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April 7, 2013

Theo Dobie & Rachael Tengbom

The idea started with a few scribbled lines on a scrap of paper: “Use this to give the girls their voices back”. Attached to the note was a thirty-five dollar check.

The Maasai of Kenya

Rachael Tengbom, the Executive Director for Voices of Hope-Africa, is a Maasai woman from the Central Division of the Kajiado District in Kenya. She currently lives in the United States with her family, but a portion of her heart remains in Kenya. Her tribe, the Maasai, is known for their strong cultural traditions, brave warriors, and love of their cattle.

The Maasai are also known for other traditions: Female Genital Mutilation (the torturous cutting off of a girl’s genitalia) and Child Marriage. FGM is viewed as a “rite of passage” marking the girl’s transition to womanhood- and it is the male’s way of ensuring that they do not stray from marriage. The Maasai believe that an uncut woman has sexual feelings for every man, while circumcision shields her from these desires.

Executive Director  and Maasai Advocate- Rachael Tengbom

Executive Director and Maasai Advocate- Rachael Tengbom

Voices of Hope Finds its Inspiration

As a teacher, Rachael saw the hopelessness of the situation all too often. Girls, full of life and curiosity, would be learning mathematical fractions on Friday, and by Monday, their educational opportunities would be concluded.

“I felt helpless as a teacher. Girls as young as ten would go missing in my class because they had gone through female circumcision and were married off to a man, likely 50 years her senior.”

Rachael, who would marry an American missionary and spend the next decade of her life in the United States, made frequent trips back to Kenya. Each time she vacillated over the inequity of her fellow woman’s social standing.  She would be asked by young high school graduates, who had previously been kept safe from FGM by attending boarding school/rescue centers, to save them from female genital mutilation.  Upon graduation these young women had nowhere to turn and would be forced into returning to their communities to face FGM and forced marriage or escape to the big city where they would potentially be sexually exploited and forced into prostitution as a means to support themselves.

It was a difficult proposition.

“I wondered how I could do this- the Maasai girls are in such need of help, but there are so many complex problems. I didn’t know where to start.”

It was while attending leadership training in the United States that Rachael made a commitment to reach out to Maasai post high school girls who were facing FGM.  She wanted to give them the opportunity to obtain higher education as she did.  Rachel noted: “It would be my life’s calling”.

The note and check arrived several weeks later from a stranger who had heard about Rachael’s commitment to help young Maasai women: “Use this to give the girls their voices back”.

“When I saw that note, with those words written on it: to give them their voices back, it was really powerful for me. I had never thought of it that way before. The Maasai culture naturally suppresses the woman’s voice.  A woman is always under a man’s control in my culture.  Their voices are never heard. And, they live a life without hope. It’s time to change this. The women I support will be given a voice and they will be the main force behind changing other Maasai girls and women’s lives… ‘Voices of Hope’ was born.”

To date, the non-profit has fully funded 41 young women’s college and educational opportunities, with the majority of the graduates currently employed. The next step is to build a safe home and training center that girls and young women can go to when they are in danger of being involuntary coerced into going through female genital mutilation and forced married. At the center, short term training will be offered and the ability to become financially independent will be a focus.

The Graduates Are Being Heard

“The beauty of Maasai women gaining higher education and obtaining a voice is that it doesn’t just impact the individual. They are empowering others to follow,” Rachael said.

“Outside forces are normally viewed with distrust by the Maasai people, because they are fearful that the strangers are coming to change their culture.  In Voices of Hope Leadership training our students learn how to advocate for girls and women while still respecting the Maasai culture, yet discouraging cultural practices like FGM and girl child marriage. Because they’re Maasai, they know and understand the tribal customs.”

Rachael concluded: “Fathers have looked upon their daughters and deemed their only value derived from a marriage dowry – more education for their daughters is viewed as a waste of money. Husbands believed that for a woman to be trust-worthy must be circumcised”.

“The fact is, you can have both: A woman can have an education and be uncircumcised, and still be a Maasai woman – love her people, live in her village, and retain a strong value system. Many of our graduates have gone back to their villages and have shown that being educated and uncircumcised doesn’t fundamentally change the culture. In truth, they have shown they are more “valuable”.  Their income has bought cows and land that can now benefit them as well as their fathers and husbands.   And, in the process, they now have a voice.”

In the coming months, Voices of Hope will be posting blog entries written by our graduates as they detail their experiences. Please check back to read about their triumphs and struggles through their own eyes.

3 Responses to “The Beginning- How “Voices” are given Hope”

  1. Paula
    April 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    Thank you for this wonderful work, you really are making a difference in the lives of these girls, and I can see they will make a difference to the future generations.

  2. judy nelson
    October 17, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    Several years ago I sponsered a girl for a year. Being sick, I did not communicate with you all but am wondering whatever happened to the young lady I sponsored. Would you still have that information?

    j nelson

    1123 18th St.

    Hood river,Oregon 97031

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