Women’s empowerment can mean fighting your way through the glass ceiling or taking a seat at engineering school or demanding a raise in line with what your male colleagues are earning. In rural Kenya, it means defying your dad, who wants to marry you off at age 13. This is Peninah’s story.

By Deepa Shankaran

 

Update: Since publishing this article, Peninah has been accepted into San Diego State University to study Hospitality and Tourism Management. Peninah is the first graduate from WE’s Kisaruni Group of Schools to be accepted into a university program outside Kenya. Congratulations to Peninah and her family on this tremendous milestone!

The day Peninah Musanka burst into her home clutching a piece of paper, her path changed direction.

In her hand, she held opportunity: an admission letter from Oleleshwa. One of two campuses that make up WE Charity’s Kisaruni Secondary School for girls, Oleleshwa represented the future Peninah had long chased in secret.

Growing up in the rural community of Naikara—where persistent drought has impoverished Maasai cattle herders like Peninah’s family—marrying daughters off early serves a purpose beyond tradition. “If they get you married, they can get a dowry from the other family,” Peninah explains. “That is what they think about.”

That’s what her father was thinking about when he repeatedly shrugged off education as a waste of time, predicting that his daughter would drop out or get pregnant, like so many girls in Naikara. Marriage would protect his eldest child from this fate.

But Peninah wanted more for her life—and so did her mother.

Peninah’s mother had never gone to school herself and understood firsthand the limiting effects of such thinking. Sympathizing with her daughter’s pleas to stay in school past Grade 8, she stood by her and worked to bring her husband onside.

Her mother went to battle for Oleleshwa, appealing to her husband until he relented. Peninah could go, he said, but without any support from him.

“My mother was the only one who could understand me,” Peninah says. “I told her that I have dreams and targets that I want to achieve.” The teen aspires to be a journalist, motivated by a desire to help her community understand their changing world.

 

On the first day of school, Peninah’s mother helped her daughter haul her blue steel trunk up the path to her dorm, settled her in and hugged her goodbye. And the following month, she travelled alone from Naikara to visit.

“She would come and tell me to use my opportunities well, so I could accomplish all my dreams.” Peninah looked forward to the monthly visits, though she never received word from her father.

For Carolyn Mogere, who oversees the Oleleshwa campus, Peninah’s situation is familiar. “We have cases where the girl is really committed to her education, but the parents are of the traditional mindset,” she says. “It’s up to us to change that perception.”

Founded by WE Charity, the Kisaruni Group of Schools offers free, quality secondary school education in the Narok region of rural Kenya. In 2015, its students ranked first out of the county’s 112 schools on the national secondary school certification exam. Carolyn says that in every case she’s seen, parents have come to realize that the benefits of education extend beyond the lives of students into families and entire communities.

During her final year at Oleleshwa, Peninah received word of a surprise visitor. She followed her teacher to the staff lounge, expecting to see a relative or a friend of the family. But there, seated in the chair where her mother often waited, was Peninah’s father.

She laughed and hugged him, then grabbed his arm to lead him on a tour—from the sunlit classrooms to the computer lab to the dining hall where murals depicted students as future doctors and teachers.

“He told me I had a beautiful school, more beautiful than any he had ever seen,” says Peninah. “He started to believe that I was going to complete high school, and he motivated me. Through my education, he was changed.”

On December 31, 2016, the girls were up before dawn. The dorm was bustling with 26 students from Oleleshwa and 26 from its sister campus, Milimani. They had been waiting for this day for the past four years.

“We were pushing things to move faster!” Peninah says with a laugh. “Everyone was telling the teachers to give us the gowns to wear.”

The girls marched across their beloved campus in front of their parents, educators and communities. Supporters had flown in from across North America to celebrate.

“All the people who joined us that day, those are the people who want us to succeed,” says Peninah.

There was applause and garlands for the graduates. One by one, they stepped forward to claim their diplomas.

 

Finally, it was Peninah’s turn. She took a few hesitant steps, scanning the crowd for her father. When she found him, they exchanged a look filled with happiness and pride, but also sorrow. The seat beside him was empty.

Peninah’s mother had passed away a few months earlier.

“She was the only person who believed that I could actually make it in life,” she says. “But that day, it was also her dream that came true—to educate her first daughter.”

Looking out at her father in the crowd, Peninah—dressed in her cap and gown, standing with the first graduating class at Oleleshwa All Girls Secondary School—smiled, confident that her example meant he would now see to it that her four younger sisters were educated, too.

When he rushed to embrace her, Peninah could hear her mother in his words.

“Keep on moving,” he advised of her dreams. “Work hard, never give up.”

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