Girls in the rural areas of Maasai, Kenya, traditionally start primary school at the same time as their male counterparts, but their lives soon take divergent paths.
“They are either married off at age 13 or 15, or they stay at home and help their moms,” said Camilla Buchanan, adjunct lecturer in William & Mary’s kinesiology and health sciences department. Buchanan oversees a five-week, service-learning program in which 11 students traveled to Africa in mid-May to primarily work with girls in grades 5-7 to imbue them with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will encourage them to further their education for several more years.
Buchanan said the traveling party included graduating seniors, juniors and sophomores, many of whom have an interest in public health. There were some kinesiology majors, some pre-med students, some biology and anthropology.
“A cross-disciplined group,” she said, well-trained to handle what she called a “very tricky” situation.
“What do William & Mary students know about what it’s like to live in a rural Maasai village?” Buchanan asked rhetorically. “The Maasai basically raise cows, sheep and goats. What are William & Mary students going to offer to a pastoral people? You have to really think deeply about what actual value students bring and then plan carefully with the local people with whom they are going to be placed. Then you must train your students to be humble.“One of the most important things we talked about was culture. They were told, ‘You’re going to Kenya to learn about Maasai culture, not to impose your values. You are going to put yourself in the shoes of the people there and try to understand, from their viewpoint, why they hold these values, why they do these things that you, as a liberated American female, may not think is appropriate.’”
The students applied for the service-learning trip after seeing a notice from Buchanan seeking volunteers interested in doing public health work. They were screened and underwent a semester’s worth of training using an online tool called Omprakash, developed by W&M alumnus Steve Sclar ’11. Through an Omprakash program called EdGE — Education through Global Engagement – the students accessed an online custom curricula to prepare them for their trip.
“Omprakash trains people to do meaningful, ethical, overseas volunteer work,” said Buchanan, who first used the program in 2016 for her Kenya-bound students.
Until this summer, when a serious family illness prevented Buchanan from accompanying the students, she and partner Debra Hill had traveled to Kenya for 18 consecutive years, building dozens of relationships with Kenyans who watched over this class. Buchanan stressed that the students were there by invitation from the headmaster of a school who told parents what the W&M students would teach and had gotten their consent.
“He had previous experience with William & Mary students and felt the interaction with them, the life lessons and interaction they had, encouraged his girls to stay in school,” Buchanan said. “It gave them some of the skills they needed to negotiate with their fathers, as in ‘Please, father, don’t marry me off. If I get more education I’ll bring a better bride price, and I’ll be healthier and my children will be healthier.’”
Another important component of the program is feminine hygiene and its impact on whether girls continue their education.“Menstruation is one of the things that will keep girls from going to school,” Buchanan said. “They don’t know how to handle it, where they can wash their hands, change their pads. The important thing is to talk about menstruation in the context that it is a normal physiological function. All women have it. If you are menstruating now, it means you are a woman. It’s something to be proud of, not ashamed.
“Then they talk about human reproduction, consent and relationships.”
Last year, a male student was part of the Kenya entourage. He worked with boys on sexually transmitted diseases and proper relationships with women. Because his work was so successful, this year two male W&M students went and worked with seventh-grade boys.
There is a simple way, Buchanan said, to judge whether the summer program has been a success. Do their Kenyan partners want them to return? The answer has always been resoundingly affirmative. And the opposite has been true as well.“I have no doubt that this trip has been of huge value to William & Mary student volunteers,” she said. “I have had many students over the years who said this trip changed their whole lives.”