Treasure island: unearthing Lamu’s untapped talent

Pierina Redler dances with some bright girls

“If you’re going to be a transformative teacher, you have to make sacrifices,” says Zuhura Hussein Omar. Having spearheaded the construction of Bright Girls Shella Secondary School on the Kenyan island of Lamu, she speaks with the authority that can only come from a school principal who is dedicated to ensuring that her underprivileged students don’t remain that way for life.  

By Prue Goredema

Though the classrooms are overcrowded and the teachers overstretched, in this humble school lie the makings of a long-term project, which if fostered, funded and not forgotten about, could transform the face of Lamu forever.

Before 2010, there was just one school for girls on the island – a boarding school where fees are prohibitive for all but the fortunate few.  Luckily, this has changed: Local sporting heroes Brighter Stars Football Club donated a plot of land; the government’s Constituency Development Fund came on board for the construction of four classrooms and a science lab, and the Lamu-based charity Hands Up For Kids (HUFK) built a computer room thus enabling the school to admit its first ten pupils two years ago.  Enrolment now stands at 108 girls in forms one to three.

Monika Fauth, the Director of HUFK, says, “The school caters to girls from poor families, and with its motto of “Education is Freedom”, it resonates with our own mandate: ‘to empower children and youth to grow up as tomorrow’s change makers for a better world.’ We saw how driven and dedicated Zuhura Omar is and were moved to lend a hand.”

The woman behind Bright Girls Shella Secondary School humbly brushes off these compliments and hastens to explain that she has no choice but to be more than a school administrator.  On this predominantly Muslim island, the school provides education to girls who otherwise may marry at an early age.  Zuhura Omar explains, “The problem with these early marriages is that often they don’t last, and the young women end up without a husband, and the children have no father.  The cycle of poverty continues for yet another generation.    The biggest sacrifice on my part has been leaving my family behind so that I can serve the Lamu community.  As an educator, I am troubled when I see young people leaving school without any qualifications and without any way of ending up better off than their parents.  Throughout my career, I have always been prepared to go a step further if that is what it will take to empower those in my care.”

Hussein Omar began her teaching career at a boys’ school in Malindi in 1998 before taking up a post as Head of Languages and later Deputy Head at a girls’ school in Mombasa.  She has long been an enthusiastic teacher, but now, working in Lamu, surrounded by people trapped in a cycle of poverty, she was left with no choice but to go beyond the call of duty by using education to stop the gender divide.

Fauth observes, “These girls need support if we want men and women to have equal rights, and in fact this is one of the Millennial Development Goals towards reducing poverty worldwide.”

The pupils at Bright Girls are from Lamu’s dusty semi-slum suburbs.  Some trek to and from the school daily, and those who can afford it take a 20-shilling boat ride.  The village of Shella itself lies three kilometres from Lamu Old Town, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on the East African coast. Its splendid centuries-old architecture and motley mix of Swahili, Arabian and European cultures have secured it a spot on the United Nations World Heritage Site list, and the nearby aquamarine waters of the Indian Ocean, white sandy beaches and lazy palm trees paint a deceptively pretty picture of Lamu.  Although western residents and tourists help Lamu in many ways, the local people of Shella, who are mostly fishermen, skippers, masons, carpenters and subsistence farmers, can scarcely afford to put their children through school.

Hussein Omar, however, seems to have little time to lament over the injustice of these income disparities. “Indeed, many parents can’t afford to pay the already subsidised fees, but we nevertheless have to try to get the children – especially girls – educated. Sometimes it takes constructing a community school and taking the time to raise funds or solicit donations from well-wishers. The work doesn’t always stop at the end of the working day.  That’s what I mean when I say that sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”

Pierina Redler, a teacher at International School Kenya (ISK), and a Bright Girls volunteer, says that the school urgently needs textbooks for Kiswahili, English, Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Business Education, History and Government, Geography and Islamic Religious Education.  On behalf of ISK and in her own capacity, Redler has donated desks, chairs and books which will all go a long way towards ensuring that the students complete the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education. Much more is needed at the school, including more toilets, a borehole, more classrooms, electricity and a ceiling in the ICT room to protect the computers from sand and direct sunlight. The school’s computers were supplied through a government programme targeting rural or marginalised schools, and the value of these electronic assets has not gone unnoticed by the students, teachers and others within the Shella community.

“Computer literacy is essential if these girls are to participate meaningfully in the 21st century,” says Fauth.  “The ICT room is also a gateway for communicating with and learning from girls and boys from other countries.”

Redler agrees.  “I am in awe of what Zuhura Omar is doing to help these girls catch up with the rest of the world.” She adds, “The girls are hardworking and positive, and this makes assisting them a pleasure.”

The process of transforming these village girls into productive members of society has only just begun, but Hussein Omar can already see the change that formal learning is doing to her young charges. “Our main achievement so far is the fact that the girls are at school and not married off.  We want these girls to delay marriage. We want to equip them with the tools they need to become ambitious and to feel inspired to make a contribution to the world.  Already, we are moving slowly towards liberating them from the culture of early marriage.”

Do you want to be part of the transformation? For more information, please contact:

Bright Girls Shella Secondary School zaddyluv87@yahoo.com

Pierina Redler predler@isk.ac.ke

One Comment

  1. This is “education and empowerment for a better life” for those young ladies. Congratulations to Zuhura Omar for this bold initiative.

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