Anna Limo is 64. Mother of nine, grandmother of seven, she owns a 20-acre farm in the western highlands of Kenya, which she tills every day. And she rears cows—seven of them—and chickens. The milk and eggs she sells. The grandchildren help, of course, because she looks after them, too.
On Monday, Jan. 19, The Nation newspaper in Nairobi reports, Grandma Limo enrolled in first grade at a local primary school, becoming Kenya’s second oldest primary school pupil and the bane of the country’s adult-education campaign. Did the farmer-entrepreneur’s actions have anything to do with the highly publicized enrollment in the same class two weeks earlier of 84-year-old former freedom fighter Ng’ang’a Maruge? Oh, no! Grandma Limo insists. She hardly knows anything about that Mau Mau fellow. She just got tired of being conned by those who bought her milk and eggs because she’s illiterate and doesn’t know simple arithmetic. Her eyesight is good, her hearing is fine, her husband is dead and all she did for the whole day was tend a farm and look after a few grandchildren. What’s to stop her from going to school? she quips.
Besides, since she was a little girl she dreamed of becoming a doctor, but her father wouldn’t hear of it. Girls were to be married off, and an educated girl-child was a liability. Her father even threatened to curse the whole family if she insisted on going to school, she recalls. She took comfort in sending all of her own children to school, girls included.
Across Africa, women are banging on doors, seeking their rights in societies still deeply dominated by pro-male traditions. “Those who know me will testify that the education of children, and that of the girl-child most particularly, is one on which I am prepared to expend my last energy and resource. I am convinced that giving proper education to our children is the only way to secure our future and that of our society against the various negative tendencies that crop up daily,” declared Oluwatoyin Saraki, first lady of Nigeria’s Kwara State, at a seminar, “Girl-child Education,” organized by the Kwara Television Service chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists.
Many women have broken down those doors, sometimes at great sacrifice, including the breakup of their own families. Today, there are examples of women who head powerful ministries—energy, for instance—and at least one central bank. There are women entrepreneurs whose business empires create tremendous wealth (I met one who owns a fleet of cargo planes that deliver goods internationally) and professional women at the highest levels of their industry sectors. Most countries on the continent are parties to the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and many have national action plans for gender equality. The African Union, which replaced the Organization of African Unity, has made a significant commitment to the inclusion of women in its functions. The provisions for the Pan-African body’s African Commission, for example, mandate that five out of 10 of the commissioners be women.
But turning commitment to action is often problematic. “In the instances in which girls were allowed to go to schools, discriminatory practices like the lack of a safe and supportive environment, free from abuse, with separate toilet facilities, safe drinking water, equal attention with boys and a gender-sensitive curriculum have aided the abrupt termination of their educational careers!” Kwara State’s First Lady complained.
Sharing the school bench with children young enough to be her grandchildren—clad in the same school uniform—was a desperation move for Mrs. Limo. She had tried adult education, but the teacher showed up for a month then disappeared because she was not paid. At the time this issue of TNJ went to press, it was not certain how long adult education officers would allow Mrs. Limo to stay at Chepkoilel Central. According to The Nation, a higher-up in the ministry of Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services was incensed when she learned that old man Maruge was studying with pupils the age of his grandchildren. They’ve already booted him from his class of 7-year-olds, telling him he should join an adult education one.
Mrs. Limo doesn’t seem to mind being stared at by children who are used to passing her on their way to school. As long as her eyesight and hearing are good, she says, she will continue to learn. For her sake, for the grandchildren who stand to gain so much more from a literate grandmother, and, ultimately, for the sake of her nation’s future, let’s hope she achieves her goal.