“I may be blind, but this radio allows me to see again”by Kristine Pearson
Our first meeting, her first radio
I first met Senkeiyan two days after the attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. We were in the Great Rift Valley distributing Prime radios to rural classrooms. Although only two hours away from Nairobi, and while the attacks were dominating the news and social networking, astonishingly, the Kenyans we were with knew nothing about it. No one had access to electricity or owned a working radio set. Even phones were dead.
Our local contact and translator, Agnes, suggested that a Prime be given to a great-grandmother who’d been left blind after a botched eye operation 15 years before. A widow for more than a decade, Senkeiyan couldn’t be sure of her age as she didn’t have a birth certificate. Based on her children’s ages, she reckoned she was in her late 60s, a decade beyond the life expectancy of a Maasai woman. Given her hardscrabble life with few physical comforts, she appeared far older.
When she received her Prime, Senkeiyan proudly announced she would no longer be lonely and that despite being old and blind, she still owned an imagination and wanted to learn. Not unusually for women in Maasai culture, she had never turned on a radio. At times her late husband had a radio, but programmes. Besides, in those days when he went into the savannah to graze his cows, he took his radio along. She and her two co-wives weren’t allowed to listen, nor could they understand Swahili.
Our wonderful second meeting, 18 months later
We drove along the dusty track as far as we could, and then walked around the thorn bushes a bit further. Small tornadoes called ‘dirt devils’ swirled around us. Surprising Senkeiyan outside her windowless dwelling made from mud and dung, she smiled and reached out with her dry cracked hands. There were no shadows to offer any assistance from Kenya’s equatorial mid-day sun. Wearing bright cotton Maasai wrap cloths and traditional beaded jewelry, Senkeiyan thanked me again and again for the radio and said, “I may be blind, but this radio allows to me see again.” She said she’s learned more from the radio than anything else in her life. Senkeiyan never attended school, an unthinkable concept back then. There were no schools when she was a girl anyway.
As Senkeiyan speaks only the Maa language, she listens to Radio Maa and the community station in Suswa for around four hours a day. She relies on family members to put the solar panel in the sun, although she winds it on her own. Her son (and guardian), his wife, his children and grandchildren also enjoy listening to the radio.
The Prime has unlocked a fresh new world for Senkeiyan. Having never travelled outside the Rift Valley, she’s learned what’s going on in Nairobi, the rest of Kenya and even about politics. Although never having voted, she enjoys listening to daily news and political discussions. She said she’s amazed there are so many countries and places that she’d never heard of.
What surprised Senkeiyan most were women’s empowerment and rights. This is something she didn’t know existed. In traditional Maasai culture women have few rights. She declared she now gives her great-grandaughters and other girls lots of advice and encourages them to get an education and to have opinions. When she was a young girl, cows were more important to their fathers than daughters. Even today, only 10 percent of Maasai girls in Kenya complete secondary school.
We often see colourful Maasai as the smiling faces of Kenyan tourism adorning posters and adverts, never imagining the laborious life of toil and hardship that most lead – particularly women and girls.
Gifting Senkeiyan a radio has opened her mind’s eye to the world beyond the her Maasai community and the opportunity to learn and to be connected to so much that she’d never dreamed possible.