A Day in the Life of Agnes Pareyio
~ July, 2011 ~
It’s 7:30 am at the V-Day Safe House in Narok, Kenya, and the morning symphony has begun. I am awakened by the sound of Mama Helen singing as she returns from the farm down the street with a large jug of fresh milk, which hangs on her back in a piece of colorful fabric tied across her forehead. Mama Helen is the matron of the center, and cares for the 50 or so girls who live there. Outside my door a girl hums Swahili gospel as she sweeps the walkway, bending low to make the most of the three-foot long bundle of reeds that is her broom. Other girls call to one another across the lawn as they amble between the dormitory and the dining hall, brushing their teeth in the sun, or carrying plastic tubs of water for bathing.
The V-Day Safe House, also called the Tasaru Ntonomok Rescue Center, was opened byEve Ensler and her organization, V-Day, in collaboration with Agnes Pareyio, a Maasai woman, who dedicates her life to putting an end to female genital mutilation (FGM) and early childhood marriage (ECM).
Eve met Agnes in 2000, when she was traveling the Rift Valley on foot from village to village, carrying a plastic model of a woman’s pelvis, which she used to educate her tribe about the dangers of FGM. To learn about their meeting and the profound impact each had on the other’s life and work, read “Waiting for Mr. Alligator” in Eve’s memoir, Insecure at Last. Here’s an excerpt:
I asked Agnes what V-Day could do for her, how we could support her. She said, “Eve, if V-Day buys me a jeep, I could get around a lot faster.” We bought her a jeep. The first year she had it, she was able to reach 4500 girls. So I asked what else V-Day could do for her. She said, “Eve, if you gave me money, I could build a house for girls so that when they were about to be cut they could run away to the house and save their clitoris and go to school.” So we gave her money to build a house.
In 2002, the first V-Day Safe House was opened in Narok, Kenya. In 2007, with support from V-Day and a group of V-Day activists, Agnes began construction on a second safe house at Sakutiek, a remote district about 45 kilometers north of Narok and the village where Agnes grew up. 50 or so girls live at each Safe House at any given time. In the three years since my last visit, there are many new faces.
As soon as I open my door, Mama Helen and 5 or 6 girls pour into the little guest room where I’m staying, bringing me milky tea and a basin of warm water for bathing. I see that they’ve already traded the gifts of jewelry and clothes I gave them when I arrived last night. Ann is wearing the sandals I gave Salula, and Brenda is sporting several bracelets that other girls had chosen. I notice that Dameris is wearing the wooden frog pendant that Brenda had on last night. Ownership among these girls does not exist as we know it, and one can watch a favorite outfit or accessory make its way around the community, appearing on a different person every day.
At 10 am, Agnes arrives to welcome me. As her “V-Day Jeep” pulls through the red metal gate of the center, the cacophony of giggles, shouts and gospel music, an almost constant soundtrack at the Safe House, quiets to a subdued hum. Agnes emerges from the vehicle and several girls run to her, bowing so she can touch the top of each head in the traditional Maasai greeting of an elder to a child. She asks them how they are doing in their studies and invariably tells them to work harder.
Though her relationship with them seems formal, I am beginning to sense how deeply these girls hold her as their mother. The night I arrived, Salula sat with me in the corner of the deserted dining hall and told me about her first weeks at the safe house in 2006. I had connected with Salula on my earlier visits and we have maintained a strong bond through the years. I knew the basics of her story: that Agnes and her team had rescued her two months before her 9th birthday in the midst of a forced wedding to a 42 year old man. But I’d never heard the details.
Unlike many of the girls who consciously chose to flee to the Safe House, Salula had no idea what was happening when a woman she had never seen before, flanked by a team of policemen, arrived at the wedding. Little Salula, dressed in ceremonial clothes and layers and layers of beaded jewelry, was guided into the waiting jeep and whisked away.
“When I first arrived at the Safe House, Agnes told Ann (an older girl) to stay with me and be my teacher and sister. But I disturbed her very much at night. I would sleep for only two hours then I would cry for the rest of the night, missing my mother. When Ann heard me crying, she would start crying too. Soon I was disturbing all the girls. So Agnes brought me to live with her in her house and took care of me until I got better. She became my mother. She is mother to all of us.”
I met Salula about a year after her rescue, when, at 9 years old, she was still the youngest at the Safe House. Now, though she’s only 13, she’s a true leader for the other girls, and her joy is contagious, especially when she leads the line dancing that erupts spontaneously almost every evening.
This morning, Agnes has many tasks at the Safe House. She’s already picked up sugar, maize and laundry detergent for the girls, as well as supplies—shoe polish, soap, toothpaste, sanitary pads, etc.—for four students who are about to depart for what they call “tuition,” an additional period of intensive residential study that takes place during school vacation time. Many Kenyan children spend a lot more time in school that those in the states. Often they have classes on weekends and most of the older students go to at least a week of “tuition” during each of their three month-long holidays.
