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Islanders connect with an African woman's effort to educate girls
Sekeyian Yiaile was one of the fortunate ones in her tribal village in Kenya — though to hear her story, she hardly sounds lucky.
Determined to refuse an arranged marriage to a man five times her senior, she endured beatings from her uncle and her stepbrother. A medicine man was brought in to find out what was wrong with her. When her uncle told her he planned to beat her again, she fled to a Catholic mission “a long distance away,” she said.
She was around 14 at the time (she doesn’t know her exact age). Partly educated and determined to chart her own course, Yiaile didn’t want to be the third wife to a man she barely knew. She wanted to continue her education.
Now in her 30s, Yiaile has an undergraduate degree as well as a master’s degree within reach. She’s also the director of the Maasai Children’s Initiative (MCI), a Kenya-based organization that runs two schools for girls who, like Yiaile, come from Kenya’s large Maasai tribe — one of East Africa’s poorest and most marginalized people.
Yiaile was on Vashon last week to discuss her organization with Islanders. Her visit was funded by Vashon lawyer Matt Bergman, who, with Rebecca, his wife at the time, helped her found MCI in 2007.
Bergman has financed the effort, donating around $250,000 a year — funds that have enabled Yiaile to oversee the development of the two schools and the education of some 300 girls. Now, with the help of Islander Anne Atwell, MCI’s new development director, the organization wants to broaden its base of support.
“The health of the program will be stronger if more people are involved,” Atwell said in an interview at her home on Maury Island.
During her two weeks on the Island, Yiaile told her story to around 100 Islanders. She said it’s been a gratifying experience. “There are so many people willing to help,” she said.
The Maasai, a large, semi-nomadic tribe in Kenya and northern Tanzania, are highly patriarchal. All marriages are arranged. Girls, expected to marry at a young age, are rarely sent to school.
Yiaile, however, got a taste of school at a young age after her mother began taking her along when she delivered milk to a nearby mission. A nun who had befriended her mother said her daughter should come to school there; her father, not fully understanding what education was, agreed.
Her experience at the mission school was transformational, she said. “I saw it was possible for a woman to have another life.”
Thus, after her father died and her uncle arranged for her marriage to a wealthy man, a move that would force her to leave school, she decided to defy him. “I was beaten. I still said no. I said, ‘Kill me. I won’t get married.’ ... My family thought I was crazy,” she said.
After she fled and with support from the nuns at the mission, she found her way to college in Nairobi, and, while working as an ecotourist guide, she met the Bergmans. They were moved by her story and ultimately stepped in, arranging for her to continue her education in the United States.
Matt Bergman said he decided to help Yiaile found MCI because he was struck by her passion and commitment and the impact a small entrepreneurial organization rooted in the culture could have.
“The opportunity to do good in sub-Saharan African is so manifold. The need is great, and the solutions are relatively simple,” he said.
Indeed, according to both Yiaile and Bergman, their program has grown rapidly. It started out as a lunch program, necessary because neither boys nor girls could attend schools far from their village without lunch.
Now, Yiaile runs two schools — attended by 272 girls and 37 boys in grades one to five. She hopes to open a sixth-grade class next year. And Yiaile now envisions a different life for her daughter, who climbed on a chair and snuggled with her as she spoke.
“I believe education is the most powerful tool you can give anybody,” she said. In Maasai culture, she added, women don’t own property. “To give them an education is the best inheritance.”
MCI is developing scholarship circles on Vashon in the hope of educating an additional 100 girls. Contact Anne Atwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit maasaichildrensinitiative.org.