The Maa women defying culture to re-enrol teen mums in school

Breaking barriers: Maasai mothers paving teen mums' path to education

What you need to know:

  • In the eyes of Mama Colleen, Mama Joy and Mama Tella, their daughters need more support to fulfil their dreams, and childbirth must not be used to deny them a better future.
  • For these women, they have to offer the inspiration their daughters need to lead better lives tomorrow, even if it means going against decades-old practices held dear by their community.

On March 1, 2023, Colleen* delivered at a private hospital in Loitoktok, Kajiado County.

For the hours she was in labour, her mother was by her side rubbing her back.

The 19-year-old finally gave birth to an adorable baby boy. When I met her in late April in Kimana, a small town in Kajiado South, her mother, whom I'll call Mama Colleen, was soothing her whimpering grandson as her daughter took tea with a piece of sweet potato.

They had come here from their home in Rombo, about 60 kilometres away, to meet a potential philanthropist. Colleen needs help.

Colleen sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam in 2021 and scored a D+. Though she desperately wants to join college and get skilled, her mother cannot afford college fees. She wants to be a teacher.

The burden of raising five children and two grandchildren, Colleen’s being the newest in the nest, is weighing her down. Mama Colleen is a widow. She lost her husband when she was only 16. She has never been to school. She got married at the age of 10 as a third wife. She has eight children in total, but three are already married.

For years, she has worked as a casual farm labourer to raise her children, earning a daily wage of Ksh300 ($2.19), a sum so thinly spread.

Her in-laws excluded her from land allocation. They only apportioned her firstborn son, in his 30s, some parcel she estimates to be an acre. Her son has built her a hut on his land, but she says he keeps reminding her that she is a squatter.

Back to Colleen, temptations were staring at her in the face amid a vortex of restlessness and hopelessness.

“I had stayed home for too long with no plan in sight of joining college and there were many young men pursuing me. So, I just found myself in a relationship with one who was in college,” explains Colleen.

A mother with her daughter in Kajiado County on April 25. The mothers whose teenage daughters have given birth are looking after their grandchildren to allow the girls to complete their studies.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria I Nation Media Group

Months later, she got pregnant and, to her, that was the end of her dream. That of becoming a renowned teacher. She had thought of getting married to her child’s father, although he had not made such a promise.

In her world, she had hit rock bottom. In her mother’s universe, Colleen’s future is still intact and all she needs is a jumpstart.


Mama Colleen, a very jovial and optimistic mother, explains, in a very humorous way, how her daughter’s star remains bright despite her new status. She leaves me laughing throughout the 20 minutes we speak.

“You know I had only one child when my husband died. Later, I got into a relationship with a man, only because I wanted him to take care of me. I had nothing. I was young. How was I supposed to survive?” she asks, pulling off a cheery laughter as her grandson, in her arms, coos from beneath a flowered shawl.

“I ended up having seven more children: a burden. Feeding eight children is a huge burden; here, (among the Maasai) a man doesn’t care how you feed the children. They know it’s a woman's work. They know their work is to make you pregnant. I’d have raised my son on my own if I had my own money. I’m sure I'd be living a happy life now.”

Among the global pillars for achieving gender equality is redistribution of unpaid care, which includes changing men’s attitude towards childcare; that giving birth and raising children is a co-shared responsibility, not a woman’s or man’s sole responsibility.

Hence, Mama Colleen’s disclosure can only be categorised as an unacceptable practice going by the United Nations framework for achieving this global dream.

Had Mama Colleen been swayed by the Maasai tradition, of which she was a victim, or fear of social stigma, she would have either forced her daughter to marry an older man upon discovering her pregnancy, sent her to live with the man who impregnated her, or chased her away altogether.

During the peak of Covid-19 (2020-21), more than 100,000 teenagers in Kisumu, Nairobi, Wajir and Kilifi counties were impregnated in the wake of restrictive measures to contain the spread of the disease, a 2021 study by the Presidential Policy and Strategic Unit revealed.

The worst part was that most of the pregnant adolescents aged 10–19, were then married off. But Mama Colleen is ready to take care of her grandson from today if her daughter finds a philanthropist to bankroll her education.

