Giving girls an education—instead of being sold as a bride for 10 cows—is what motivated Hellen Nkuraiya, herself a child bride, to start a school in Kenya’s Maasai community—even amidst public and family disapproval. Lisa Scott meets her.
As our large white truck rumbles up to the manicured entrance of Tepesua village in Kenya’s Loita Plains, our group of female travelers are greeted by a line of young Maasai warriors wielding spears and shields.
They are a striking crew, decorated with elaborate beaded jewelery, traditional Maasai fabrics and red ochre pigment.
Yet nothing quite says fierce like our five-foot host Hellen Nkuraiya who founded this village to save young girls from female genital mutilation (FGM).
As we stand in the blazing Kenyan sun, Hellen tells us that she suffered FGM when she was just nine years old. Two years later, she was traded to a man in his 70s in exchange for a dowry of cows, the Maasai currency.
She eventually ran away and was rescued and educated by a nun who asked Hellen to continue helping girls who face a similar fate. Hellen trained as a school teacher and kept her word.
Today, the small Tepesua community, formed of an eco-camp and a widow’s village that sells beaded jewellery to visitors, funds the Enkiteng Lepa (Purple Cow) school for 200 at-risk young girls. They are given board, education and, ultimately, options.
It’s an emotional but inspiring episode during our 10-day exploration of Kenya, which joins Intrepid Travel’s women’s expeditions to Iran, Jordan, Nepal, Morocco, Turkey and India. Israel and The Palestinian Territories and Pakistan were also added to mark this year’s International Women’s Day on 8th March.
The female-only concept opens up destinations and experiences that are otherwise off-limits to mixed-gender groups—and I’m told that the opportunities these trips create are vast.
Long before FGM was made illegal in 2011, Hellen fought to save the young Maasai girls she encountered as a teacher. She was frequently beaten and forced to move schools until she created her own one in 2009.
“Entire communities are reaping the benefits from empowering just one local woman,” says senior product manager Jenny Gray.
“Aside from the obvious financial impact, it gives women an opportunity to share their personal and collective struggles and triumphs in achieving gender equality. For many, this is an entirely new concept and empowering in itself.”
Our exploration also takes us across the country with Becky, East Africa’s first female overland truck driver, at the wheel.
The reluctant celebrity has driven us through heavy Nairobi traffic jams to the Kazuri bead factory that employs 340 women, and through the hot, dry Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya to a village of Samburu women.
We’ve met and seen the female rangers and sprawling plains of the Maasai Mara, where prides of lions, herds of thundering wildebeest, parades of elephants, dazzles of zebras and even the elusive leopard, were on show.
But it’s here in Tepesua, about 35 kilometers from the Mara, that Hellen is talking about purple cows.
“All the cows in the world are gray, white, brown or black—but have you ever seen a purple one?’ Hellen asks warmly and loudly.
Hellen, who has a great sense of humor, is referring to her purple-painted Enkiteng Lepa (‘Our Purple Cow School’) and is built on the motto ‘Don’t Exchange Girls For Cows, Give Them Education’.
Instead, she says that she has given her community an ‘everlasting cow’. “They can milk knowledge, not the real cow, which will only die when there is a breakout of disease or a drought,” she says.
Long before FGM was made illegal in 2011, Hellen fought to save the young Maasai girls she encountered as a teacher. She was frequently beaten and forced to move schools until she eventually decided to stand her ground and create her own one in 2009.
“I’m known as a bad person, especially to my community,” she tells me. “They think I’m changing the culture … Even my own family think that.”
“Boys are also dropping out of school, but we need to educate the men too because they are assisting the change.”
But her desire is for culture and education to live side by side. “Look at me. I’ve been to school, I’ve traveled to many places but I’m still Hellen and I’ll still be a Maasai and that will never change,” she says, describing how she has even created her own ceremonial rite of passage that mimics FGM by painting the girls’ thighs with red ochre to mark their transition into womanhood.
As she leads us to the widow’s village, Hellen also describes how she is bargaining with the Maasai men who are so opposed to her.
She has cleverly created a borehole, which the men’s cattle can drink from—as long as they enrol their children at school.
This means Hellen now accepts boys too, and has launched the mixed-gender Tepesua School, a feeder school for Enkiteng Lepa. With the young Maasai warriors chatting in the background, she describes the situation for local young men: “They’re also dropping out of school but we need to educate the men too because they are assisting the change.”
Inside the widow’s village, we find the mud houses that are traditionally/always built by women—even those with husbands—and a small workshop and a smiling seamstress, dressed in bright yellow, pink and green fabrics, who also teaches the other widows to sew.
I find the resilience of these women extraordinary: Maasai women cannot re-marry and some are widowed incredibly young. After our visit to the Samburu National Reserve, we meet the women of the Samburu tribe, cousins of the Maasai, and find out that some are only in their 20s.
Naomi Lekisaat, a community manager who represents 30 groups of Samburu women, tells us that the younger women are guided by the older ones. “They make jewelery that they sell to tourists and invest it in goats,” she says. “It’s very hard but they accept it.”
Here in Tepesua, homemade beaded jewelery is also a big income, but with changemaker Hellen providing their resources, they also make shopping bags, T-shirts, and even dog collars.
“The mzungu (white travelers) love their dogs,” says Hellen, laughing, before also showing us the clever washable sanitary pads she has created for the women.
As we wander over to a patch of grass to watch the warriors perform the now-famous adumu or jumping dance, we cross paths with Hellen’s shy, smiling younger girls. I wonder how they will continue her courageous work when they’re old enough.
And hopefully they will. I meet another student, Kanui, who is studying social work and community development and intends to help Hellen when university is over. “I want to help Hellen and make her proud,” she tells us. “Things are improving in Kenya for women. We don’t have to feel inferior.”
Find out more about Intrepid Travel’s first Women’s Expedition to Kenya.
Lisa Scott is an award-winning travel writer and editor who lives between Barcelona and Margate, the UK seaside town currently enjoying a well-documented renaissance. Sea-swimming has, quite naturally, become her latest passion.