TCS Daily

Switched on Kenya

By Stephen Mbogo - December 8, 2003 12:00 AM

NAIROBI (Kenya) -- Tucked away within the mountainous savannah land inhabited by the Maasai community in Kenya is a square-shaped one-story building, among the many semi-urban structures dotting the Narok town, a semi-urban center signifying the result of Maasai's cultural interaction with modernity.


The small building -- like its not-so-distant neighbor, the world-renowned Maasai Mara Game Reserve -- has brought global significance to Maasai land.


In here, more than 100 computers are connected to the Internet via a satellite link, a resource center for modern day and cultural education serving more than 20,000 local people, and 400 young women from disadvantaged families, using information communication technology (ICT) to secure their future.


Valentine Nkoyo, 18-year-old Maasai girl who survived an early marriage when she was 12 years old, has nearly completed her high school education in a nearby school. She comes often to the center to access the Internet, go through social mentoring and career counseling sessions, among other educational programs offered at the center.


Her self-esteem is high. "My future is now very secure because I know what I want in life," she said, brimming with a confidence not common among the average girls of her age in Africa.


Nkoyo wants to be a pilot and she believes the computer -- tucked away 80 miles from the Kenyan capital Nairobi in a remote, semi-urban African village -- will facilitate her achieving the ambitious dreams.


Hellen Masiyio has completed high school. She is now in charge of the facility's Arts Center, where students do beading work for sale to enable the sustainability of the project. Hellen wants to be a diplomat. "I want to study international relations," she told me.


Once the center's distance learning program starts in early January, students and the people of Narok area will be able to study degree programs from the comfort of their classrooms, their homes and in open savannahs while herding their cattle, sheep and goats.


The center has teamed up with two United States-based universities as well as Baraton and the Egerton Universities in Kenya to facilitate the web-based distance-learning program. It offers a vivid illustration of how information technology is being used to transform communities.


Ordinarily, the beneficiary girls would now be young mothers, married off at an early age, a retrogressive cultural practice by the Maasai blamed for a significantly high rate of school dropouts among the girls and the general illiteracy of the community.


The fact that the Maasai is officially classified as a "disadvantaged" and "marginalized" community in Kenya indicates that technology indeed is a key catalyst of empowering such communities.


The Maasai people are culturally unique. For long Maasai warriors have captured Western attention through their brilliant robes and an almost mystical connection to their cattle and for their practice of hunting lions to prove their courage.


Maasai people usually do not take their children to school because they are uncomfortable with the Western values imposed by Kenya's current system of education. With a national population of close to 300,000, fewer than 800 Maasai have a college education in Kenya.


The center therefore promotes a multicultural approach to education to enhance girls' "ability to function effectively in the modern world without losing their cultural identity."


Here, the ICT is the driver. It is being used to facilitate access to the Internet, distance learning, online marketing of handcrafts to sustain the center and exchange of cultural experiences between Kenyan and American students.


The center is the brainchild of Ledama OleKina, who was educated in the United States through the efforts of his Maasai community. He founded the center out of gratitude.


With money raised in the U.S. and support from U.S. international development arm USAID, OleKina founded Maasai Education Discovery, the center which runs the community resource and technology learning center at Narok.


Through his efforts, all 21 high schools in Maasai land have been provided with 10 computers. The initiative is significantly changing the bad perception that the Maasai people have towards modern education.


It has also enabled the Maasai girls to have a positive attitude towards education and expanded their understanding of modern day life dynamics and how they can be participants rather than just onlookers.


Stephen Mbogo is a journalist based in Nairobi.

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