Helicopter blades tear through the air overhead, their sonorous chop reverberating off the nearby Ngulot hills and echoing across the Mara valley. Out of place amid the typically bucolic sounds of Narok County, their meaning is immediately clear: Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya, is about to land.
As parents stop what they’re doing and children crane their necks skyward to glimpse the First Lady’s arrival, the sound of pencils scratching paper fills a dining hall turned exam room. There, 14 young women sit deep in concentration despite the roar of the helicopter. Their focus is devoted to the task at hand: an exam, one of their final steps before becoming the first class to graduate from WE College’s School of Tourism.
The First Lady has traveled more than 200 kilometers from Nairobi to the edge of the Maasai Mara to celebrate WE College, one of the only post-secondary institutions in the region. Built by WE Charity, the college heralds a transformation, offering the first generation of young Maasai and Kipsigis women and men the chance to complete their education without having to leave home for big cities. Her visit is a major draw for the rural area; it’s also a stamp of approval on 20 years of WE Charity’s development work in the region. This comes with some commotion, as her chopper cuts through the air overhead and a convoy of dark SUVs rumble down the bumpy dirt roads, kicking up dust, while military officials scuttle about.
Kenya has invested heavily in education in recent years. The government instituted mandatory, free primary school in 2003 and today seven million students are enrolled in secondary school. But college and university attendance rates have been slow to climb—and even slower in rural and underserved areas, like Narok County. With a population over one million people, Narok County provides less than half a per cent of the country’s post-secondary students. For two decades, WE Charity has worked in the area to increase access to education, dig boreholes, build a hospital and health center, empower women with financial opportunity, and deliver a food security program. WE College is the capstone, promising to remove the last barriers for students to complete their education and secure jobs that contribute to their communities.
For 22-year-old tourism student Mercy Ntuala, the celebration outside fuels her desire to excel on her exam. “No matter what is happening, no matter how exciting, I just needed to focus,” she shares studiously, but also lets on she was anxious to join the festivities. Growing up in Eor Ewuaso, Ntuala didn’t have many examples of women who’d pursued goals beyond her community. She was the first person in her family to go to high school and she’ll be the first woman in her village with a college diploma. She’s become a leader, often invited to speak to high school classes and share her story, encouraging girls to pursue their education.
The visit from the First Lady of Kenya—one of the most prominent women leaders in the country and a fierce advocate for women’s empowerment—feels, she says, like personal validation.
Perched partway up the hill, Ntuala and her classmates have a commanding view as they write. Before them, the whole valley stretches out: the serpentine Mara river, occasional herds of grazing cows, low-lying villages and the two ochre towers of WE College. Just obstructed from view is the clamor on campus.
The typical flurry of students shuttling from class to class has been replaced with an electric buzz. Final preparations for the event are underway. The last chairs are placed in formation. The sound system is tested. Backstage, young women rehearse their lines to welcome government officials or practise their footwork for dance numbers. On a nearby football pitch, community members young and old jostle for a prime place to watch the event on massive screens set up for the occasion.
Kenyatta is joined on campus by the governor of Narok County, Maasai and Kipsigis chiefs, and thousands of people from villages across the valley. The women and men who graduate in the coming years with degrees in medicine, nursing, engineering, education and others, will have the necessary skills and know-how to assume leadership roles and chart a new course for the region.
For the college students—and the girls and boys in primary and secondary who want to follow in their footsteps—the event is recognition from the highest levels of the Kenyan government. Many have contended with incredible hurdles, balancing chores and studying, overcoming cultural assumptions about who gets to attend college, all in the quest for a better job to help their families. They represent the aspirations of thousands.
The entire event is proof of the decades long transformation undertaken by communities, says Justus Mwendwa, Director of WE Charity East Africa. “WE College didn’t start with the ribbon cutting or even the groundbreaking,” he explains from a second-storey office in the administration block on campus. Instead, he traces the origins back to the first primary schools built by WE Charity in the area.
As schools went up in villages across Narok County, more young people were receiving a primary education than ever before. But for many, that’s where their education ended. The few secondary schools were either poorly equipped or were inaccessible and unaffordable. Mwendwa remembers being asked “What’s next?” by parents of young schoolchildren. So, to meet the growing need and aspirations, WE Charity built the Kisaruni Group of Schools, offering girls and boys the chance to continue their education at what have since become award-winning high school campuses.
A couple years later, the same question emerged. One day in 2012, Erickson Ngeno, a Kipsigis chief, stopped Mwendwa as he was walking through the village of Enelerai. He’d been talking with the leader of the neighboring village of Laila, a Maasai community. The two chiefs had higher hopes for their people. They wanted a college in the area where the brightest students could study close to home and then give back to their communities with good jobs.
Mwendwa didn’t have an answer for them then. It would take years for WE Charity to make the leap from aspirational idea to practical project with government accreditation. It involved countless meetings with parents and village leaders to ensure the college met the needs of the communities and the support of generous donors in Canada and the United States to invest the initial funds to kick-start the radical idea. After much hard work, in 2017, WE College welcomed its first batch of students.
Sometime during the First Lady’s visit, amid the performances by students and speeches by dignitaries, Mwendwa finds the two chiefs in the crowd. He clasps hands with James Nabaala, the Maasai chief from Laila, now an old friend. Nabaala pulls him close. “Thank you for creating the future,” he says amid the din of excitement.
Echoing Nabaala’s sentiment, when the First Lady takes the stage she speaks of the budding hope for the area to an awed audience. “We’re here to celebrate a dream come true,” she tells them. “The college is the first of its kind in Kenya, with the potential to become an academic hub in the heart of the Maasai Mara.”
As the ceremony and celebrations that follow wrap up, Kenyatta and her entourage pile into the black SUVs and head back to their airfield. Chairs are stacked. The giant tent that housed the festivities is taken down. The campus slowly reverts to a peaceful home of learning.
And Ntuala makes her way to the library. The First Lady’s visit was powerful recognition of the journey she’s been on; and the glamor of the event was a welcome distraction from the stress of finals. But she has one more exam left before she graduates from WE College. And then, her future awaits.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.