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 news headlines and social networking, 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.

At the time,we were investigating the feasibility of creating a radio for the visually impaired, and our local 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 had no identity documents, but based on her children’s ages, she reckons she was in her late 60s, a decade beyond the life expectancy of a Maasai woman.  Given her hardscrabble life and lacking any physical comforts, she looked older.

When she received her Prime, Senkeiyan proudly said she would no longer be lonely and that despite being old and blind, she still had an imagination and wanted to learn.  Not unusually for women in Maasai culture, she had never turned on a radio.  At times her husband had had a radio, but programmes were only in Swahili. 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 in the parched wind 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 at that time of the day to offer any assistance from Kenya’s equatorial mid-day sun.  Wearing bright cotton Maasai kanga 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, since she had never attended school, an unthinkable concept back then. But there had been 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 listen to the radio.

The Prime has unlocked a fresh new world for Senkeiyan.  Having never travelled outside the Rift Valley, she’s learned about what’s going on in Nairobi, the rest of Kenya and even about politics.  Although never having voted, she enjoys listening to news on elections and finds the discussions fascinating.  She felt amazed that there were so many countries and places that she had never heard of in the world.

What surprised Senkeiyan most were women’s empowerment and women’s rights.  This is something she didn’t know existed, as in customary Maasai culture women have no rights.  She declared she now gives her great-grandaughters and other girls different 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.