Simbolei Community Assistance Association

Archive for the ‘Women’s Empowerment’ Category

Wrapping Up Another Year with Some Great Books

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

So, lots of updates are in order. Due to family responsibilities, the Kaitanys were not able to relocate in July as planned. Currently, Richard is travelling back and forth between Michigan and Kenya every few months to keep things moving in both places. Our house is on the market and our shipping boxes are neatly packed and labeled. It won’t be long before ALL of us have a new home in Kenya.

But in the meantime, the holidays are approaching and that means time for some great new books for the Simbolei Library and for folks who visit us at holiday gift fairs.

Every year, I choose a few of the many amazing picture books that come out each year to suggest for holiday gift giving and for our Simbolei Library. My criteria include choosing new books by diverse authors and featuring children from a variety of ethnic, cultural, social and religious backgrounds that promote positive values. Also, I look for books with outstanding artwork. There are always too many amazing choices. But, I try to limit the list to five or six. So, without further ado, I introduce our first holiday book pick of 2019

This recent bestseller tells the story of Katherine Johnson who loved numbers and counting. After overcoming many challenges, particularly gender and race discrimination, Katherine grew up to work with NASA as a “computer,” completing complex equations needed for space flight. When the Apollo 13 spacecraft was damaged while returning to earth, Katherine managed to recalculate a new flight path quickly and accurately, saving the lives of the three astronauts who were able to return safely to earth. The book has lively illustrations that create a continuity of Katherine’s character as she grows older through the story. Katherine’s story is first a story of personal courage and talent, but also includes reference to historical discrimination against black people and women in the United States and especially in the fields of math and science. Further, this book is unusual in providing brief, simple explanations of Katherine’s actual work with advanced mathematics and physics that could be an interesting conversation starter for a math or science classroom. The book is perfectly suited to a seven to nine year old reader on their own or, with some help and possibly slightly simplified read aloud, would fascinate most four to seven year olds.

I will have copies of the book ready for purchase at the Lansing Peace and Education Holiday sale on November 15 and 16 and at the Presbyterian Church of Okemos Alternative Holiday sale on December 8.  Through the generosity of Schuler Books and Music, 30% of the purchase price at either of these sales will go directly to Simbolei Community Assistance to help fund our community library and other educational activities. If you would like to purchase a copy but are unable to attend the sales, please email me at and I can arrange to mail a copy to you.

Stay tuned for the rest of our holiday list over the next few days!

The Bottom Line: Why We Care about Girl Children

Monday, April 11th, 2016

I answer lots of questions about Simbolei Academy. Obviously, it’s my favorite topic of conversation, so generally I enjoy explaining what we do and why we do it. But once in a while a question brings me up short. More than once lately, I’ve been asked, “Why do you focus so much on girls?  Don’t you care about boys? ” This question comes in a variety of formulations, sometimes sounding genuinely curious, but more often with at least a hint of criticism. Simbolei’s focus on education and empowerment specifically for girls is the only aspect of our project that ever draws a negative response from members of the local community. So, as our literacy activities grow and construction moves steadily forward toward opening day, it seems like a good time to revisit some old premises and answer the simple question, “Why do you care so much about girls?”

First, as a mom of two wonderful young men and as a teacher of hundreds of intelligent, caring and inspiring young men in my classes over the past 27 years, let me say that I admire and encourage the many gifts young men have to bring to Kenyan society. Our primary school literacy outreach activities are all conducted in co-ed schools and boys and girls participate equally.

Students at Yokot Primary seeing us off at the end of a literacy outreach program.

However, when Richard and I decided to build a secondary school in rural Kenya, we knew our focus needed to be on the empowerment of girls and women. In rural Kenya, women perform 80% of the agricultural labor. In addition to physical labor, women manage 40smallholder farms in Kenya. They have access to only 10% of available agricultural credit. However, what is even more startling, women own 1% of land in Kenya. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s not a misprint. 1%.  Women do the work, but due to cultural and social norms and a legal system that is still skewed in favor of male inheritance and ownership, women do not generally share equally in the proceeds of their work.  But surely, you may say, this system is changing rapidly?  Women are becoming educated and taking on leadership roles in equal numbers now, right?  Today, as I write this 81% of Kenyan national parliamentarians are men. The president and deputy president are also men.  Kenya has a high rate of unemployment over all, but only 29% of formal wages paid in Kenya are paid to women.

