Jan 202013

Author: Mary Willson

“You must always remember you are privileged, the most privileged in the world,”

Sophia Lapuchirit was the first woman from Samburu, a north central part of Kenya to go to school.

Pronounced Sophie, Sophia in the Samburu language means brown. Sophia has deep brown skin, and striking dark eyes. Wearing traditional necklace beading and a bright patterned headscarf, I talked with her under a thatched roof shade structure with the mid morning Kenyan sun beating down. She is bright and striking, just as her story is. She is an icon of empowerment and courage.

Growing up in a middle class household in a college town, my parents both are educated. It has never crossed my mind not to go to college, which is the reality of most middle class Americans—school is life for at least the first 18 years. The magic of education seems lost in the pressure of it all, a stark reality in juxtaposition that was made starkly real as Sophia explained her story, which all started with a punishment, being sent to school.

A catholic priest came to Samburu when Sophia was young, and offered to bring some children to school.

“My mother said, ‘take this one, she doesn’t help out around the house, take Sophia,’ I was a rebel, and it was punishment,” her mom sending her away was the best gift her mother could have given her. “School was a better life. In the village we only ate one meal a day. Porridge mixed with milk. I was a skeleton, I was so thin. We used to starve, there was just not enough food.”

Sophia’s father has four wives, with thirteen children between them all. Sophia was the only one to go to school. No one could have known that she would get a masters degree, work high level professional jobs, support her own family and give dozens of scholarships throughout her community. She is a flower rising out of the vast sub-Saharan ground.

“Secondary school was hard, my father wanted me to be married off,” Sophia explained. “I went through female genital mutilation, as every girl did.”

Female genital mutilation is illegal now, yet it is still practiced in pastoral communities. As Sophia is now 52 years old, there was no protection from the then-cultural norm.

“It was very cruel, I have one daughter and I will make sure that will never happen to her. It is a culture; in the Samburu they were stopping girls from freedom. It is just oppression.”

The catholic priest saved Sophia and took her back to school.  She could no longer go home after that, or she would be married off in an arranged marriage, made with “Bride Prices” of seven cows, tobacco and sugar.

“The women are property, they have no rights after female genital mutilation. They are beaten by their husband, and they are not the only wife. It is total oppression.” Sophia explained.

Her community did not accept her changing the norm and fighting what she is normally expected to become, property and child bearer. “My uncle said I was brining bad luck to my family, I was just a taboo.”

Sophia knew that education is key to change, so she got good grades throughout school. A district commissioner noticed this and was the second positive supporter for her education strife.

“He said ‘the samburu girl is doing very very well, her parents can not pay for this,’” and the paid for Sophia to go to the University of Nairobi.

The passion for education is visible in Sophia’s voice as she narrates her path to get to college. What makes Sophia amazing is obvious, yet the passion for something that is so taken granted of in the US is astounding. Having the passion for an education come strictly from the heart and not from any societal pressures for success is hard to relate to, as the passion that Sophia has to push her through so many hardships comes from a raw motivation to brighten her own future.

“When I went to the university of Nairobi, it was heaven. I have never seen anything like it. The houses, the cars, the food, the freedom!”

When Sophia went to the University of Nairobi, it was the first time she was in an atmosphere that supported her education.

“The cultural freedom was like magic. In the village we put the hide of cow down and all sleep on it together. In the university I had my own room, and I bought myself a radio, I saw my first TV.”

Sophia’s first time wearing pants was in secondary school, yet she was always expected to wear skirts and dresses. In Nairobi, was the first time she could wear jeans and tee shirts. Out of the 3,000 students at the university, only 20 were from pastoralist communities like her.

She graduated with a bachelor in arts of economics and went on to be a district officer of the president.

“That is when I started using my name to motivate girls to go to school. I become a breadwinner for my family. I finally made them proud of me then because I could provide. I even bought clothes for everyone I knew. I became a star in the village; they would say ‘did you hear about the job Sophia has in the city?!’ I am so so proud of the fact that I acquired an education in a community that doesn’t value education.”

She was only 22 then, and was the talk of the town, a hero whom has overcome a life of struggles on an unimaginable scale in only her second decade of life.

“I am very proud that god game me that opportunity.”

After working, she went on to get her masters education in human resources, and was elected to be in the National Anti-Corruption Campaign Steering Committee.

She then started sponsoring children to go to school themselves. She currently supports 18 students in secondary school, through an organization she started in Samburu, and her family individually.

“I am bitter because I pay for my sisters kids to go to school because she never went to school and therefore cannot educate her own children.”

Quality of life is a cycle that can only be broken through education.

“I know how someone can have success but it is so overwhelming because I cannot help the reality. Even if I give them clothes today, who will give them clothes tomorrow?”

Sophia has three kids of her own with a man she was married to through the University of Nairobi. “They tell others ‘my mother has a masters education and she comes from a small village, so I can get a masters education too.” They all are college graduates  now and in successful careers.

Sophia’s success is measurable on only an extreme scale of dedication and passion, yet her journey is far from finished. She is now trying to be elected in the Kenyan parliament to change the education situation on a larger scale.

“It is hard because the Samburu do not respect girls, and will not elect them, yet politics is the only way to get money and therefore education. Politics move things, it is the way to create change.”

The culture of Samburu is changing, as the power that education brings is being realized. Sophia is the pioneer of this. “There is not a day I do not lecture someone about education. I say ‘why do you not have your children to go to school, look at the opportunities!.’”

Next time I am weighing getting up for an early class or finishing that last essay, remembering that Sophia has dedicated her life for fighting for others to eventually get what the US is gifted makes the choice un-weighable.

When I asked Sophia what she would tell someone in the US reading this is, as I do at the end of any interviews, she said the most profound closing statement that resonates powerfully. She reminded me how lucky I am to be writing this, how lucky you are to be able to read it, and how lucky we are all to have opportunities in front of us to become anything we want to be. We have power.

“You are really lucky to be an American. You are lucky to go to school. You should always know you are privileged, the most privileged in the world. There are children here struggling to get one meal a day, and you do not have to struggle to get an education.”

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