“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” –Maya Angelou
Melicent carries herself with a presence that sets her apart.She has a quiet, but powerful speaking voice as she opens the Namelok ladies group meeting with a whispered prayer.In group, she does not take the lead, but instead, she spends much of the meeting listening to the other women. Her eyes are intent as she listens to each person. When it is her turn to speak, the room is quiet, as the group leans in to hear her voice and light-hearted humor.
Melanie Detty, who traveled with me many times to Kenya, noted on our last trip together in 2019 that there was something about Melicent that we struggled to put to words.We finally settled on the word, “regal” because she walks with an air of royalty in the midst of dirt floors, cow dung, and thatched-roof houses. We resolved that she was like a princess.
The word “princess” is misleading because Melicent is no stranger to back-breaking work, typical for rural Kenyan women.She cooks.She cleans.She tends to seven children. She carries 30-50 pounds of water on her back daily.
Her brother is a pastor and the first Maasai to win public office in the region.He is famous in these parts for representing their people who are marginalized and disdained for their traditional way of life.
Melicent was 19-years-old when she married her husband, Isaya.She was older than most Maasai women who begin having children.Her husband, Isaya, was an educated young man, one of the few in her village. He had been forced as a young boy to attend boarding school by the government, against the will of his family.
She benefitted from his education. He credits that education for fostering a desire to live differently than his parents.Traditionally, Maasai men and women live in separate homes.It is the young men who prepare food for the elders. Fathers rarely have contact with their children growing up.
Isaya chose Melicent to be his only wife. He chose to live together, raising their children, and therefore, defying tradition.He risked being ostracized from his village and being ridiculed by the elders, but instead of being ridiculed, Isaya moved up in the community, became a village elder and later attended seminary and became a respected pastor and village leader.
Together, they work as a team, raising their children, working to improve their community through education, addressing WASH issues through soap making, Biosand filters, washable menstrual pads, mentoring and encouraging their neighbors. Melicent and Isaya both emphasize the importance of honoring their culture before they could help empower them to improve their lives.
Melicent is often late for meetings because, along the way, she deals with important business that only the pastor’s wife can attend to.She is frequently delayed by people asking for advice or support. But more often, we find her educating women and girls about WASH (Clean water, sanitation & hygiene) and selling soap as only she can.
She is a perfect choice to lead marketing for the ladies group.She finds women at the spring, in their homesteads, fetching water.She is never without a small bag of soap tucked in her skirt. She boldly puts a bar in their hands, confident they will pay her in time.It would be bad luck to leave a debt, even a bar of soap unsettled.It would be devastating to owe that debt to the pastor’s wife.Melicent knows her power.
Today, she oversees the soap making production and leads in marketing.She and the Namelok ladies give soap to over 1,300 children per month in their community with the support of Pacha Soap Co. while selling affordable, high-quality soap to hundreds of families in their community.
Melicent and her husband have taken a the bold stand by sending all seven of their children to school, even selling their prized cattle to pay for school fees.
Last year over a cooking fire, she laughed and told us how her 8-year-old son came home crying that week, saying, “I don’t want to be Maasai anymore!”She giggled retelling his protest.And she sang the song that was familiar to her, a sing-song insult calling the Maasai stupid and dirty, a song children of other tribes sing to make fun of their people.It would seem an unusual response to her child being bullied, but to Melicent, I understood her laughter to be that of a woman who knew how petty and weak this insult was in the face of what she and her husband had already overcome for him.
In January of 2020, Foothold International launched the Maasai Adult Education Center.Melicent was instrumental in organizing and supporting the project.
It wasn’t until the first day of class, that she shared with us that she had never been able to attend school herself.We asked her and each student why they were attending and what they hoped to gain.
Melicent shared with us that what she wanted was to better understand what her children were learning in school.This time it was her turn to go to school, and in doing so she made a courageous statement to her children, to the men of her community and to other young women.And to date, she continues to show up early, and even stay after class, to be tutored by some of the younger women in the ladies group.
She promised us before we left in March of 2020, that the next time we returned to Kenya, she would be speaking English.Even though I too promised her I would study Swahili until then, I am confident her English is already much better than my Swahili.