Josephine Kulea never imagined a life beyond her tiny, little village in the North of Kenya. She could never have foreseen the numerous accolades and recognition she would receive from global leaders like former US President Barack Obama and organisations like the United Nations.
Being a Samburu girl meant she was only supposed to get “the cut”, get married, and spend her life bearing children and looking after her family.
Dr Kulea, an anti-female genital mutilation and gender activist, is the founder and executive director of the Samburu Girls Foundation. She runs the Kenyan non-profit whose work is to rescue girls from child marriage, beading and female genital mutilation.
Midway through our interview, she receives a call from a young Samburu man who tells her his family plans to marry off his 12-year-old sister and wants Dr Kulea’s help.
PASSIONATE ABOUT SCHOOL
Born in 1984 in a remote village in Samburu County, Dr Kulea grew up in a typical pastoralist community. Her mother was taken out of school during her second year of secondary school to be married off to her father as a third wife.
“My mother was passionate about taking us to school. Even if that meant that we had to study in a classroom under a tree. She insisted on taking us to school even when our dad died when I was in class Five. My mother also refused to be inherited by one of my father’s brothers as Samburu customs dictated,” she said.
Fortunately, she managed to get a scholarship from the local Catholic church all due to the parish priest. The priest rescued a 10-year-old girl in Dr Kulea’s class who was going to be forced into early marriage. He wanted to take her to a boarding school in Meru, so, he sought to get a fellow student in her class to accompany her. They decided to pick the best student in the class who happened to be Dr Kulea.
She was shocked by how different things were at Matheri Girls School, which had students from different tribes from all over the country. Some of the girls in her class did not even know what female genital mutilation (FGM) was.
“When I went back home for the holidays, I could not understand why my cousin was not going to school like me. She was a bright, young girl and had taught herself to read and write. I would help her graze cows and goats whenever I was home.
“I urged my mother to take her to school, but my requests went unheeded. My mum would need to talk to the family because my cousin was an orphan who took care of our grandmother. She was also beaded. So, I devised a plan to get her to school. When school resumed, I refused to go back unless she was allowed to attend school as well,” Dr Josephine said.
ON A MISSION
The plan worked due to her insistence and the family was coerced to buy her cousin uniform, remove her beads and enrol her into school. Her cousin became the best student all through primary and high school. She was even among the Top 100 students in Kenya with a straight A in her KCSE. She eventually became a medical doctor.
This encouraged Dr Kulea even more. She realised that if all girls went to school things could be different. Looking back, Dr Kulea’s first rescue mission was her cousin and this paved the way for her dedication to rescuing girls from child marriages, beading and FGM.
Dr Kulea went on to finish primary school then proceeded to Matheri Girls High School. She completed her high school education, got a good grade, but could not get enough money to join university. She got married after high school at the age of 16 and by the time she turned 17 she already had a child.
Fortunately, she got a scholarship to do nursing two years later at the Kenya Registered Community of Health Nursing in Nyeri. She completed her course three and a half years later and was posted to one of the hospitals near her home village just as she was having her second child.
While working at this hospital, she continued with her rescue missions. One of her cousins, a 10-year-old, was being forced to get married and the family was planning to take her through FGM on the morning of the wedding as custom dictated. Dr Kulea called the police on her uncle and disguised herself in police uniform so that her family would not know that she had reported them.
They stormed the village, rescued her cousin and took her to school. However, two days later, her uncle arranged to marry off her even younger cousin, who was seven years old. Custom dictated that the dowry paid for her 10-year-old cousin be honoured in the form of a bride.
Dr Kulea went back to the village with the police for a second time. This time, they arrested her uncle. They also rescued her seven-year-old cousin and took her to school. After that incident, she decided to go beyond rescuing her family members to doing it for the whole community. Girls deserved an education.
So, she started rescuing girls and at that point was only doing it as an individual and not as an organisation. She would use her meagre salary to pay the school fees of the girls she rescued. She would also look after them in her house because she didn’t have any other option. They eventually became very many and so in 2012 she decided to register the Samburu Girls Foundation.
Samburu Girls Foundation would reach out to more girls and seek help through its organisational structure. She moved to Maralal to co-ordinate an NGO called AfyaPlus and so the town became the initial headquarters for the foundation.
Initially, she rented out spaces behind shops, which would serve as an office and girls’ centre. When the foundation got a solid footing, Dr Kulea found a place to take the girls in Loosuk area, south of Maralal. The community gave them 15 acres of land to establish a girls’ rescue centre.
Samburu Girls Foundation used this land to build a dormitory, dining room and four classrooms. That is where they host the girls now. It has become their home. Some girls go to boarding schools while others attend nearby schools. The centre has become their home. The foundation provides everything they need from food, shelter to clothes.
The foundation focuses on education and psychosocial support for the rescued girls and an outreach programme that seeks to raise awareness about child protection and teaching communities about the Constitution and girls' rights. There is a reconciliation programme, which takes place in the first or second year after a rescue, where the foundation seeks to reconcile the families.
Dr Kulea and her team have rescued 1,200 girls so far and are supporting 441 of them through pre-school to university; 32 of the girls are in colleges and universities pursuing different courses. The biggest challenge has been getting funds for the foundation. As a local NGO she has lost to larger NGOs because they have bigger names. However, she says local NGOs make more of an impact. With the little support from one-off donations and well-wishers she has managed to sustain the programme despite the difficulties.
“It is a tough job, because no one wants to fight with the community. Everyone thinks I am fighting the culture, but I think gradually people have started to understand that I am actually appreciating the culture. I was actually in the village the other day taking my son through circumcision, the Samburu way. I wanted to show them we appreciate the positive things about our culture. But the negative ones should go. That is the message we are trying to show. That the bigger part of our culture is good. We are trying to get rid of the small, negative aspects especially the ones that are hurting women and girls.
“The other challenge I have is I have never got a fund award, yet I have more than 20 paper awards so far. Even with UN Person of the year award in 2013. There is also nepotism when it comes to grant awards,” she laments. The mother of two enjoys spending time with her children. She is also a big fan of Lemarti, who sings conscious Samburu music. Her last two great reads were Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and Becoming by Michelle Obama.