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Turning Child-Brides into Scholars: CCF's Margery Kabuya Adapts an Old Tradition to Trade Early Marriage for Education

Image of a Kenya Maasai tribe mother and her babyImagine being born into a society where, before you ever take your first breath, someone — probably older than your father — has already claimed you as his bride. Your freedom and your ability to pursue love are traded for what amounts to a few heads of cattle. For countless babies and girls in Kenya's Maasai tribe, being "booked" for marriage before birth is simply a fact of life.

The Maasai people are a pastoral tribe in Kenya, who subscribe to the practice of Esaiyata, or "booking" their daughters for marriage — usually before they are even born. But one woman, Margery Kabuya, the East Africa Regional Representative for Christian Children's Fund, is on a mission to eliminate early marriage and other harmful traditions faced by African girls. Kabuya is actually saving school-age girls in Kenya from circumcision and early marriage — one by one — through an innovative project funded by CCF — the Naning'oi Girls Boarding School.

Kabuya substitutes the traditional practice of "booking" girls for marriage with a new idea of "booking" them to attend school instead. The brilliance of the program is that it uses the familiar process of offering a dowry to a girl's father (in the form of donated livestock and gifts) in order to secure the girl's release to the school. In essence, the school becomes the child's "husband" and she is sent to live and study with other girls in the boarding school.

To understand the significance of the Naning'oi School Project, it's important to understand what "early marriage" really means to these girls. 

Read Narinoi's story

Narinoi Puruo is a 15-year-old Maasai girl, born and raised in Kenya. In an interview with Rebecca Nandwa from The Daily Nation (Nairobi), she fought back tears as she told her story-a story painfully familiar for hundreds of thousands of Maasai girls.

"When my mother was about six months pregnant with me, a man my father had promised to give a wife to perpetuate their friendship came over and smeared fresh cow dung on her belly. From then, the contract was sealed. I was to be born his wife. My father and the man were overjoyed when I was born a girl. God and the ancestors had granted their prayer."

My mother had to play ball. Mothers in our community have no voice. I am told that on the day I was born, the man brought a fat he-goat that was slaughtered. Occasionally, the man came, gawped on his 'baby wife' as she was breast-fed. The man and my father quaffed calabashes of beer together, hoping that I'd grow up faster."

"I was about seven… when news started circulating in the neighborhood that a school was to be established… for girls to learn free. It was said all school-age girls would be targeted. My father panicked and fast-tracked my circumcision [at just 8 years old] to prepare me for marriage before it was too late."

What became of Narinoi?

This child was given an opportunity that few Maasai girls ever dreamed possible — to escape early marriage and become a student at the Naning'oi Girls Primary School. It is now her dream to go to college and become a lawyer to champion the rights of Maasai girls.

Image of girls who attend the Naning'oi Girls' Primary SchoolKabuya Is Recognized for Her Efforts

CCF founded the Naning'oi Girls' Primary School in 1999 to rescue underage girls "booked" for marriage, and instead, "book" them for school. Margery Kabuya has worked tirelessly on the Naning'oi boarding school program since its inception, and has seen enrollment rise from just four students in 1999 to nearly 350 boarders.

Kabuya was given the 2004 Agathe Uwilingiyimana Award for her work with the Naning'oi Girls Primary School. The award is given each year by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), in recognition of individuals or organizations that have used innovative strategies to accelerate girls' access to education.

How CCF Uses "Booking" for a Different Purpose

In Maasai culture, the practice of Esaiyata, or "booking," is seen as an unbreakable contract between the girl's father and the prospective husband. The "suitor" provides the girl's family with a dowry of food, livestock and other gifts to seal the contract.

In order to persuade parents to release their daughters for education, CCF adopted a modified "booking" method, since that approach is understood in the community. The Naning'oi project recruited well-respected warriors and Maasai elders to become "suitors" on the school's behalf. The elders act just as any other "suitor" would, offering gifts to fathers—such as cattle, goats, sheep and other gifts donated by the community — in order to "book" young girls for the school.

In cases where a girl is already "booked," and her dowry has already been paid, CCF project staff and the local elders negotiate with her parents and suitor to cancel the marriage and establish a dowry repayment plan. Chief Simeon Keshoko, a well-respected community leader, has been quoted as saying,

"We do not book unborn children, as our target is strictly girls. Our 'brides' can be as young as just a few days old. But, like traditional suitors, we spoil the father. From then on, the girl is ours."

350 girls are already enrolled and boarded in the Naning'oi School, more than 500 additional infants and girls have been booked and are waiting until they are old enough to attend school. CCF is proud to bring education, freedom and hope for a brighter future to the "booked" Maasai girls in Kenya, and to have a dedicated crusader like Margery Kabuya fighting to expand the reach of education and human rights to girls and women in Africa.

Kabuya explains, "Naning'oi" means consensus, togetherness, or listening to one another. Dialogue is the only way to achieve education for Maasai girls."