As Agnes checks in with Mama Helen about a girl who has had a bad cough for several days, Grace, dressed in her school uniform and surrounded by a group of somber friends, shyly approaches. I instantly recognized her, as I had interviewed her four years earlier on my first visit to the Safe House. We had formed a tender connection as she told me how she fled her family and village in the dark and walked for several days to get to the Safe House, spending the nights under bushes for fear of the hyenas she could hear cackling nearby.
Now she is fighting back tears. Her mother has just died, leaving her an orphan. She must travel to her village for the funeral, but this is not simple for a rescued girl. She could easily be captured by those who would force her to submit to the tribal traditions she fled. Agnes and Mama Helen telephone an older sister who is sympathetic to the mission of the Safe House. Once they are satisfied that Grace will have protection, they arrange transport for the journey.
Firmly turning off her iPhone (which rings constantly), Agnes takes me by the hand and pulls me into the guest room, shutting the door behind us. “Now, I want to welcome you. How are you? Do you have everything you need here?”
I’m stunned that Agnes can find time to sit and talk with me, given her busy schedule. I can only imagine how full her life is – especially now that she’s campaigning to be the first woman representative to the Kenya Parliament from Narok County. I also know that, besides running two Safe Houses, she’s an elected Counselor to the local government and serves as Deputy Mayor [is that accurate?] of the town. As we sit in the guest room and catch up, she tells me that she’s also building a Primary Boarding School for Girls, which has been one of her dreams for many years.
I ask her how she manages to do all this and maintain the serenity that seems to emanate from her. “I felt a little stress last year when I was in school getting my diploma in Leadership and Project Management. My teachers put pressure on me because they could see that I was a good student.”
I can hardly believe my ears. “You were in school on top of all this?”
“Yes, distance learning. My professors lectured to me on the phone as I drove from meeting to meeting. They want me to go on and get an advanced degree, but with the campaign it is difficult right now.”
She stands up, her many beaded necklaces rattling as she moves. “I want you to come with me today into the field. We’ll spend the night away, so pack what you need. Take warm clothes.” I have no idea what she means, but grab my toothbrush, sweatshirt and a few protein bars and head for the waiting SUV.
It turns out that “into the field” means that I am joining Agnes on the campaign trail. Today is Saturday, and there are two rallies where she will be the guest of honor. Over the next few days I become familiar with the pre-rally protocol of bumping along the rough road from the Safe House into town, filling the vehicle with Agnes’ friends and supporters – women and men in traditional Maasai dress – and heading out, the car bucking and thrusting like a wild horse over dusty roads riddled with potholes as big as craters.
Today, my first day joining the campaign, it is all new. I mistakenly assume the state of the road is due to the fact that we must be heading for a particularly rural area, as we are bumping along for miles without seeing another car. But suddenly, rounding a bend, there are hundreds of people in the road – women in colorful shukas (bright cotton material that they tie around their shoulders), layers of beaded necklaces, collars, bracelets, and earrings hung both from the bottom and tops of their ears; and men in red Maasai blankets tied over one shoulder and wielding beaded or polished wood sticks, called rungus. They are running to greet the car, chanting “Counselor! Counselor!” to Agnes, and singing songs in Maa (the language of the Maasai) that celebrate her achievements.
“Get out,” says Agnes, the first English words I’ve heard in the buzz of Maa and Swahili that has filled the crowded car since we left town. We all climb out and join the cheering crowd marching up the road. Joseph, Agnes’ driver, slowly follows behind us in the car.
When we get to the crest of the hill, I’m stunned to see several hundred people gathered in makeshift bandstands, all cheering. I notice that there are no cars except ours, and realize that all these people must have walked, some great distances, to get there.
A flock of women, many wearing matching shukas, surround us. Hands are extended with the Maasai greeting, “Sopa!” to Agnes and the rest of the campaign party, and, to me, “Howareyoufine!” running the English together as if it were one Maasai word. As the crowd of women clears I see an almost endless line of men in western clothes, their hands extended.
“I want the people to see me, to shake my hand, to know who I am and what I stand for,” Agnes had told me earlier. “I want them to feel a personal connection. They need to know that I want to hear their questions and concerns. It is time for the government to stop being far away and disconnected. They need to know I come from their world, their village, their neighborhood, and that I will hear them and carry their needs to Parliament. So I go out to meet the people face to face every chance I get.”
