USA/KENYA: Massai Women Reach Milestone

The women of the semi-nomadic Maasai community in Kenya rarely finish grammar school and are often married with children before age 20.

On Thursday, three young Maasai bucked the trend: They donned caps and gowns to receive diplomas from Chicago State University. They are among just a few Maasai women to earn college degrees.

"I never thought that I would see this day," Eunice Sitatian Kaelo, 21, told the audience during the commencement ceremony. She is the sole recipient of the university's prestigious President's Cup, awarded for academic and leadership excellence. "I stand here representing a new legacy for the Maasai community."

Kaelo, Everlyne Nkadori,22, and Agnes Kisai, 22, graduated with honors (3.8 grade-point averages) and received pre-medical degrees. They hope to become physicians and practice in their rural hometowns, where girls as young as 10 undergo painful female circumcision as a rite of passage to adulthood before getting married.

"I just wish more Maasai women had this opportunity," said Nkadori, 22, as she stood in her dorm room before the ceremony.

The three received full scholarships as part of a joint initiative with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Kenyan-based Maasai Education Discovery, a private, non-profit group with an office in Boston.

The women arrived in Chicago in January 2005 during a snowstorm and wondered how they were going to survive. More than three years later, the women list skiing and swimming as two of their favorite activities. They've traveled to 35 states, including Louisiana, where they volunteered after Hurricane Katrina, and New Hampshire, where the women have a host family.

"It's been fun," Kisai said. "It's been different. It's been quite a ride."

Their families in Kenya could not attend the graduation ceremonies, but an extended network of friendsóboth American and African-bornójoined them on Thursday. Up until a half-hour before graduation, one of them was looking for more tickets to the ceremony for her friends. The young women, each bubbly, stylish and confident, gabbed on their cell phones as they waited for the ceremony to begin.

The women took a full load of classes each semester to finish in less than four years and expedite their return home. They are in a hurry because their families and neighbors in Kenya are eagerly awaiting their return.

Many Kenyans have to walk for miles to get to a hospital or medical clinic, the women said. Some towns and villages can only get treatment from mobile medical clinics, which often come only once a month. Nearly a million Maasai live in parts of southern Kenya and northern central Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley.

When Nkadori speaks to her mother in Kenya, she's given a long list of people in her town with medical ailmentsóheadaches, back pains and eye problemsówho are waiting for her to treat them.

"They say, 'We're still sick with no doctors,' " Nkadori said. "It's a big motivator for me."

Nkadori and Kisai want to be obstetrician-gynecologists to help reduce the number of deaths in childbirth and educate people about the dangers of female circumcision. The cultural rite is a common practice in the Maasai community.

Kaelo, who was circumcised as a teenager, has been an outspoken opponent of the practice. She's still undecided about her medical path. She's looking at either pediatrics or pulmonary medicine.

"There's a lot of need for physicians in our country," said Elijah Metekai, 36, a friend and Maasai member, who attended the graduation ceremony. "They're role models for a lot of young women."

The women are waiting to be accepted to medical school. For about the next year, Kaelo will complete a clinical research program at Rush University Medical University and attend medical school afterward. Nkadori will do clinical research on leukemia at University of Chicago Hospital until she attends medical school.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune

AUTHOR: Mary Owen

URL: click here

DATE: 31/05/2008

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