The girls of Samburu - from child brides to doctors and footballers

Samburu Girls Foundation's Dr Josephine Kulea tells how she rescues girls as young as six from marriage, with a bit of help from the Toronto Raptors and Didier Drogba.
By Rory Jiwani

In Kenya's Samburu County, girls as young as six are forced into marriage, sex and female genital mutilation.

Nine years ago, Dr Josephine Kulea created Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF) which rescues and houses girls before sending them to school so they can have the childhood they deserve.

To mark World Children's Day, Olympic Channel spoke with Kulea about the vital work her organisation performs, and the role of education in changing people's lives.

As well as going to school, the girls are able to have fun and take up activities including sport.

A number of them have excelled in regional football tournaments, and they may become even stronger with twice African Footballer of the Year Didier Drogba set to pay a visit to the rescue centre in Maralal.

They have also been inspired to take up basketball after a visit from Toronto Raptors' president Masai Ujiri and talent scout and former player Sarah Chan weeks after they claimed the 2019 NBA Championship.

“If girls go to school, we can have so many breakthroughs for girls' success and we can also stop mostly these harmful cultural practices.” - Dr Josephine Kulea

Rescuing girls from dangerous traditions

The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists based in northern Kenya who largely depend on cattle.

Among their traditions is child marriage with young girls married off in exchange for a dowry consisting of a number of cows.

Most Samburu girls, aged 10 or above, will undergo painful female genital mutilation (FGM) which can cause bleeding for several weeks and may in some cases prove fatal.

There is also the practice of beading, when a young girl is given decorative beads by an older man in exchange for non-marital sex.

Despite contraception not being used, pregnancy and childbirth are frowned upon with crude abortions or baby killings commonplace.

Kulea says, "Samburu Girls Foundation is a child protection organisation. We bring these girls to a rescue centre in a place called Maralal, which is the headquarters of Samburu. We also enrol them in schools, because most of the girls have not been to school.

"FGM in Samburu is 86 percent. Child marriage is around 80 percent. And the girls are not taken normally to school because the community believes that girls should be married off. Taking them to school is investing in the girls which the communities feel is a hassle. They would rather marry the girls off because it's easier and it brings them wealth in terms of cows."

With SGF raising awareness of child protection laws through seminars in villages and on local radio, girls learn that their situation is one they need to escape.

But in a place with such remote communications, merely contacting the rescue centre can be a challenge in itself.

"We would advise the girls to run away, because not everyone in Samburu has connectivity. Some brave ones run away and walk for so many kilometres to look for safety.

"Then we reach out to the authorities to confirm that they were in trouble. And then they do the paperwork and assign them to us to take care of them.

"Girls come to us in different ways, whether we've been called directly or they have rushed for safety at the police or education offices. Sometimes girls are taken out of class to get married and the school, or their teacher, rescues them and they bring them to us. And then the government, because they do not have a rescue centre, they bring all the girls to us.

"Sometimes it's the mothers who don't want their daughters to go through what they went through. So we find some mothers are reporting, but they don't want their identity to be known. Sometimes it's neighbours, sometimes it's relatives who understand that it is wrong. Sometimes it's boys rescuing their own sisters because of the awareness that we've raised."

While she believes the government has been "slow" to push for the end of these practices, Kulea was heartened by President Uhuru Kenyatta's pledge to end FGM before his final term comes to an end in 2022.

She said, "Samburu has taken time to internalise and accept that it's illegal. They've been doing these things forever so they don't get it.

"It's been tough because the community was resisting in the beginning, but now it's understood that it's the law and they cannot really keep fighting the law. And so they are slowly adjusting to the point that girls should go to school. Many of them are still not enrolling girls into school, but now they're understanding that it is the law.

"Before they just thought it was us, the few educated people in the community, pushing them to stop their culture. Now they understand that it's not us, it's the government and it is law."

Sports stars support Samburu girls

Kulea's work has seen her receive numerous awards including being named the United Nations in Kenya Person of the Year in 2013.

Tegla Loroupe received that honour in 2016 for her work with her peace foundation and the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016, while marathon king Eliud Kipchoge claimed the 2018 award for "embracing hard work, discipline and dedication" to become a positive role model to youth.

For Kulea, her achievements have seen her invited to global forums related to empowering women and recognised by then US President Barack Obama.

She admitted, "That was special. That was in 2015 when he visited Kenya's president. We had met a year earlier in Washington, D.C. at this programme for Africa. He saw what I was wearing and he thought I was a Masai and I told him I'm a Samburu. So I think he felt challenged and he went to research who are Samburus. And then from there he came to Kenya and he had to brag that he knows a Samburu!

"It was a good thing. We felt that we are doing a good job and he helped in the work that we do. And yes, of course, everyone thought we were given lots of dollars but we didn't receive any money for that. It was just an 'applause', which is great because we got traffic and people asking who we are.

"But these awards are 'Good job and goodbye'. There's no funding coming in for the girls.

"I told people, 'Next time please don't give me those paper awards, give me money to get the girls.'"

That said, those events have enabled Kulea to meet people who can help including stars from the world of sport.