In terms of education, Kenya’s relatively new free primary education program has increased primary school enrollment by 46%. Both boys and girls now have a good chance of attending primary school. But girls still attend secondary school in lower percentages than boys and many girls are still unable to attend secondary school due to a lack of available spaces. The Kenyan national government and local leaders strongly encourage investment in private schools to increase access to education.

In short, while Kenyans face many hardships, those hardships fall disproportionately on girls and women. Despite a great deal of international attention to the needs of women and girls in the developing world, much remains to be done to ensure gender equity in Kenya.

I know this post has deviated a bit from my usual cheerful, conversational tone. But, I hope this helps to clarify our firm commitment to the empowerment of women and girls in rural Kenya. As we move into the final phases of construction, as you consider your part in our grand adventure, let’s keep sight of the motivation that brought us this far, a vision of a world class education so that young women in rural Kenya can be empowered to build the world they imagine.

Source of Statistics: USAID


Floating Schools in Bangladesh: Using Technology to Bridge the Access Gap

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

This week we are once again participating with the EFA Report at UNESCO’s Teacher Tuesday program, which highlights the challenges and accomplishments of teachers around the world. You can find all the Teacher Tuesday reports here:

In rural Bangladesh, one of the major reasons for school drop outs is flooding. During the monsoon season roads and even schools themselves become flooded, leading to interrupted learning and poor school success for children without other options. However, in 1998, Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who had grown up in rural Bangladesh, decided that if the children couldn’t come to school, the school would come to them. He designed a waterproof floating school, and in 2002, the first such school was launched. Because the schools avoid the problems of transportation, parents are more willing to enroll girl children in floating schools, as they do not need to worry about girls being harassed on their way to and from school.

Students leave the floating boat school at the end of classes for the day.

Mosammat Reba Khatun has been teaching on a floating school for the past ten years. As a single mother, Mosammat holds two jobs. In the morning, she teaches 30 second grade students in the floating school. In the afternoon, she works as a tailor and in the evening, Mosammat makes home visits to students and their parents to encourage continued attendance and address any school-related issues that may arise.  She points out that not only do the schools provide basic education for the students, but they provide development and access for the entire community. “It encourages parents to send their girls to schools and pushes for female enrollment. The trained parents grow new crops that ensure foods and year-round income. The rate of early marriage is reduced.”  Teachers meet monthly to plan curriculum for the students and also for the parent training activities.

Mosammat teaching her class in the floating boat school.

Students in class at the floating school.

While the original schools offered only basic education through traditional means, Mosammat notes that adoption of appropriate new technology has opened up new horizons for the students. Through Rezwan’s innovative designs, the floating schools are equipped with internet connectivity through the cellular data network. Mosammat explains, “Children learn computer skills and watch educational shows. It encourages the children and helps to learn more. Computers in the classroom have encouraged the children to learn the new technology, watch the educational shows, learn to draw pictures and visit the online educational websites.”  Power for the computer systems and lights in the school comes from a solar power system.  In addition, the schools are introducing a solar lantern, called the SuryaHurricane solar lantern to students. Currently, students earn a lantern for their family through good exam results. The lanterns help advance education by allowing students to study at home. Kerosene lanterns, which are the traditional means of lighting, are not only dangerous, but require fuel which parents may not always be able to afford. Solar lighting gives families their first reliable means of working and studying after dark, revolutionizing life for many.

Village women learning about agricultural practices through the floating school’s training activities.

Students use one of the school’s solar powered computers which access the internet through the cellular network.

Sabina Khatun (9) reads using a SuryaHurricane Solar lantern at her home. These lanterns are gradually being distributed to students through the floating schools.


In addition to technical innovations, the schools offer a diverse curriculum. The goal is to make school fun and inviting to encourage attendance and also to maximize the limited time many students are able to attend. The floating school currently is only available through fourth grade, so this may be a brief time for many students. Mosammat describes, “Our students are involved in reciting rhyme and poem, singing, story-telling, reading and discussion on books from the library, drawing pictures on papers, writing poems etc.”  She notes that the rich, safe environment in school is often in contrast to the home lives of the students. “[W]e are working with children from landless, extremely poor families vulnerable to natural disasters. Their parents mostly work as day laborers and have irregular family income. The children under age five are malnourished and infant mortality is high.”  Clearly, the need for not only economic development, but for building hope and optimism is great in these communities.

