Western education provides the Maasai community with tools to protect themselves and their land. However, when western education replaces traditional education systems, formal education can become detrimental to the very society and culture it has to potential to protect.
If there is a single consensus emerging in Maasailand today, it is that the surest way to end social, economic and political marginalization is by creating and implementing culturally competent educational opportunities.
For the entire 20th century, very few Maasai people received formal education. Primary schools were a rare sighting and secondary schools were virtually non-existent. Schools that did exist had not been built by the government, but by churches and NGOs, making it difficult to retain both teachers and students. Very few Maasai girls were educated and only a handful of Maasai youth were ever admitted to university.
Thanks to Kenya's recent educational reform, which strives to extend primary education to all Kenyans, more Maasai children than ever before are enrolled in school. Yet in spite of this victory, various challenges continue to undermine education in Maasailand. The Kenyan education system includes eight years of primary school, four of secondary school, and, for a lucky minority, four of university. Passage into secondary school and university education is dependent upon passage of two standardized exams administered nationwide to students during the final years of primary and secondary school. These exams are offered one time only and failure on these exams prevents students from continuing forward in their education. Because the exams are biased towards urban knowledge and educational opportunities not available in rural areas, a small percentage of students in Maasailand are able to pass these tests.
The cost of schooling continues to be a factor that inhibits the success of Maasai schoolchildren. While primary tuition is free, boarding schools are not, and all children must pay for uniforms, books and other expenses. This becomes an increasingly large economic burden, as the very act of sending Maasai children to school takes away from herding and childcare responsibilities that Maasai children take on for their families. Standardized curriculum is also a problem as it discriminates. It promotes the Swahili and English languages to the exclusion of mother tongues, and is typically critical of pastoral lifestyles. A small percentage of schools in Maasailand have lunch programs and children must go hungry or leave early to find food at home. Children are usually required to walk many kilometers to school through areas with wildlife; it is not uncommon to see groups of children waiting for elephants to graze and move on before they themselves can proceed. Most Maasai children do not have access to books nor electricity, making completing homework nearly impossible.
These challenges add up to a crisis in the Maasai community where youth receive a partial education that does not prepare them adequately to succeed in modernized Kenya but which has also removed them from education in Maasai culture and economy. Those who do graduate from secondary school, and even those at the top of their classes, are often poorly prepared for the job market. But they have been in school long enough to miss the Maasai cultural training, taught through the ceremonial life of our communities. They also no longer fit into our own society’s economy. In some cases they have learned to disdain our own culture, which they are taught to think of as backwards. Alcohol has become a problem for many. Now that girl's are being educated in greater numbers, they are facing similar problems. Educated girls often marry outside of the Maasai community, since young men of our own community lack a proper education and therefore economic opportunities. Young Maasai women may be in demand for marriage into more privileged communities, where they may have little status. They spend their lives serving their new family, while their Maasai community has lost the value of their education.
It's an extraordinarily difficult road for anyone to successfully travel. Education all over Maasailand has the force of nuclear power--it is potent, and changes everything immediately and dramatically.
It is also true, however, that that power can work for the good of the community. We can see this as more Maasai people are returning with their educations to serve the Maasai community. As Maasai people become more literate, they can read contracts, research land rights, undertake enterprises, and obtain work in the tourism sector to support the economic health of the community. MERC supports this outcome, and works to develop the resource of education for the good of the entire Maasai community.
MERC has supported education in many ways.
Ultimately, our goal in addressing the shortcomings of educational opportunities in Maasailand will be met with the establishment of a university in Maasailand. We envision the University becoming a center for research into issues of indigenous rights, cultural survival, environmental conservation, and models of social change. The Maasailand University will provide a core curriculum relevant to Maasai and other indigenous leadership in areas such as environmental conservation, global development, and culturally supportive education.
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