When hundreds of hands have been shaken, and “Sopa!” or “Howareyoufine!” exchanged with all, we are guided toward the house of the man sponsoring the rally. A woman pours warm water over our hands to wash them. 25 people crowd into the one room, which is about 15’ by 15’. Often, the women who came with Agnes are the only females in the room. The animated conversation is interrupted by the arrival of plates heaped with steaming food: ugali, mashed potatoes, jhapati, and meat – goat or cow, I cannot tell which. Most people eat with their hands, but I notice they’ve given me a fork, a concession to the only Mzungu (white person) in the room. Next come several huge basins of meat on bones or in strips, a second course, or perhaps a dessert. Given that I haven’t eaten red meat since the last Kenyan goat I reluctantly tasted three years earlier, I try to politely avoid this delicacy. But Agnes notices that I am not partaking, pulls off a piece of hers and cuts it up into tiny bits for me, since my teeth are not used to tearing and grinding the tough meat.
When the basins are empty, soda is distributed to all and we are taken outside where the crowd has been waiting. I am led to a seat next to Agnes in the front row on a stage area, where all the guests of honor sit, facing the audience.
The rally begins with the minister offering a prayer in Maa. Then, from a distance, the sound of singing heralds the approach of a group of women in matching shukas. Agnes whispers to me that their song is about her, about the ways she has helped the community—raising money for water tanks, getting government support for the betterment of their schools, and, of course, saving and educating the girls. This group is followed by three more, each offering two or three dances and songs. Agnes leans over to speak into my ear, “Look how young some of them are! Yet they all are married.” Several of the dancers look like they could be no more than 14 years old.
After these colorful offerings, a series of perhaps 10 or 15 men stand and speak to the crowd. I cannot understand what they are saying, but each seems to be passionately expounding on some theme, which, I assume, is in support of Agnes’ candidacy.
At this point we’ve been at the rally for about 3 hours. Finally the last speaker sits down and all eyes shift to Agnes. Yet even now she does not speak. She motions for those of us who came in her entourage to stand and say something to the crowd. When it is my turn, I greet the crowd. “Sopa!” I exclaim to the women who are sitting on the ground to the left. “Sopa!” they respond, laughing, probably at my strange accent. Then I greet the men, who are seated and standing in the bandstand to the right. I tell them I’ve come from the other side of the planet to let them know that Agnes is not only changing the lives of girls in Maasailand, their families, and communities. She is changing the lives of girls and women around the world with her work. “I would go any distance to support her leadership,” I say. “And I hope you will to.” There are shouts of solidarity. Hands reach out to shake mine.
Finally it is time for Agnes to speak. As soon as she opens her mouth, the audience, which was looking a bit gray and sleepy in spite of the vibrant colors of their dress and jewelry, is electrified. They cheer and shout back to her. They applaud whenever she pauses. The men shake their rungus in the air and the women elbow each other whispering animatedly.
Over the next few days, I will see this happen again and again. In most gatherings the format is the same: the meal while the crowd waits outside, the dances and songs by the women to celebrate Agnes, then many speeches, mostly by the male leaders of the community. These formalities can last several hours, and by the time Agnes stands to speak the eyes of many have grown dull and tired. But as soon as she lifts her voice, everyone in the room, including most of the children, are riveted.
In the car, as we leave this first rally, I asked Agnes what she said that so ignited the crowd. “I told them that my opponent is using the work that I do at the Safe House to fight me. She is saying, ‘There is a woman running for Parliament who is spoiling your culture. She is denying your girls the ceremony of the cutting to become women.’ I say to the people, ‘I am that woman! But I am not ruining the culture, I am helping us to catch up to the rest of the world. It’s true, I do stand for an end to FGM and early marriage. But a girl does not need to be cut to be a woman, she needs education so she can make her own choices. Educating girls will bring benefit to all of us. When a girl graduates and gets a job and brings leadership and financial support back to her family, she changes not only her own life, but the life of her village and the culture as a whole.” Agnes tells people that her opponents are educated women who have not been cut themselves, yet they are advocating that girls should continue to undergo this violence.
As we lurch over the road to the next rally, Agnes goes on: “When I go to these meetings I try to introduce myself by telling them who I am, where I’m coming from, and where I want to go. I tell them I’ve been a counselor in the area for a long time and I’ve tried to help the people with the funds that I get. There’s a big difference between my ward and the other wards. I have friends who have helped me to drill wells for villages, yet in other wards there is no water. V-Day has helped me to build two Safe Houses, and now there are about 50 girls in each, all going to school for free. In other wards there is nothing like this. V-Day gave money so I could build a dam so there is water for the cows. I’ve started a market where women can sell what they grow and make some small income. I feel, if elected, I will make even more of a difference in some of the issues confronting my people.”