Students from class one pose for a photograph outside their floating school.

The floating schools of Bangladesh are a tremendous example of a local problem being addressed with sensitivity to local condition and customs and yet, offering innovative approaches that integrate the latest technical developments in solar energy and internet connectivity. As we continue our building project we need to continue to consider how Simbolei Academy can incorporate sustainable approaches to energy use, how we can involve parents and community in our school and how we can offer a curriculum that does more than prepare students for standardized tests, but also gets them excited about school. Hopefully, many of our students will follow in the footsteps of social entrepreneurs like Mohammed Rezwan and teachers like Mosammat Khatun, giving back to their community in the form of new ideas and community service.

EFA at UNESCO is hosting a live Tweet Chat with the designer and founder of  the floating school program. Information below gives the details.

Why Do We Focus on Education for Girls?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Damaris Choti, our guest blogger.

Our guest blogger today, Damaris Choti, grew up in Kisii, Kenya.  She is currently a graduate student at Michigan State University studying Educational Administration.  Damaris is married to Jonathan Choti and they have two daughters.  In this blog, she explains why education for girls is particularly crucial for Kenyan development.

In 2003, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls.” The former UN secretary general seems to have recognized that high rates of illiteracy and ignorance among girls and women are the core causes of societies’ developmental problems especially in areas such as diseases, elevated maternal and infant mortality rates, and poverty prevalent particularly in developing countries. Kenya is one of the developing countries with more that 50% of school age girls out of school.

Kenyan girls are born and socialized into a patriarchal society in which boys take priority over girls.  The male children are privileged because they carry on the family name unlike girls who are considered to belong to their husbands’ families after marriage. Therefore, when poverty forces families to decide between educating a boy or a girl, the boy is given precedence. With little or no education, most girls especially in rural Kenya lack the necessary credentials to compete in the paid labor market which is the main reason why majority of Kenyan men have comparatively high economic power and high social status than their women counterparts. The girls’ and women’s low social status in the society has made a vast majority of women to be dependent on their husbands and/or parents because they cannot raise sufficient income to cater for their daily needs.

In order for Kenya to move higher in her developmental ladder, the education of girls needs to be taken seriously. The knowledge and skills that come with an education are likely to bring out the untapped, or partially tapped, potential in the Kenyan female population. First, education will give girls an opportunity to access jobs that will assure them of regular income that can support them and their families. Since the increasing population in Kenya has consumed most of the agricultural land that has for a long time supported women’s livelihoods, Kenyan girls need education now more than ever. Second, education will empower girls and women to say NO to unfavorable cultural values, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), early and arranged marriages, and wife battering that characterize the lives of many Kenyan women. Some of these practices have caused many girls to drop out of school because they do not know any better than the values their immediate families and communities have instilled in them since birth. Education will enable girls to see the negative sides of these cherished cultural practices in a number of Kenyan communities. Third, through education girls and women will learn the importance of essentials of modern life skills such as family planning, pre- and post-natal care, nursing, diseases and nutrition. This knowledge is likely to check the rapid population growth in Kenya and also decrease maternal and infant mortality rates. In addition, since women are mostly responsible for feeding their families, education will equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills in nutrition and ultimately lead to a healthy society.

Presently, the chances of Kenyan girls accessing formal education are severely limited. Therefore, governmental, individual and organizational effort is needed in order to open up avenues for the education of girls in Kenya. Parents and patriarchal communities need to be educated on the merits of treating boys and girls equally. Government need to outlaw some of the outdated cultural practices such as FGM and forced/arranged marriages. My own educational journey through graduate education reveals some of the effective interventions that may uplift the education of Kenyan girls. In my case, I was born and raised in rural Kenya and did my primary and secondary school education there. I attended a mission-run university located in a rural environment in Rift Valley Province. Unlike most girls in my patriarchal community, my parents valued education and sacrificed a lot to support my education and that of my siblings (4 sisters and 2 brothers). I did not experience any gender-related partiality in my family. It is not all girls in my community that are lucky to have parents who care about their daughters’ education. Even today, girls who come from families with pronounced male/female expectations continue to suffer the effects of gender discrimination against females and consequently end their education at high school or even in primary school. While their brothers may attend better equipped boarding high schools, the girls end up in poor-equipped day schools. It is against this background that Simbolei Girls’ Preparatory Academy may be seen as a source of light in paving the way for Kenyan girls to access quality formal education.








