A heartfelt poem by a girl from a Maasai tribe started off a journey to York and inspired a fight for equal rights on behalf of her sisters back in Kenya. MAXINE GORDON reports on the inspirational story of Valentine Resiato Nkoyo.

IN HER bright tribal dress, complete with beaded headband, Valentine Resiato Nkoyo stands out among the student throng in York. But 25-year-old Valentine is used to going against the tide.

The young woman, who is a member of the Maasai tribe of Kenya, has endured years of struggle to attain what most of us in the West take for granted – an education.

For many young Maasai women, their futures are set in stone. Traditions such as female circumcision and teenage marriage remain commonplace. Polygamy is widespread too, with some elders taking as many as five wives. Patriarchy rules and women come second. A man’s status depends on the number of wives, children and cows he possesses.

Valentine’s father, Benson, had two wives and 14 children. Parents have to pay for schooling in Kenya, and when it came to Valentine’s turn, the money was running low.

“When men have so many children it becomes so hard for them to sustain the whole family and educate all the children,” says Valentine.

A bright girl with a passion to learn, Valentine was devastated when she was taken out of school. Instead of studying, she spent months helping her mother run the farm, fetching fresh water and firewood daily. Often, she would stop and gaze over her father’s land, wishing he would sell some of it – or one of his cows – to fund her school fees.

Desperate to return to her education, she crafted a poem, called Take Me To School, contrasting the lives of two girls she knew; one who was educated and very successful, the other who had married at 15 and had five children and whose husband whipped her daily. She read it to her father in the hope of persuading him to make her dreams come true.

As Valentine hands me a copy of the poem, now translated into English, her eyes flood over and her voice waivers.

“I was crying when I recited the poem to my father,” she says. “He just sat there and looked at me. After I read it to him, he told me he would do something to help me go back to school.”

That “something” was giving Valentine’s mum permission to sell a cow in order to settle the school fees. Maasai women, explains Valentine, cannot own or sell anything without the permission of a man.

Back at school, Valentine did well and won a scholarship to finish her secondary education. While at school, she was featured in an educational documentary and read her poem on camera. This footage was seen by an Irish film-maker, Seamas McSwiney, who was so moved he offered to help Valentine raise money to pay her way through university.

After two years studying business at Kabarak University, Valentine won the opportunity to travel to the UK and spend a term at York St John University.

She arrived six months ago in the midst of one of the coldest winters of recent years – and experienced snow for the first time.

“It was really difficult when I arrived in January,” says Valentine. “It was so cold. But it was really exciting to see snow. I really enjoyed it, feeling it in my hand and making snowballs.”

The transition to life in York has been made easier by staff at the university, particularly in the international office, who have helped Valentine settle.

“I find people in York very friendly and polite,” says Valentine. “If I cross the street and look at people, they smile back at you.”

And she has fallen in love with York. “It’s fascinating to see the old buildings and walking down by the river is very peaceful.”

Valentine has enjoyed her time here so much, she is hoping to gain a scholarship so she can stay and finish off the final two years of her degree at York St John.

During her time at the university, she has been taking modules in creative writing and documentary production.

“I still want to finish my business degree, but I wanted to further my talents in poetry and creativity. Film is a very powerful force of change. It is a way to project people’s voices and look at issues in society.”

Valentine says coming to York is one stop on a long journey that she is planning to take to make a difference to her life and that of Maasai women back in Kenya.

“This is just the beginning of things that I want to do. In ten years’ time, I imagine I will be running an organisation involved in education and community development.

“There is so much I have to give back to my community. I want to use my voice to talk about issues that affect us.

“Education is the key to resolve most of the social issues we have like female circumcision, child marriage and discrimination against women.

“The most important thing for me to ensure is that I speak about these things to young girls and older women and make them understand that it is their right to be respected and have the chance to make decisions and that they are part of the community.”

Valentine continues to be inspired by her mother, Mary, who urged her to make the most of her schooling. “She told me: ‘You have to work hard in school because I don’t want you to live the sort of life I am living’.”

Poignantly, she reveals how she wishes her dad – who died in 2002 – was still alive to see how his change of heart paid off. “He was a wise man and loved me,” says Valentine. “I’d love him to have seen my successes.”

Valentine’s poem... Take Me To School

Take me to school father
So I may be like Elizabeth
Who drives the red car
And who is always happyv For was she not a girl like me?

Take me to school dad
So I may not be like Naserian
Who has now five children
Strands of wire covered by skin
Is what they have for bodies
Skinny, scrawny, skimpy
With teary eyes they gaze
Despairingly at their mother
Who has naught to offer.

Take me to school father
For those children haunt me
Will I end up like Naserian?
Whose husband whips her daily?
For is she not his sixth sheep?
And by the way
A present from a grateful age mate
Why was I born a girl?
To become a symbol of gratitude?

Take me to school father
You tell me I will deviate
And I shame you with bad manners
Is rejecting an old man bad manner?
Is declining initiation bad manners?
Is planning my family bad manners?
Is dressing smartly bad manners?
Is being a girl child bad manners?

Take me to school now
For the symbol of labour
I detest!
The symbol of pleasure
I detest!
The symbol of gratitude
I detest!
The girl child is mouse no more
She is a tiger ready to fight for rights.