“All the cows in the world are gray, white, brown, or black, but have you ever seen a purple cow?” asks Kenyan activist Hellen Nkuraiya. You might picture a colorful farm animal from a children’s storybook, but Nkuraiya has something else in mind entirely: a school painted purple, named Enkiteng Lepa, which in English translates to “Our Cow School.” “In the Maasai community, cows are everything,” Nkuraiya tells Refinery29. “We don’t put money in the bank. When you have money, you put it in livestock.”
Nkuraiya founded the school for children who are at risk of female genital mutilation. The school’s motto is, “Don’t Exchange Girls For Cows, Give Them Education.” Among the Maasai (the ethnic group that Nkuraiya belongs to), girls undergo FGM to mark the transition from childhood to womanhood, at which point they can be married in exchange for a dowry of cows. When this happens, most are taken out of school.
As a result, while 48 out of 100 Maasai girls in Kenya will enroll in primary school, just five will graduate and go to secondary school, and less than one will complete secondary school, according to the nonprofit Maasai Girls’ Education Fund.
That's exactly what happened to Nkuraiya. She underwent FGM as a child, and was subsequently married off and pulled out of school.
“I wanted to give my community everlasting cows,” Nkuraiya says. “In the school, the children milk knowledge, unlike the real cow that will die one day of disease or drought.”
I met Nkuraiya on a press trip with Intrepid Travel, as the small group adventure company launched a new women-only expedition in Kenya. Along with game drives in Kenya’s national parks and a day spent in the capital city of Nairobi, the trip offers the chance to visit women’s only-spaces throughout the country. These include meeting with a single mothers’ group in Samburu, speaking with female wildlife rangers at Mount Kenya National Park, and visiting a ceramic bead-making workshop in Nairobi. One of the highlights of the expedition is an afternoon in the Maasai village where Nkuraiya lives, meeting her and learning about her work.
Female genital mutilation — the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia — has many short- and long-term effects on health. That includes chronic pain, chronic infection, obstructed menstruation, childbirth complications, an increased risk of contracting HIV, pain during sex, anorgasmia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and, of course, death, reports the World Health Organization. The practice is widely seen as a human rights violation.
FGM is on the decline in Kenya after a 2011 law made it completely illegal, but the practice is more common among certain ethnic groups. Although UNICEF reports that 21% of Kenyan girls and women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM, 77.9% of Maasai women in the country were subjected to the practice in 2014, according to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics.
FGM is an international issue. The practice is even more common in some of Kenya’s neighboring countries. In Ethiopia, 74% of girls and women have undergone FGM; in Somalia, the figure is 98%, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Worldwide, around 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM, including around 500,000 in the United States.
Although many organizations are working to fight FGM, activists say external pressures won’t prompt real change; that has to come from within the community. In 2019, over a thousand Maasai people in the Loita Hills region of Kenya gathered to watch elders publicly announce the end of FGM — the first declaration from a community of this size in the country. "In the beginning, we did not think this was possible. But we joined hands together with cultural leaders, with the community, with girls, with their parents,” Sarah Tenoi, a Maasai woman and anti-FGM activist who works with the nonprofit SAFE Maa, told The Christian Science Monitor. “We cannot go alone. We must have someone to hold hands with and move together," she added.
When Nkuraiya herself was around eight or nine years old — the Maasai don’t keep track of ages — she survived FGM. After around a year of healing, her father gave her to a 70-year-old man to be his fifth wife, in exchange for a dowry of three cows. When she was married, Nkuraiya was forced out of school. She ran away twice. She was rescued by nuns, who funded her education. A county scholarship then took her through Teacher Training College.
After completing her training, Nkuraiya wanted to work to fight the challenges affecting Maasai women and girls, including the threat of FGM and early marriage, and a profound lack of girls’ education, widows’ rights, and economic empowerment. As she began working — first as a teacher, then as a principal — she encountered girls who were at risk of FGM. No matter the consequences, she always did whatever she could to stop it. She was beaten and driven out of town, but she did the same thing at the next school she taught at; and the next.
In 2009, she decided to stay put and, with the help of well-wishers, founded a school of her own. “I said, If they kill me fighting for the rights of the girls, I will die with dignity,” she says. Through her work, she has saved over 80 girls from FGM.
Although Nkuraiya is not popular, she draws students by offering a trade with her neighbors. With the help of donors, Nkuraiya gathers water in a borehole, a small-diameter well. She allows others’ livestock to drink the water from her troughs — if they enroll their children in her schools. Although her focus is on girls, she happily educates young boys as well at a school for children of both genders, called Tepesua School.
Nkuraiya is clear that she is proud to be Maasai, and she wants her students to feel the same way. “I want the girls to grow up holding culture in one hand and education in the other,” she says. “Look at me: I have been to school, I have traveled to many places, but I am still Hellen, I am still Maasai, I am still Kenyan. That will never change.”
Nkuraiya honors her culture’s traditions in a new way. She’s even developed a new rite of passage ceremony that mimics FGM. Instead of cutting girls’ genitals, she symbolically paints their thighs with red ochre. “Red is our holy color. You cannot perform any ceremony without red ochre,” she says.
Although she still faces pushback, her compassionate approach has won over some, including the woman who used to cut the girls. She gave her tools to Nkuraiya when Nkuraiya offered her the chance to sell beadwork instead. “She was cutting the girls to have money so she could have food to survive,” she says. “Some people do some things because they don’t have options. I gave her options.”
Intrepid Travel provided the press trip the writer of this story attended. However, Intrepid Travel did not approve or review this story.