Strictly speaking, Gill Elias is not a crusader against female genital mutilation. When the yoga enthusiast and her husband John first invested their lifetime savings in The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille, a lodge that sits snugly in 40,000 acres that surround the Kijabe Group Ranch in Laikipia North, they also decided to do something to support the local community.
They soon discovered that schools were few and far between. Naturally, this made it difficult for children in the area to acquire the education they so badly needed to progress in life. On a normal week day, the average child walked at least eight kilometres to get to the nearest school. The situation was far from ideal and the couple decided to do something about it.
The Sanctuary is a high-end lodge with accommodation ranging from Sh55,000 per night per person in the low season to over Sh70,000 for international guests in the high season. This does not include the Sh8,000 per person per night that guests pay as conservation fee. Clearly, money is not a problem for many of the guests who patronise the lodge.
In 2008, a year after the couple had set up shop, they hosted an unlikely group of wealthy guests.
“They were keen to help solve community problems. They were willing to give a lot of money, which we had not anticipated or expected,” says John.
One of the guests was a man from the Netherlands, who asked John: “What is the most important thing I can do to support this community?”
Because he had no answer to that question, John asked community leaders and they were all unanimous. They wanted a primary school. The Dutchman had no problem so he said he would give the money to John, who would, in turn, use it to build the school, which today has 450 pupils. That is now Ngabolo Primary School near Tura, about two hours’ drive from Nanyuki town, came to be.
However, once the school was up and running, John and Gill soon discovered a disconcerting trend. The girls were not staying long in school for long. In fact, the majority were dropping out soon after they became teenagers. On inquiring, Gill was told that the girls were leaving school to get married. This did not add up because the boys were staying on. It was then that she learnt that once a pupil underwent circumcision, also known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), she had no incentive to stay on in school. This was a rite of passage that signalled that she was ready to be married off.
Although the couple was receiving a considerable amount of money to support education, especially among the Maasai and Samburu, who form the bulk of the local community, they were not achieving the desired results. They had to find a solution.
“Gill did it very skillfully,” says John. “Over five years, she engaged community leaders and local opinion shapers on the problem of girls dropping out of school.”
Gill did not ask the community leaders to discard FGM. Instead, she asked them to help in keeping girls in school longer. Among the pastoralist communities, large family sizes present an economic challenge. On average, a woman without an education gets about seven children. The moment she graduates with a degree, her fertility rate drops to 2.4 children on average. And if she gets a PhD, it drops even further to 0.8 children.
Gill helped the community see why it was important to keep girls in school longer. It meant that the girls would have fewer children and this would help the community in managing its population in an area that is semi-arid and where pastoralism is the dominant source of livelihood.
“Doctors and nurses became involved as well,” says John. Because donors had funded the purchase of a mobile clinic, the doctors and nurses used the rounds they made to also teach their patients about family planning and the need for mothers to deliver in hospital.
One of the solutions that the community proposed was an alternative rite of passage for the girls. This culminated in the first graduation ceremony, in 2015, for 81 girls, many of who are still in school. The girls’ relatives, local chiefs and community leaders were at hand to express their solidarity with the alternative rite of passage. The following year, another 80 girls graduated.
Girls are now staying longer in school and this in turn has created a virtuous circle. The population growth has slowed down, meaning that more families are now smaller, more manageable and also better off economically partly because the community also gets a share of the proceeds from The Sanctuary.
Even the number of deliveries at the nearby hospital has increased. Last year, 257 babies were born there. All survived as did their mothers, itself no mean feat as it has led to a reduction in child and maternal mortality.
Over the last 10 years, Gill and her husband have helped to build at least four primary and four nursery schools. They have also overseen the building of classrooms in other institutions, including secondary schools, besides hiring over 20 teachers.