The Slab is In and the New Year is Begun

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Richard Kaitany is back in Michigan and we are gearing up for another year, the year in which we hope to finish construction of the main building.  Through his pictures,  you can follow the process of laying the PVC liner and mesh, pouring and spreading the concrete.  We are now ready to begin building the structure to support the second floor.

Of course, getting from this great solid foundation to the finished building is still a bit of a climb, but our confidence is growing at every step.  We have lots of great activities planned for the year ahead so that you can be involved in our progress.  Look for more details about how you can connect and help over the next few weeks.  Also, stay tuned for stories of Richard’s visits to our friends at Kiptingo Primary and Simbolei Primary Academy.

Sharon’s Story: The Why and How of Education for Kenyan Girls

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Today we welcome our second guest blogger, Sharon Kotut.

Our guest blogger, Sharon Kotut.

 Sharon is a Senior Level Professional in Human Resource Management and Administration. She holds a Bachelors of Education (BED, Maths & Accounting) degree from the University of Nairobi, and a Masters of Business Administration from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. She is currently in Senior Management as the Deputy Human Resource Manager at Corn Products Kenya Limited an American multinational.

Sharon also works as a mentor conducting  one to one sessions with  young people, young professionals, university students and church youth groups. Her passion for people is seen in the glow in her face every time you interact with her.

If you ask Sharon to tell you about herself, however, she emphasizes family. “My son Shammah makes me tick. He is my life, my breathe, my everything. My siblings make it for me. They are the best people on earth, cheerful givers and out there to be of help to everyone. They are selfless people and i am so proud of them.”

I met Sharon online where I discovered that her father was a high school classmate of my husband Richard at St. Patrick’s High School in Iten.  This is the first of a three part series Sharon is writing concerning education in Kenya and especially in the Rift Valley area.

Education: That Which Makes Us Equal

For a young girl growing up in the village like I did a few years ago, education is the key that makes people equal.

Educational facilities, training material, text books, exercise books, writing materials, school uniforms, shoes and other accessories that are essential for efficient and effective learning are very hard to come by. The motivation, the exposure and the horizon that we refer to in saying ” look beyond the horizon” are nonexistent.

During my days in Primary School in the early Nineties, we could walk to school barefoot, do without text books, school uniforms and other accessories because most rural folks cannot afford to provide such resources. Children go home over lunch hour but most children get home and there is no food or their parents are so intoxicated with the local brew that they forgot that lunch was to be done. Some children even go to school without food. Don’t forget that we have not touched on personal items that a girl needs day to day.

Young girls grow up with the knowledge that as soon as they turn 15 or 16, they will be ripe for marriage and they therefore learn from their mothers house chores performed by wives. Girls start learning how to smear houses with cow dung mixed with ash, how to fetch firewood and water from the river; fend for younger siblings, and other household chores. If you grow up in a family where illegal traditional brews are made then you probably learn the skill from your mother.  Luckily for girls in our area, female genital mutilation (FGM) is not practised anymore in most Kalenjin tribes. Otherwise usually after initiation, one would be married off to an old man for a few cows.

How can we then help these young girls to know that there is a life beyond their villages? That one can work hard, do well in Primary School, go to High School, College, get a job and live a better live than their ? What can we do as people who are privileged and have had the opportunity to experience life out here so as to give the same opportunity to these young girls?

A few weeks ago, I visited a village near my town and I found young boys, school going age drinking busaa (local brew) with old men. The women had had a few too many too. Their parents are oblivious to the harm they are causing these children. To them, this is the life, to these young boys; there is no other life. They have probably never gone beyond 20 Kilometres of their radius. How will these young people know that there are subjects such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Home Science, Geography and History? How will they know that there are professions such as Law, Accounting, Teaching, Purchasing, Engineering, Architecture, etc?


What is our role here?


Sharon, shown here with a group of high school students, provides mentoring and advice to many young people.

