How cows figured in a Kenyan woman’s Toronto education

Re-posted from the Toronto Star, Published On Fri Jun 01 2012

Louise Brown
Education Reporter

Ryerson University graduate Teriano Lesancha, centre, with her father, Saidimu, left, Ryerson President Sheldon Levy, World Vision Canada President Dave Toycen and her mother, Mama Teriano.

Ryerson University graduate Teriano Lesancha, centre, with her father, Saidimu, left, Ryerson President Sheldon Levy, World Vision Canada President Dave Toycen and her mother, Mama Teriano. CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR

Ryerson President Sheldon Levy will be getting a cow from a student who graduates next week.

Yes, a cow.

He’ll have to go to Africa to get it, which he plans to do in July.

The story behind this gift spans nearly 30 years and touches on three continents. There have been cows all along the way, because in the herding village in Kenya where the student is from, cows are living currency.

And they are a way to give thanks, even with an ocean in the way.

In the bold journey Teriano Lesancha has taken to get an education, cows were sometimes a sore point between a struggling farmer and his ambitious daughter who wanted the income from selling cows to pay her tuition. They became a point of pride when that debt was repaid, with interest. Interest on four hoofs.

But her outspoken mother, known simply as Mama Teriano, also played a key role. Though she never went past Grade 3, she had a fierce belief in education for her daughter. So did World Vision, the aid agency active in Teriano’s Masai village, which found a family sponsor for her when she was young and now pays her to share her story and promote the agency’s work, especially as the growth in sponsors has slowed since the recession.

As Teriano broke barrier after educational barrier, only to turn around and invest in her community, she has helped reshape how a skeptical village thinks of education.

“We’ve seen that girls’ education can bring in a lot to the community,” her father, Lesancha Saidimu, said on Friday through his daughter, two days after landing in Toronto for her graduation — his first trip on a plane.

But he didn’t always see things that way.

Years ago, when the first of his 15 children was finishing primary school, she was draining her father’s patience as well as his herd of cows.

Teriano had had the nerve to ask to go to high school, which was two hours away from the village of Loodariak in the Great Rift Valley and cost money he didn’t have. It meant selling some of his cows and putting her arranged marriage on hold, highly unusual in this hardscrabble community with no electricity or running water.

Girls didn’t go beyond grade school. Most got married by the age of 14. Teriano had been “booked” in marriage the moment she was born, when the midwife asked that as payment, the baby marry her grown son.

“All the women in my family had arranged marriages — my mother, my grandmother, all my aunties — and we didn’t like it,” Teriano explains. “Girls don’t like it partly because the men are usually older.”

Still, it was a family debt and it was coming due.

On the other hand, Teriano’s teachers were turning up the pressure for more schooling for this Head Girl who had scored a record mark in English, her third language after Maa — the language of her Masai people — and Swahili. They put her name on the school wall, and it’s still there.

Her father was also being pushed hard by her mother, the first of his three wives, not to make her drop out. In the end, he gave in and agreed to split her high school fees with World Vision: he’d pay two semesters every year and they’d pay the third.

And now Teriano was graduating from high school — Head Girl again, straight As — and was still hungry for more.

She had her eye on a college course in community development.

He had one cow left and a marriage debt that was getting old.

In a community where few read or write — “My dad thought ‘smart’ was someone who knows livestock” — all this fuss about school was getting embarrassing.

Today, as Teriano prepares to collect her bachelor of social work degree next Wednesday in full Masai garb, her parents in the audience, this budding micro-entrepreneur, cattle investor, female role model, tuition patron and World Vision ambassador points to that moment, right after high school, as the turning point.

“It was the time of the worst drought in Kenya in years and almost all our cows died. If I got married, I’d get a dowry of five cows from the man’s family. My dad said, ‘Do you want me to sell the only cow I have left so you can go to college?’ My dad thought my education was over and I almost compromised,” she says with a shudder.

“I was so stressed. The expectation was when I graduated I would get married to the man, but I hated the idea. He was the age of my father; I was going to high school with his son. And my dad finally began to see I was changing.”

In a moment that would transform their lives, her mother pointed out; “If you go to college, you may help us more than if you get married.”

Her father sold his last cow, and Teriano proved her mother right. A year later she was back in her village as a community worker for World Vision, a job she held for three years to the gradual acceptance of the locals.

With her earnings she rebuilt her father’s herd — starting with 10 cows, twice what the dowry would have paid. She also tried her hand at investing, buying some of the cheap, drought-ravaged cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse and giving them to her dad to fatten up.

“We sold them six months later for double the price,” she boasts, and suddenly the economic payoff of education was clear to all.

So was the fact this budding tycoon was not ready to settle down. In the end, her “fiancé” gave up waiting, and her father paid the debt by offering an uneducated daughter of his cousin as a bride to someone in that man’s family.

“But even today, that man sees the value of education,” notes Teriano, “and has sent his own child to university.”

Teriano is the first girl in her village to go to university, and the first local to study abroad.

So grateful are her parents to Ryerson for continuing to educate their daughter after an early sponsor fell through, they will give “Bwana” President Sheldon Levy a cow, the most valuable item in their cultural coffers.

“You get lots of thank yous in life, but a cow is just fabulous,” marvels Levy, who plans to travel to Kenya in July to conduct another graduation ceremony for Teriano in front of her village. He will donate the heifer to the feast.

He will travel with Prof. Jean Golden, who sprang into action three years ago when Teriano’s private sponsor fell through. She planned emergency fundraisers, found scholarships and twisted arms on and off campus for donations to find the $16,000 in tuition that international students must pay. And she raised it for each of the three remaining years of Teriano’s degree.

World Vision hired Teriano as a public speaker, which helped pay her living expenses.

