18-year-old Purity Kesuma fits the aphorism “pigs will fly” meaning that the seemingly impossible phenomena can come to pass in a life time.
Born into the conservative Maasai culture that treats women and girls as objects without a voice, Kesuma has not only shrugged off early marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) so prevalent in her community, she has acquired wings and, like the popular aphorism, flown to an unlikely audience with a European queen.
Thanks to the unique circumstances surrounding her life, wiry and shy Kesuma had the exceptional privilege of narrating to visiting Queen Mathilde of Belgium and Crown Princess Elizabeth her tottery walk from an igloo shaped abode at a Maasai Manyata in Mailwa Village, Kajiado County to Ilsibil Secondary School where she is a candidate in this year’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).
“I am the youngest of five girls from three mothers married to my mother and the only one to set foot in a secondary school,” she recounted after a meeting with the queen who was on a tour of Kenya recently in a mission to raise awareness on education for vulnerable groups and child protection issues. She had been to in her capacity as honorary president of UNICEF, Belgium. She had been to Niger, Tanzania, Senegal, Haiti, Ethiopia, Liberia and Laos on a similar mission.
She says: “The eminent visitors could not believe that the teenager before them who now aspires to be a doctor had escaped from an arranged child marriage to a man many years her senior when she was only 14 and had narrowly dodged the knife that had genitally mutilated her four older sisters in an age old rite of passage to womanhood.
Her story of a bare knuckled struggle to realize her dreams against all the odds stunned the royal duo by its sheer luridness.
“I returned home after sitting the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) at Mailwa Primary School and effervescent with the hope of proceeding to secondary school the following year courtesy of my 295 points only to be rudely confronted by the possibility of missing out for lack of school fees. I was devastated to the bone when calling letters arrived from Ilsibil and Esolenge Secondary schools. My father told me to my face to forget further education. Reason? No school fees.
“Downhearted and lost for what to do, I left home and went to stay with a married step sister with a toddler to assist her with maternity chores, hoping that school fees would somehow come my way. I had hardly settled down when information came that I was wanted back home.
“Still, no fees, but rumours were rife in the village that my father intended to marry me away to a man I had never met. Arrangements had been made to have me circumcised before I could meet my suitor. I hid from home and ran away to my former school the moment I confirmed the rumour from my father whose word was final.
“My former head teacher received me with love. She asked me to take courage and promised to give me protection. She contacted World Vision and a team came over to talk to me. The gesture culminated in my joining Form one at Ilbisil Girls’ Secondary School. World Vision offered to pay my school fees and here I am today in Form Four and a 2019 KCSE candidate.
Tears jump to purity’s eyes as images of the flight from home cascade through her mind. She blinks fast and uses the edge of her palm to wipe off the tears. She recalls how a moved Queen Mathilde wondered if her parents had accepted her back into the family.
“My father had disowned me, but had a change of mind after my former Head teacher pleaded with him to forgive me. I returned home and my father gave me his blessings. A father’s blessings are crucial in Maasai culture.
She says Queen Mathilde held her hand with the words “Your courage and determination will take you far. Prepare well for your examinations. You will hear from me through UNICEF”.
World Vision program Manager In charge of Osiligi area Ms Tabitha Mwangi Meoli says Queen Mathilde and Crown Prince Elizabeth engaged in community dialogues with Maasai men and women to discuss possible interventions and facilitation to trigger change in harmful practices such as FGM and early marriage affecting girls’ education.
She says through facilitation by UNICEF, New Vision organizes alternative rites of passage and persuades fathers to bless uncut girls considered a cursed lot by society.
“The curse is real and can affect uncut girls in many forms if reprieve from fathers and elders is not sought and given. We also talk to Morans to accept uncut girls for wives and enlighten them on the disadvantages of FGM,” says Ms Meoli.
The Queen and the crown princess who were in the country for three days also visited Furaha Centre that offers art therapy activities at the Kakuma refugee Camp in Turkana County, the Kalobeyei Integrated settlement in northern Kenya where children and adolescents build learning and education skills and the UNICEF supported Jitegemee Livelihood Project that empowers young mothers through access to education and skills development.
Also in her itinerary was the AMREF Dagoretti Child Protection and Development Centre that rescues and liberates children living in vulnerable situations, The ACAKORO football academy in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum that develops football talent in deserving children while providing them with school fees and meals.
Queen Mathilde is the wife to the reigning King Philippe of Belgium. The couple has four children of whom Crown Princess Elizabeth is the eldest. Her assistance to the king in carrying out state functions include private and state visits abroad and audiences with representatives of various groups.
Besides her role as UNICEF ambassador for Belgium, she is the Honorary President of the Queen Mathilde Fund that endeavours to assist the weakest members of society with focus on child poverty and the position of women in society.