Educated Turkana Women Choose Modernity Over Tradition (story and video)

By Alyssa Melillo

Breaking Out: Pastoralism Meets Modernism from Alyssa Melillo on Vimeo.

TURKANA, Kenya – The young students of Kerio Primary School sat shoulder to shoulder at small, splintered wooden desks squeezed into a concrete-walled classroom. Fifteen-year-old Irene Memei had a book open before her, but her attention was fixed on the teacher, who had just posed one of the most common questions asked of adolescents: “What job do you want when you finish school?”

Irene Memei, 15, sits outside of Kerio Primary School during a break from class, January 17, 2013. Memei wants to be a doctor when she grows up. (Alyssa Melillo)

Irene Memei, 15, takes a break from class outside of Kerio Primary School. (Alyssa Melillo)

Irene raised her hand and stood up, smoothing out her bright white shirt and blue skirt. “I want to be a doctor,” she said.

Even two decades ago, becoming a doctor in this rural region of Northern Kenya was an improbable prospect for a girl like Irene, who comes from a family of traditional pastoralists. But slowly, with the help of private aid groups and government-funded programs, young women are beginning to break away from the traditions of their nomadic culture and strike out on more ambitious career paths. As education becomes more accessible, women are pursuing professions as teachers, nurses and business owners.

“Education is kind of the in-road to women’s empowerment,” said Eugenie Reidy, a program specialist for UNICEF who studies herding communities. “That’s why women’s roles are changing.”

The push for girls like Irene to go to school is part of a global effort by organizations like the United Nations to empower women in third-world countries. According to the U.N. Population Fund, educating girls not only gives their lives a sense of meaning and value beyond the household, but it also allows their achievements to spread throughout their families and across generations. The population group has found that educating girls correlates with longer lives and greater prosperity for both the girls and their families.

Ruth Akoru, 46, outside her home in Lodwar Monday, January 14, 2013. Akoru grew up in a traditional village but left to pursue a job as a teacher. (Alyssa Melillo)

Ruth Akoru, 46, outside her home in Lodwar Monday, January 14, 2013. Akoru grew up in a traditional village but left to pursue a job as a teacher. (Alyssa Melillo)

Although Turkana women have been attending school since the 1970s, noticeable changes in their societal roles began in 2003 when the Kenyan government eliminated primary school fees. As of 2009, 13 percent of females in Central Turkana attended some form of school, according to the government data portal Kenya Open Data. In a report on Kenyan education, the nation’s Embassy website details the last decade’s increased emphasis on free primary schools and notes that education of girls in particular is vital to economic stability and growth.

Irene is among the first generation of women in her family to attend school, as was another Turkana woman, Ruth Akoru. Akoru, now 46, grew up in a homestead built of mud, branches and doum palm fronds. She was expected to fulfill a traditional role cooking and cleaning. But Akoru’s father saw the value of education and sent her to school. She worked her way up, eventually becoming the head teacher at Nataparkakono Primary School, which sits just outside of Lodwar, Turkana’s dusty provincial hub.

Akoru has instilled the value of education in her own children and has taken out loans to send them to school. Her daughter, 26-year-old Nakadi Ninnishal, grew up believing that school came first before housework. Now she holds an associate’s degree in social work from Kenya Polytechnic University College. In June, Ninnishal’s daughter Chloe, 3, will begin preprimary education. “A family where most children go to school is better off,” Akoru said. “That change, that education, has really helped those families.”

A Turkana woman weaves a basket in Eliye Springs Sunday, January 13, 2013. The baskets are made of dried palm fronds. (Alyssa Melillo)

A Turkana woman weaves a basket in Eliye Springs Sunday, January 13, 2013. The baskets are made of dried palm fronds. (Alyssa Melillo)

But according to Reidy of UNICEF, entrenched attitudes about the role of women in the household have prevented older generations from appreciating the economic benefits of education. Educated women who abandon the homestead in search of better opportunities in the cities are often seen as “lost.” Once they leave village life behind, some, like Akoru, return to help their families.  But others do not.

“It’s a very valid concern of the older generation,” Reidy said. “A place like Turkana has very fixed gender roles.”

Irene, the aspiring doctor from Kerio Primary School, is hoping to change hers. School has enabled her to break away from a life of housework, basket-weaving and polygamy and guarantee a future filled with promise. And even though she still has chores to do when she goes home, nothing quite holds her interest like education does. “I like school,” she said with a smile. “I like school more than anything.”