“We had to get a safety net around her quickly,” says Golden. “You don’t walk away from someone who needs help like that. I come from a poor farming background myself, and I know what education can do. Now she’s paying it forward.”

Teriano, who has an easy laugh and a rapid vocal delivery, long ago conquered the culture shock she felt when moving here four years ago. She has mastered the microwave, got hooked on the subway, and admits she misses the Internet when she goes home to her village.

A confident extrovert with 5,000 Facebook friends (and 3,000 more friend requests), she is currently juggling invitations to graduation parties next week with friends across the GTA.

Back at home, Teriano has become a hero who pays for her younger brothers to attend high school. One is now the village photographer.

“Most Masai men became guards for private homes and get paid very poorly,” she says. “That really bothered me. I said to my dad, ‘I want you to let me send my brothers to school and I will hire people to watch the herd for you.’ And I have.”

Teriano also has launched a micro-enterprise called The Dawn of Kenya, led by good friend Magdalene Kaitei, which gives small loans to entrepreneurs, especially women. The Ryerson grad is determined to return to her village with a master’s degree in social work from the university and to devote her life to community service — even politics.

“I often say Ryerson gave me wings to fly,” she says. “Having all these people support me, including Sheldon, who has become like a second dad, has been very inspirational for me.”

As they toured Ryerson on Friday with their daughter, Teriano’s parents thanked Levy for looking after her and presented him with some beaded handicrafts from home that the mother had made herself.

Unused to modern conveniences such as elevators, they were astonished by the world their daughter now feels comfortable in, and there was much laughter and joking among the family.

In a translated letter her parents sent to Levy this spring, they confessed: “We have often thought we could have made the biggest mistake if we married off this young woman. She has changed the way women are perceived in this village and we are so respected as her parents.”

To Levy, who, in a startling coincidence, began his career as a visiting software consultant in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley some 40 years ago, the letter packed an emotional punch. He still has a Masai spear in his office.

“You think, holy mackerel, this is a story about the education of one but it’s so much more. The education of one can create huge social gains. We’re a global family in spirit and it’s important for developed countries to show the generosity to make lives better through education.”

Says World Vision Canada President Dave Toycen: “This is one of those stories where a girl child and her mother, against all odds, change their world. Her mother pressed against Masai cultural tradition when she pushed for a girl to go to school.”

Teriano’s formal learning began in primary classes under an acacia tree.

“About 20 of us girls started out, but by Grade 8 only two of us were left.” It’s no mystery why parents didn’t push schooling, she says.. “Then who would be left to help with the herds?

“I liked school partly because when I was not in school I had to herd cows, which I didn’t like.”

School was free but the uniforms weren’t, which proved a deal-breaker for some families. Teriano was lucky to get a sponsor through World Vision that paid for her uniform, which she says she wore “till it wore right through.”

Don’t ask about the shoes her parents bought to go with the uniform; she’s embarrassed to admit that because no one else had shoes, she hid them on a riverbank, where they got ruined. It took a year before her parents bought her shoes again.

“I learned my lesson — next time I shared them with my friends. We each took turns wearing them one day a week.”

It’s taken a global web of people to support Teriano’s quest for learning.

When she was in grade school, an Australian family felt moved to sponsor a World Vision child, and their monthly cheque of $30 to $40 went to Teriano for 10 years. Anne Hoar, her husband, Stuart, and their four children kept Teriano’s letters and drawings, and their bond continues to this day. Teriano is now friends with them on Facebook and met them in person when she travelled to Australia to speak on behalf of World Vision.

“She brought us gifts made in her village; a beaded stick used by important men in the tribe, a vessel made from a hollowed-out gourd and necklaces,” recalls Hoar in an email from Australia. In return, Teriano got to pat a koala, tour the Sydney harbour and learn about the tooth fairy when Hoar’s daughter’s tooth fell out.

“She is a beautiful, graceful, happy, content, loving Masai woman,” writes Hoar, “who has experienced so much, yet can still be all those things.”

There was a Canadian connection as well. University of Toronto doctoral student Farah Mawani worked one year as a tutor at the village school, and her tales of university here planted an idea that Teriano never forgot.

Years later Mawani was surprised when the former student emailed her for advice. She has remained a mentor and friend who helped Teriano get into Ryerson and gave her somewhere to live when her sponsorship fell through.

Early education was not all rosy for Teriano.

“I was spanked several times in primary school for not having my homework done,” she recalls. “But sometimes I would have to wait till 3 a.m. at home for my turn at the paraffin lamp. And when we couldn’t afford paraffin we couldn’t see to do our homework. One of my half-brothers quit school because his teacher pinched his cheeks till it hurt.”

She had a new house built for her family with solar-powered lights so her brothers have no more excuse for not doing their homework. But it was also to spare her mother from having to run outside and add cow dung to the hut roof every time it rained.

“It really changed the perception of women when they saw the house I had built for my mother,” Teriano says. “She kept the Masai house for cooking but even it has a metal roof. Now, the community is blessing me.”

Preserving Masai culture is important to Teriano, who dreams of being the first female Masai member of Kenyan Parliament, of helping build a hospital in her village and even creating the first Masai university.

Her story has inspired Canadian film company Goldelox Productions to make a documentary about Teriano called The Maasai Are Coming, due out this fall.

How long has it taken Teriano to come this far? She doesn’t know; the Masai don’t celebrate birthdays. She thinks she may be 28; some tell her she’s probably only 27.

When she had to fill in her birth date for a passport, she chose Dec. 26 out of thin air, but when she got to Canada and discovered how cold it can be on that date, she did what Teriano has always done when she encounters something she doesn’t like.

She just changed it — to July 7.

One thought on “How cows figured in a Kenyan woman’s Toronto education

  1. Pingback: HOT OFF THE PRESS! | Farahway Global

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