“John and Gill worked day and night for the community,” says Nils Baete, a guest from Germany, who, together with his father, was spending three nights at The Sanctuary. Nils learnt about the work that the couple was doing when he and his family first vacationed at The Sanctuary a few years back. He decided to return on his own, as a volunteer, and for a while, lived in a tent at the Ol Lentille Conservancy as he worked as a teacher in various schools in the area.
For him, the fact that a luxury tourism establishment is working with the local community to protect wildlife is a perennial attraction.
This synergy has been made possible by a unique model of conservation that is based on three basic principles; conservation of the environment, including protection of wildlife; inviting investors to put in their money, time and energy in running a profitable hospitality business which in turn ensures that the local community benefits morally and materially. In this case, the community benefits through creation of jobs at The Sanctuary and the enforcement of a revenue sharing agreement with the entire community. This arrangement has ensured a balance between the local community, the investors as well as the wild animals.
The model was made possible by the Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF), an international NGO involved in conservation across Africa. First, AWF educated the local community on the need to protect wildlife as one way of promoting tourism. Then it invited John and Gill to invest in funding, building, and running the lodge at Ol Lentille on the understanding that they would support the local community. Once this was done, it finally brokered an agreement between the two parties, including a deal on revenue sharing. Subsequently, John and Gill donated the lodge to the community.
Fiesta Warinwa, the AWF Director of Corporate and Foundation Relation-Africa, says that to keep the balance in place, the Ol Lentile Trust was formed with its focus being overseeing the social arm of the project, with special attention on education and healthcare.
This is the organisation that has been spearheading the education projects that, among other things, have kept girls in school, saving them from FGM and early marriage.
This is a model we replicate in all our partner establishments,” says Grace Wairima, a field communication officer at AWF.
On July 15, Gill and one of her friends, Nancy Rubinstein, were among the people who organised a community conservation day that brought together learners from more than 15 schools in the area to learn about the benefits of conservation and environmental conservation. Many of the pupils and students were girls, a testament of the work that has gone into keeping them in school longer.
“Do I have a long neck?” asked a girl from Kimanju primary School when it was their turn to perform a skit.
“Yes,” said one boy.
“Am I bird?” asked another.
“Yes,” the others replied.
“Am I an ostrich?” someone else chimed.
“Am I a vulture?” asked yet another pupil.
“Yes!” they all said in unison.
Performers from different schools used word games like this to learn about nature and conservation. After all, there is a direct link between the environment and their being in school. They have seen that in the years the partnership has worked, there has been an influx of tourists into the area.
“The schools in this area are as a result of the conservation effort in partnership with people from outside the country,” said Jack Morijoh, who works as a ranger and radio signal operator at the nearby Mpala Research Centre. On a day to day basis, his job involves maintaining the balance between the local community, the American students at Mpala and the wild animals that populate the general Ol Donyo Napi area.
Like Jack, Bonnie Parsulan, 33, derives a direct income from this partnership. His job is to take tourists visiting The Sanctuary on game drives around the Ole Lentille Conservancy.
“People who could not go to school because they were poor now can,” he says. His daughter attends one of the schools built as a result of this partnership.
“No one wants to kill a wild animal now,” he says. “Animals are part of our lives. We take care of them the way we take care of our domestic animals.”
From his office at The Sanctuary, in between answering queries sent via email and ensuring that his guests are comfortable, John acknowledges the role that AWF has played in making this partnership a success.
“Without AWF, we would not have been able to do this project. They made it possible to have a mutually beneficial agreement.”
Among the most visible dividends of that agreement is the high number of teenage girls in school uniform.
AT A GLANCE
Community leads in drive to bring change
The Ol Lentille conservancy is owned by the Kijabe group ranch.
Each year, members of the group ranch meet to decide how the local community will invest the money they earn from their partnership with The Sanctuary, a high-end lodge inside the conservancy.
Over the years, the community has invested in education and healthcare and these are now paying dividends. More girls are getting an education, as are the boys.
The partnership between the community and investor was facilitated by AWF, an international conservation NGO.