“I tell my girls a child is not a problem. I’ll take care of it. Forget about marriage. That’s not a priority. Go get an education. Finish your studies and build a future for yourself,” she says, appealing for help to educate her daughter.

This will not be the first time she will have to take care of her grandchild to allow her daughter to finish her studies.

“My elder sister had a child when she was in Form Three, but my mother pushed her to go back to school. She left her with her three-month-old son. She finally sat her KCSE and scored a C+. She got a scholarship and now she is in her second year at university pursuing a degree in public health management. And my nephew is now four years old,” says Colleen.

“My mother inspires me a lot,” she says as she smiles at her mother sitting on blue plastic chairs beside her, under an indigenous tree in a school compound.

The dark cloud hovers over our heads, warning of imminent rain. A few minutes later, the warning comes to pass. It pours down and the air in the hall where we dashed into for shelter suddenly changes from warm to condescendingly cold and fresh.

“Her determination to get me back to school and the all-time encouragement to never give up is unmatched. She is my heroine,” exudes Colleen.

For decades, non-governmental organisations, the media and the government have portrayed rustic Maasai women, with little to zero education, as enablers of deprivation of girl child education. This is because tradition dictate that their private parts are mutilated, an act known under the United Nations as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), before marrying them off.

But what Mama Colleen has done is evidence of a new generation of mothers supporting their adolescent daughters with children to get an education they never had a chance to successfully have.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation indicates in its Global Education Monitoring Report (2020) that daughters excel in their studies when their mothers support them.

Readmission policy

Kenya is among 38 countries in Africa with policies allowing readmission of teenage mothers. But its 2020 National Guidelines for School Re-Entry in Early Learning and Basic Education overlooks care for the child while the mother resumes studies. Neither does it expressly demand of the parents to support both the schooling daughter and grandchild.

But in Uganda, the gap is sealed and the policy is austere on the role of parents in successful completion of school for their teen daughters with children.

Its revised guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in school settings commits parents. The policy permits them to sign an agreement with the school about the girl’s re-entry, a commitment to supporting their daughter’s resumption of studies.

Although there is no official review of how successful this policy has been, 72 per cent of women in Uganda are literate, lower than men’s at 81 per cent, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

Comparably, Kenya is doing better at 78.2 per cent for women and 85 per cent for men. However, Uganda has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in East Africa at 25 per cent, almost double the global average of 14 per cent.

In Kenya, the percentage of adolescents who have begun childbearing dropped to 14.9 per cent in 2022 from 18.1 per cent in 2014.

Colleen is not the only one happy to have her mother’s backing. I spoke to 10 other adolescent girls from Kajiado, out of whom nine lived with their biological mothers, while one is an orphan adopted by a neighbour who is a woman of the cloth.

They all praised their mothers for walking with them in the prenatal and postpartum journey, and making efforts to re-enrol them to school, despite the odds of financial constraints.


Joy* lives with her parents in Kimana, their ancestral home. I'll call Joy’s mother Mama Joy. Deep down Joy’s heart, she knows her mother is her fortress.

When the principal of her boarding school called her mother in her presence to inform her that her Form Three daughter was pregnant, Joy went blank.
The secret the 17-year-old had kept for eight months was out. She says her baby bump was so tiny that only the curious ones would notice. That's how the school head got to know.

“I knew the news would shock my mother," she says, looking at her mother across the table before she interjects: “Look at her, she is a quiet girl. It didn't occur to me that she would get into a relationship and have sex.”

Joy continues: “I didn't know whether she would scold or reject me. I was certain my dad would chase me away."

To her surprise, her mother embraced her and encouraged her to go for antenatal check-ups. While her infuriated father boiled down on her demanding to know the father of the unborn child, Mama Joy intervened and calmed him.

Many teen mothers from Kajiado praise their mothers for walking with them in the prenatal and postpartum journey, and making efforts to re-enrol them to school despite financial constraints.

Photo credit: Illustration | Humphrey Osoro

“My child’s father has completed his high school. He works in Kajiado town, but I don't know his exact job. I loved and still love him. I hope to marry him some day. So, I did not want him to be jailed. I talked to my mother to beg dad to let him be. And she did,” she says.