One is Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri who is also the founder of Giants of Africa which uses "basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth".

Ujiri hosted the #Mandela100 event in Toronto at which Kulea received the Girls Voice award, and he has become a supporter of SGF.

Kulea said, "When they won the NBA title last year, Masai brought the cup they won to Kenya. I think he just got to show the president and he landed in Samburu to show the girls. So the girls were so inspired because now they want to play basketball so badly.

"That became an inspiration because Masai came with this lady called Sarah Chan and she's from (South) Sudan. She also shared her story of a similar background to our girls. So the girls got very attached and they now want to play basketball.

"Masai also helped us so much because he asked the girls what they want, and they said they wanted water because they used to fetch water from the river. Masai got the drill for them, the borehole, and now the girls have water."

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri at Samburu Girls Foundation

At that Toronto event, Kulea also met ex-Chelsea and Cote d'Ivoire striker Didier Drogba.

She recalls, "We sat next to each other. I said 'Hi' to everyone on the table before we sat down and we took a selfie. Then the next day we met again at the match of the Toronto Raptors, and that's when I was telling him that I posted the picture and Kenyans are telling me, 'It's Photoshop. It cannot be Didier!'

"So he took my phone and recorded himself saying that he'd be coming to Kenya. We've been holding him to that. He said he had tweeted that he'd come to visit the girls."

Kulea added, "He's been very supportive. He knows about our soccer team. He knows that we have great talent there. And he's supported the girls paying their school fees so we really appreciate him.

"He's still planning to come. But when Corona happened in March, of course, everything stalled. But we are still reviving the conversation when he might come. So, yes, he's a great friend of the organisation."

While Kenya is seen as a global superpower in athletics and, in particular long-distance running, like most of Africa it is mad about football.

And the girls from SGF have been making their presence felt on the pitch with one, Falling Waters' teenage forward Jane Njeri, now part of the national team squad aka the Harambee Starlets.

Kulea said, "Most of the time, the girls are in boarding schools because they only break three times a year in April, August and November and December for the long school break. The girls play in their schools but they also play at the centre when they are there, because that's when they have all the time. They're away from the books and that's when they tend to participate in competitions, in local sports.

"We have a team of girls in high school who have played up to the national levels in Kenya for football. They were second best last year. This year, we knew they were going to be the champions but Corona happened so they could not play. We are proud of them because we have even one of the girls who was picked to join the Kenya national women's squad."

But there remain outdated attitudes towards sport for girls and women in the region to overcome.

"In Samburu, they see sports as a boys' thing, so girls have not really been participating in sports. Schools have been trying to encourage the girls to play but they don't go far because even if you play in school and you come back home, no one is encouraging you. Or when you want to go and play, they say, 'You have to go and fetch water for firewood. There's no time for girls to play. Let the boys play.'

"Because our girls are exceptional and they have time on their hands during the school breaks, they play. We enrol them in competitions that the community gets to see. And actually they have won all the competitions across Samburu because they have enough time to prepare and other teams are not able to because some of the girls are just picked randomly last minute. I feel for the other girls as they don't have all the time to prepare but that helps our girls.

"Playing gives them a lot of benefits from health to exploring their talents, the exposure of going to compete outside Samburu. We've seen them grow through sports."

Rescue and reconciliation

Early intervention, before either marriage or beading, is preferred but SGF rescues girls in various situations and then works hard to reconcile them with their families.

"We advise the community to report before it happens because it's usually safer and less headache and less trauma for the girls.

"We have cases being reported after the girl is married or after she's gone through FGM or after she's beaded or when she's pregnant and they would want to get rid of the pregnancy. So we try to bring in girls even when they're pregnant or immediately after they deliver because mostly the kids are killed when they deliver from the beading.

"When it's after they've been married off, it's usually very traumatic for the girls because their family has a lot of bitterness about her having been taken and the cows, the dowry, have to be refunded. So there is usually a lot of hostility towards the girl.

"That's why we have a safe house to take them to, for them to heal. Then we have a safe counselling program, psychosocial support program, where we ensure the girls understand why they are better off going to school than getting married at age 10. And that way, within the first six months, they start adjusting to their new life because going to school for them is totally new.

"It also gives the parents one to two years to accepting that the girl is still their child, she will go to school, she will succeed and come back and support them, not us. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of back and forth with the family trying to engage them, even encouraging them to visit the girls both at the rescue centre and in their school so they can see what the girls are doing.

"Within the first two years, we try to reconcile the girls to their parents and most parents want them back home. That helps us because by the time they finish school, most of them are going home during the school breaks. That way they create space at the centre for new girls who are being rescued.

"You see a girl transformed from a child bride to a student to graduating and working. A few of them have become the sole breadwinners for their families. By families seeing that, it's helped them accept that if girls go to school they can actually progress."

Kulea's early inspiration to make a difference came from home as her mother was taken out of high school to be a man's third wife.

She recalls, “She felt very bad because she really wanted to complete school, but she swore that she was going to support us to go to school. Being the first born, I watched her trying to enrol as many girls into schools in our village.

