If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
- Lila Watson, Australian aboriginal leader, speaking for the group
Last week, in Maji Moto, deep in Maasai Land in Southwest Kenya, I met a remarkable woman. Hellen Nkuraiya is Maasai, and taking a strong stand against the female genital mutilation (FGM,) early marriage and life-long subservience of women that are strong traditional elements of her tribe's culture. Mutilated and married as someone's fifth wife at the age of 12, she had been given a second chance through a fortuitous encounter, and has now committed herself to liberating other girls from the grim future she herself once faced.
After receiving death threats and backing away several times from this project, she is now providing education for young girls and women through a school she built with funding from the Polish government, and has created a Widow's Village of Protection where widows (who have no property and no rights, and who can never remarry) can find support, safety, and community.
I share this not only because I find Hellen's story both fascinating and inspiring, but because she is an exemplar of extraordinary resilience- the capacity to remain focused, persistent, and purposeful. She embodies her commitment while engaging in overcoming the oppressive aspects of her own culture while simultaneously honoring that culture, enrolling allies from within it, and teaching the noble and worthwhile aspects of her culture.
There is much more I could say about this remarkable woman, but let me simply share that I met a girl of 12, in her first day (ever) of school. She had been mutilated and married off, and then rescued; her husband does not know where she is. At times she was overwhelmed by the newness of it all; other times she was embarrassed at being at the table with four and five year olds, who were, like her, just learning to hold a pencil. I watched her repeatedly shut down, hiding her face and collapsing into a practiced disappearance.
A minute later, some spark inside lit up her eyes. Her face opened into a smile and she sat up straight, joining her new world in a very different way. I could see a radically different sense of possibility awakening in her, as yet tenuous, but clearly felt. Hellen was by her side, inviting her to open to this new learning as the first steps towards a new future.
Hellen has found her work, providing the environment for the very magic that I was privileged to witness.