Charting a new course

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Ottawa’s Shelley Page, a former longtime reporter, speaks with Grade 7 and 8 students at Free The Children’s Motony Primary School near the Maasai Mara. (Cleo Page photo)

A punishing, inescapable quest for water dominates Jane Noonguta’s life; first as a baby strapped to her mother’s back; then as a little girl trudging to a distant river, polluted and brown, to fill a small plastic jerry can.

Later, when Noonguta was a mother of six thirsty children, she walked for hours without finding any water at all. That was during the drought. Her children couldn’t go to school because there was no water to drink, no water to cook their corn flour porridge, no water to wash their clothes, no water to bathe in. When a borehole was drilled — still far away — Noonguta hauled water again.

I asked how many hours a day she spent balancing a jug on her head and back.

“I leave at 7 a.m. and I come home at noon,” she said. “Five hours. Every day.”

For how many years?

“Almost 39. Because I am 39 years old.”

We met on a late August day in Kajiado, a rural Maasai community in Kenya, under a grizzled acacia tree that partially shielded us from the unforgiving sun. The earth was dry and hard. Beyond the contents of my portable plastic bottle, there was no water in sight.

Staring into Noonguta’s weary eyes, it felt as though I was meeting a prisoner, someone who is trapped by circumstance. Maasai tradition dictates that men are warriors, the guardians of the community, while women tend livestock, look after the children, and find water.

All I could think to say was, “I would be dead if I had to do what you had to do.” She nodded.

It is easy to rack up the differences between Noonguta and me. She can’t read or write. That’s how I make my living. She lives in a hut. I don’t. The list would be long and jarring, but we share commonalities, beyond motherhood.

After decades of hauling water, she now earns a life-changing income from Me to We, a social enterprise that donates half its profits to its sister charity, the Toronto-based Free The Children. After decades as a journalist, I now work for Free The Children as a director and editor.

I might be stretching to find a link between what we both share. The change in her circumstances is huge. As is mine. I’ve had an unexpected mid-career change that has set me on a new course, one that an editor friend at the Citizen asked me to write about, and one that makes me believe in new beginnings, even in middle age.

The day I met Noonguta, a blanket was spread across her folded knees and multi-coloured beads danced on the taut fabric. Her fingers expertly threaded a thin cord with beads, as she made one Rafiki — Swahili for friend — chain after another. She can make 40 in a day for Me to We Artisans. With her first pay packet two years ago, she headed to the local market to buy a donkey to transport the water from the borehole to her home. With the next, she bought a water tank to collect rainwater.

Now, she can afford to pay someone to haul water. She has enough money to pay her children’s high school fees and, maybe one day, university tuition.

After 22 years at the newspaper, I thought I was a lifer. My love of writing, of telling peoples’ stories, as well as the urgency and excitement of journalism, kept me tethered to a newsroom. But after a few setbacks and much contemplation, I left a year ago to apply my skills in other ways.

I met Noonguta in Kenya — one of the eight developing countries we work in — in my current role. I brought my 14-year-old daughter, who just started high school, along as amateur photographer and eager school and medical clinic builder — for the volunteer portion of the trip.

Our journey was a strange mix of celebrity and squalor, of girls rising and girls already on top.

Together in the remote Maasai Mara, a five-hour drive and a world away from Nairobi, we met children so eager to learn, they walked six hours a day back and forth to elementary school.

We talked with Grade 8 students who couldn’t afford to go to high school. Their mothers formed a group to pool their money to help the most impoverished families send their children to school. The money is given to one family in need every few weeks. The family that gets it then uses the money to buy dairy cows or chickens or land, so then they can sell milk, eggs, beans or corn, for example — all so their children can pay high school fees.

We came across a former Maasai warrior who had 24 children and four wives, planting spinach and cabbage in a community garden.

He told us that true bravery is coming home with a “first position” in class, not the tail of a slain lion — once a sign of courage in his culture.

Our trip also happened to correspond with several visits from celebrity ambassadors.

At the Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp, where we stayed, we saw platinum-selling songstress, X Factor judge, Glee co-star and Free The Children ambassador Demi Lovato wander past my tent on her 21st birthday, after learning to chuck a spear under the tutelage of a Maasai warrior.

A few days later, we sat nearby as singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado of Toronto serenaded hundreds of locals at the opening celebration for a girls’ high school she funded. We tried to appear indifferent, but it was very cool.

I was last in the Maasai Mara nine years ago, sent by the Ottawa Citizen to write about two Canadians — Roxanne Joyal and Marc Kielburger — who were already building schools in the area and wanted to erect an education centre where North American and African children would work together to help the community.

Their plans sparked a heated battle between the Maasai and some, mostly white, safari owners.

I wrote about how their plans led to road blockages, concerns about their safety, and the Maasai threatening to burn down five-star safari camps in the area.

Area safari camp owners complained that if the Maasai were educated, they might start demanding more pay and opportunities for themselves.

Kielburger, an Oxford University-educated Rhodes Scholar, along with his younger brother and Free The Children co-founder, Craig, pushed ahead. After protracted negotiations and legal wrangling, they opened a camp outside the Maasai Mara in a forested area donated by a local Maasai chief.

When I was last there, their centre had just opened, consisting of a large main building and six permanent tents to accommodate young people.

After that story, we stayed in touch. I was a contributing editor to a number of the Kielburgers’ book projects. My decision to sign up to work full time with the brothers wasn’t taken lightly. They are driven and visionary. They work harder and longer than anyone I have ever met. There is always a new idea to be chased, a plan to be enacted. It’s very easy to work every day.

I became one of the oldest employees among a staff of hundreds, average age 24.

Working with so many young people is a perk. Mostly millennials, their odd combination of idealism and irony is strange and refreshing. I joke that I asked for Botox in my contract so I could try to blend in, but the fact that I can’t walk and text simultaneously gives my age away.

The other bonus of the job is travel, and the chance to see how that spot of forest on the edge of the Maasai Mara preserve has been transformed.

Bogani now has four cottages and 15 luxury tents. There are satellite camps for visiting high school and university students, as well as corporate retreats.

Since I first visited, the organization has moved far beyond building schools, to addressing the barriers to education by providing clean water, health care, agriculture and food security programs, as well as alternative income initiatives.

These programs are designed to be owned and maintained by the community, and become self-sustaining within five years after project implementation is completed.

We saw girls and women everywhere growing beyond traditional roles that trapped them in poverty.

One mother, Natana, was married when she was 14 years old and had never learned to read or write. She didn’t want that fate for her daughter so she defied her husband and insisted her eldest daughter, Branice, go to school. Branice has just started high school.

I met girls who want to be nurses, teachers and even journalists.

I miss journalism. But having the opportunity to talk to mothers such as Noonguta about their daily trials and to be able share their stories feels just as meaningful.

And I connect to the many little happinesses in their lives — like seeing both our daughters start high school.

Shelley Page was a journalist with the Ottawa Citizen from 1990 until 2012.

Connect with Shelley Page |spage@ottawacitizen.com