“When I was in fourth grade, one of my school classmates was getting married. I was nine, she was 10. And the priest who was sponsoring us rescued her and took us to a boarding school some 500 kilometres away in central Kenya. And that's where I realised that it's wrong to put girls through FGM, it's wrong to marry off girls.

“When I went back to my village, I had a cousin who was beaded and she was not going to school. So I started teaching her how to read and write while we were looking after the cows and the goats. She was very brilliant, she got everything. By the time I was going back to school, I told my mother, 'This girl must be enrolled to school.' And she actually got to go to school because I was adamant. That's when I started fighting for girls.

"She became the best girl in primary school, got straight 'A's in high school, went to medical school and is now a doctor in one of the Kenyan universities."

Girls from Samburu Girls Foundation are among those sitting in a school lesson (photo from Dr Josephine Kulea)

Covid takes its toll, presents new challenges

Funding is an issue for most small non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the SGF is no exception.

A lack of space at their rescue centre, and no specific plan to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, meant it had to close temporarily in March.

"We built a 100-capacity dormitory in 2015 on land donated by the community, interestingly. We had almost 60 girls and of course others kept coming. Right now we have 471 girls and half of those go home so the 100-capacity dorm holds up to 200, 250 sometimes. So I have two to three girls sleeping in a bed.

"We are hopeful that we will get funds to build another dormitory to ease this congestion at the door. We rescue almost 60 girls a year and with the Corona period it's been hectic because there are so many of them and we were forced to close the rescue centre because of the congestion and the government did not allow us to host the children. So we had to put some girls in homes with friends and those who are supporting them. And we had to reconcile everyone else in a rush.

"We've lost also so many girls who we couldn't rescue during Corona. Because I remember over 1,000 girls were reported going through FGM during that period between March and July. Because there was massive FGM going on for the girls, because the boys were also going through their community ceremony of moving from boys to young men. And then there was a group of young men who are now graduating to be elders so that they can start getting married.

"Before schools are back next January, I'm sure there'll be so many schoolgirls married off. We've lost nine of our girls to teenage pregnancy because of sending them back to the village, and three of those have been forcibly married. So it's been tough.

"If we'd had more space we'd have convinced the government. But they sent public health and we could not meet the criteria of hosting so many kids without a plan for fighting Corona."

The Samburu Girls Foundation rescue centre in Maralal, Kenya (photo from Dr Josephine Kulea)

The future for Samburu Girls Foundation

While her main aim is to rescue and house girls at risk of beading and child marriage, Kulea would love to move beyond that at some point and focus on educating girls so that they can achieve their potential.

"There are so many other developmental issues that we can go and address. It's not all about FGM and child marriage. I always tell people I wish FGM could end tomorrow. There are other issues like water and so many other issues that are affecting the community that need to be addressed."

At the heart of Kulea's philosophy is that girls belong in school for their safety, development and future prospects.

"If we could put all the girls in Samburu in school, I'm sure in a few years everyone will be safe because... we always say the classroom is the safest place for a girl because she's able to mingle with others and confide in their teachers. And now that we're partnering with most schools they're able to report to us if a girl is being taken out for marriage.

"In Samburu, every girl is at risk because they are not being educated. I believe if the girls went to school, they would be safe. All the girls that used to run away would want to come to us just to be taken to school. Nothing more. And we always get this question, 'Why do you wait for the girls to be married to come for them? Why don't you just educate them?' But we tell them it's not our work. It's the government work to educate children. They say it's free primary, secondary but it's never free. Even the government boarding schools that we take the girls to, you still pay school fees.

"It would be very unfair to go to every village, collect all the girls and put them in school because it's not our mandate, first. Secondly, we don't have the resources.

"I wish we had the resources. We would do it then. Because we believe if we put that kid in the classroom, she will be safe because it's the same girl who will be married off because she's not in class. And then we will be called to firefight, to rescue.

"Even now the girls we have, it's not everyone who has a sponsor or support go to school. We live hand-to-mouth. We get something, we pay off what we can for the schools. If we don't have it, we don't send the girls away until we get some money. And the big money goes to big NGOs. By the time that money is trickling to us and to the community, it's very little money."

Dr Josephine Kulea with the girls of Samburu Girls Foundation (photo from Dr Josephine Kulea)

While SGF has land to build on, funding is required to build a new dormitory and perhaps its own school down the line with Kulea having to juggle day-to-day activities with securing donations and planning.

"There's always a new rescue, there's a girl who needs to go to school, there's a meeting... There's so much work around the organisation. As much as we have a team, they also need direction all the time.

"Our dream is to build our own girls school - both elementary and high school - so that we stop sending our girls to all these schools that we pay fees to. We have 15 acres of land and we are only occupying four right now.

"Then we could have the girls here throughout and that way they're able to tap into the sports, all kinds of sports, because they're there. They're already good in soccer, we're introducing the basketball from the Toronto Raptors, so they're hoping that they'll do a basketball court for the girls. So I think we are going to grow it all around in sports."

With Kulea at the helm, everything is possible.

For more information on Samburu Girls Foundation, including how to support the organisation, visit their website here.