After the second rally is over, on the way back to Narok, we drive past field after field of drooping, dried out stalks. “So much of the crop has failed this year, the people are starving, ”Agnes says to me. All along the road are people who have walked with their donkeys for miles to find a place where they can buy maize for their families. We stop at the hut of a farmer and Agnes negotiates for several bags of the precious food.
It is already dark when we drop off Joseph, the driver, and Agnes takes the wheel. She turns off the road into what looks like a vast, pathless black space. “I do not know if I can find the way in the dark,” she says, as the jeep shutters across the dusty field. I can see no sign of a road. The darkness closes around us. Paths appear among the low bushes, but whether they are roads or the tracks of the Thompson’s Gazelles whose amber eyes glint all around us, I do not know.
Driving through this territory is so athletic, I can hardly believe Agnes is doing it after giving speeches at two four-hour rallies. Finally, out of the darkness there appears a small mud and stick house, a traditional Maasai manyatta. “Ah!” she sighs. “We found it.” In the headlights I can barely make out a pen full of sheep and goats, and several structures. A man in a shuka emerges from the dark to greet us.
This is Agnes’ herd. “It is much better than having money in the bank,” she explains. “Because sheep and goats give birth twice a year. So the herd multiplies very quickly, and each is worth at least 4,000 shillings. When you get sick and you need money for the hospital, you just sell some of them. Also, people respect you if you have a big herd. It gives me credibility in the campaign.”
We duck through the low doorway into the little hut. “This is my place of rest,” Agnes says. “I come here with friends to relax.” Nonetheless, she begins bustling about the small space, pulling out cooking utensils, finding sheets for the two single beds, building a coal fire, dousing the mud floor with water to keep down the dust, scrubbing the pots she will use to cook ugali and cabbage for dinner.
Agnes and Narikuni, a friend who has accompanied us, make dinner as I sit on a three legged stool and watch, hardly able to believe where I am. The wind whistles outside, but the fire keeps us warm. Agnes turns on the battery operated radio and a Swahili talk show overflows into the night.
In the morning, Narikuni cooks pancakes over the coal fire. Out of nowhere women start to arrive. Four women in beads and shukas appear out of nowhere and crowd into the dark hut. As they duck through the door, I can see that the sun is shining outside. But inside there are only splinters of light from the two small ventilation holes in the mud walls. Within 10 minutes, three more women arrive, one with a baby strapped to her back. All are fascinated by my camera and crowd around to see themselves in the photos I’m taking. I wonder if these women have any mirrors, or if this is a rare moment of reflection.
“Where did they come from?” I ask Agnes when we step outside. “How did they know you were here?” Agnes gestures to what seem like endless fields of dust and scrubby bushes. In the distance I can barely make out several round manyattas. “They saw my car. They want to talk to me about the campaign. And they know there will be food and tea when I am here.”
Agnes has brought supplies: salt and antibiotics for the herd, and the bags of Maize she bought yesterday for the two men who take care of the animals. This will be their food until Agnes arrives again, in a month or two. They have no car and there is no village within walking distance.
On the way back to town, we stop at the building site for the new “Tasaru PrimaryBoarding School for Girls.” Three dorms, which will house 60 girls each, a huge dining room/recreation all and kitchen, a
classroom building and several smaller constructions including apartments for teachers and the matron of the school. The site is abuzz with builders. A concrete mixer spins in the field by the classroom building. The head builder emerges to greet us.
Agnes is not satisfied with the progress of the work. She confronts the builder, reminding him that the school is to open in just over 3 months, asking him how he plans to be ready. Though she speaks English to him, his answer is in Swahili. Whatever he says seems to satisfy Agnes for the moment.
“Are you in charge of all this too? Did you design it? ” I ask, incredulous.
“I designed this. This school has been my dream for some time and finally it is happening. There will be 6 classes of 30 girls each. 20 of the girls will be paying students and 10 will be rescued girls who will go to school for free. So eventually all the girls from the Safe House who need to go to Primary School (Grades 1 – 6, in American terms) will go to school here free of charge.”
While the school is the last stop for me before being dropped back at the Safe House, Agnes’ day will continue to two different gatherings where she will be the featured speaker. I am relieved to stumble out of the jeep, exhausted, to join some of the girls on the lawn in the afternoon sun as they do beadwork, study or braid each other’s hair. There is a sweet quietude here at the Safe House, though the air is full of laughter, talk and even the pulse of gospel cds from the kitchen. Yet the peace that comes from a community of girls who know they are safe is palpable. We wave goodbye as Agnes’ jeep lurches back into the world on the other side of the Safe House gate.
WATCH A POWERFUL FILM OF V-DAY’S COLLABORATION WITH AGNES AND HER WORK TO SAVE AND EDUCATE GIRLS HERE.