancies in the area threaten girls’ education when they drop out of school. Political interference has previously foiled attempts to rescue girls from early marriages.
“We once rescued three girls aged between nine and 11 years. Their ‘husbands’ were handed a jail term of 30 years. But five years later, they were removed from the Naivasha Maximum Prison by some politicians,” explained Ms Tikoishi.