He took responsibility for the pregnancy and was willing to raise the child, but they hadn't discussed marriage. He was excited when she called to inform him of her safe delivery. She had delivered a baby girl. On the same day, he sent a package of diapers and clothing for the newborn. Her mother received it without her father's knowledge. Joy says he has remained consistent in providing the necessities.

Last year, Joy resumed learning in the same school, thanks to her mother. “I conveyed my interest to return to school to my father through my mother as I feared facing him. But now we are on good terms, he has accepted me,” she shares, highlighting that her father sold a cow to pay her fees.
She was readmitted to Form Two and her mother takes care of her 20-month-old daughter.

“I’m proud of my mother. I don’t know how my life would have been without her,” reckons Joy, who hopes to become a doctor.

Not only are the mothers pulling out all stops to create a bridge for their daughters to access education, they are also freeing their childcare time to allow them to acquire income-generating skills.

Tella* is a testament. She was distraught when she dropped out of Form One in 2017 for lack of school fees. She was 17 then. Her mother, whom I’ll call Mama Tella, had reached her limit.

While both her parents are alive, it is only her mother who bothered to educate her children. They are 10 siblings and Tella is the last-born.

“I only make money through selling maize and beans, which I grow on my small piece of land. In a good year, I can get 10 sacks. Other times, like this year when the drought has been at its worst, a yield of one bag is a blessing and that is only for home consumption,” explains Mama Tella.

“There was nothing for me to sell to keep my daughter in school.”

Tella says she got a boyfriend who was in high school “to pass time”. Few months later, she got pregnant and he denied ever knowing her. In March 2018, she gave birth to a girl.

“Sometimes I regret having this child and I cry a lot. But when I look at her, I feel proud and happy. That joy keeps me strong,” she says of her daughter.

Deeply hurt

Her mother says she is deeply hurt every time she sees her daughter cry. “I often console her that everything will be fine,” she says.

Three months after delivery, she took charge of the grandchild, freeing Tella to work in a salon in Kimana as an apprentice.

Tella isn’t interested in saving to complete high school. She fears failure in her final examination. She says she cannot afford to embarrass herself with poor results in a KCSE exam.

“I only want to go to college and perfect beauty and hairdressing skills,” she says.

To that, her mother says: “I’ll support her. I want the best for her and my grandchild. I know once she succeeds she will remember to build me a concrete house. I’m tired of living in a timber house.”

An illustration of a Maasai woman (right), her daughter, and her grandchild. In the eyes of this woman, her daughter who is a teen mother, needs support to fulfil her education dreams.

Photo credit: Illustration | Humphrey Osoro

Anastacia Sakita, a member of Nyumba Kumi, says for the past 10 years when she has served in Kajiado South, she has witnessed parents abandon old traditions of marrying off daughters for an education.

“Years ago, girls would be cut while pregnant and some bled to death. Those cases are few these days. Now, they know they don’t need to subject them to the cut. They have embraced girl-child education,” she affirms.

“Whenever news reaches me that a girl has given birth, I visit that home and talk to the parents. I tell them: ‘You still have an opportunity to salvage their future.’

“They ask how; I tell them: ‘If the child wanted to go far but hit a roadblock by getting pregnant, that isn’t the end of their life. Don’t abandon them…take them back to school.’”

The county has, however, yet to attain a 100 per cent transition of girls from primary to secondary school. There are two schools of thought on why this hasn’t happened.

Ms Sakita blames poverty and low community sensitisation to the importance of education for girls.

Kimana Assistant County Commissioner Wycliffe Ochola points to teenage pregnancy, which he links to the locals’ illiteracy.

“Last year, only 63 per cent of the girls transitioned to high school, which means 37 per cent never went to high school. The 100 per cent transition is something that must be realised,” he emphasises.

He, however, says that through joint efforts involving local administration, police, health workers and education sector stakeholders, all girls in Kajiado will enrol in primary and complete high school.

But in the eyes of Mama Colleen, Mama Joy and Mama Tella, their daughters need more support to fulfil their dreams.

“Mothers like me need a special kitty to support my daughter and my grandchild. I want my daughter to fulfil her dreams just like any girl,” asserts Mama Colleen.

*Names have been changed to protect their identity and keep them safe from further harm.