Educating Girls: Emma’s Story

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Today, we are honored to host our first in a series of occasional guest bloggers.  Emma Bosire, our first guest, was born, raised and educated in Kenya and now works for African Commercial Bank in Kenya.  I first “met” Emma through Kenyan discussion groups on facebook and was delighted by her wise and clever comments.  Enjoy!

Emma Bosire, our first guest blogger.

“I ask you all so earnestly to open girl’s schools in every village and try to uplift them. If the Conditions of women are raised, then their children will, by their noble actions, glorify the name of the Country. “—Swami Vivekananda

My story

I grew up in a not so well to do family. Despite the cost of education in Kenya my father believed in educating all his children. My father had the option of following the African culture of not educating girls; my father could have used lack of enough money as an excuse, not to take me and my elder sister to school and instead concentrated in educating my two brothers with what he had.

From an early age I was an intelligent child, excelling in my studies from primary school all through to secondary school. My father struggled with my school fees given that I went to an expensive high school after successfully passing my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE).

In University I did well graduating with a Second Class Honors-Upper division, in Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting) and then got a job with Commercial Bank of Africa where I am currently working. If my dad had never taken me and my sister to school my story would be different. Maybe I would have gotten married at a tender age of even 12 years and by now have 8 children, as it is the unfortunate situation for some of the African girl children. I am very grateful to my parents; my father for educating me and my mom for always being the moral support and role model that I needed in my life. My father until now calls me his Queen because I never let him down and he is always saying I turned out better than he expected!

So why is it therefore important to educate girls and women?

Education plays a very important role as a foundation for girls’ development towards adult life. When you educate a girl child in Africa, everything changes. She’ll be three times less likely to get HIV/AIDS, earn 25 percent more income and have a smaller, healthier family.

Cultural and traditional values in Africa stand between girls and their prospects for education. The achievement of girls’ right to education can address some of societies’ deep rooted inequalities, which condemn millions of girls to a life without quality education and therefore to a life of missed opportunities. Improving educational opportunities for girls and women helps them to develop skills that allow them to make decisions and influence community change in key areas.

Investments in girl education benefit the individual, society and the world as a whole. Girl child education is among the most powerful instruments known to reduce poverty and inequality. Women with formal education tend to have better knowledge about health care practices hence lowering maternal mortality rates and also lower infant and child mortality rates.

When you educate a girl child in Africa, you have educated the whole family.


Emma M. Bosire

We can only be what we give ourselves the power to be.”



Mourning “Mama Kenya,” Honoring Her Memory

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

This week, Kenya lost one of its truly great leaders, Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Wangari Maathai.  Dr. Maathai was one of the first East African women to attain a PhD. in biological science.  She died of cancer this week, at the untimely age of 71.  Her life is an inspiration to Kenyan women, and to all women, that ordinary people, doing simple but difficult things, can change their lives and the lives of their families.

In the 1970’s Dr. Maathai realised that Kenya was rapidly becoming deforested and that little was being done by forestry officials or aid agencies.  Yet, forests are necessary to preserve rainfall and to prevent desertification.  On Earth Day in 1977, she planted seven trees to honor seven women leaders of Kenya.  She then began encouraging and financially assisting other women, ordinary farmers and other working women, to plant trees.  Over the decades the Green Belt Movement she founded has planted 45 MILLION trees in Kenya.

Throughout her years as an activist, Dr. Maathai emphasized the power of personal commitment  to bring change.  The tree-planting women display a motto on their t-shirts.  And it’s not, “Tree hugger.”  It’s the dignified but powerful, “As for me, I’ve made a choice.”  The culture, politics and economy of modern Kenya often combine to make young women feel they have no choices, that their lives are doomed to routine and drudgery.  But,  Kenya’s next Nobel Laureate may even now be learning her alphabet at Kamariny Primary School and wondering about that new school being built down the road.

Together, we can offer young women the opportunities and choices that will build Kenya’s next generation of women leaders.  We just need to make the choice to devote our time, our talents and our resources to showing them the way.

In Kiswahili, when people are parting, they say “kwa heri,” which means, “go with blessings.”  So,  Wangari  Maathai, go with blessings.  We will try to follow the wisdom you have taught us.

The Great Rift Valley is part of a huge tectonic rift in the earth's crust that also created the Red Sea and the valley of the Jordan River.

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Simbolei Girls Secondary School, Kenya