On the trail of empowerment through education





A volunteering trip to help schoolgirls in the Masai Mara took Sonal Kadchha on a journey to build the first secondary school in the region. The school will give at least 1000 girls a future free from rape, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). 

Education provided options for Sonal Kadchha. Growing up in a traditional Indian household, her family would have liked to see her married and settled into domestic ‘bliss’ by her twenties.

She knew that only by excelling academically would she convince them that she could forge a successful career and independent life

A first in Chemical Engineering from Cambridge led to a successful career in the City and now sees Sonal travelling the globe for one of the largest insurance firms in the world as Strategy and Corporate Development Manager, focusing on New Business Development in Africa.

For most, that would be enough to show the power of education. However, Sonal is now hoping to unlock the potential of other young girls through education; this time in the Masai Mara.

“The girls in the Mara have it bad– not only are they faced with child labour and forced marriage, but the prospect of FGM around the age of 12,”says Sonal.

For them, education and employment is the only way to escape poverty and entrapment; and that has been made all the more difficult given the New Constitution in Kenya that states all people in formal employment now require a secondary school certificate. The drivers behind this may be commendable; however, when there are no secondary schools in the region, there is no easy way to obtain these certificates.

Sonal’s social venture began in 2008 when she was invited on a charitable trip to Kenya that required her to fundraise for the Sekenani Primary Boarding School and build dormitories there.

Sonal explains:“One of my tasks involved producing a vegetable garden with a girl called Peninah. She was an amazingly smart teenager with self-belief, and she wanted to be a tour guide. She had finished her primary education and was working for a few pence a day. I thought how could this happen? When I spoke to her I learned that she had already been committed to be married in exchange for cows. That made me think of my own mother, whose own marriage was arranged in India at a tender age. I was shocked to hear, that so many years later, in a different part of the world, the same thing was still happening. What is it that could break this cycle? The only answer I could think of was getting a decent education.

“Speaking to Peninah’s mother I learnt that they couldn’t afford to send her on to secondary education. Schools were far away and expensive. But then, without a decent education, there was no decent job and no decent income. The only option was to marry daughters off for cows, since they needed the money.”

Struck by the futility of Peninah’s situation, Sonal offered to pay her school costs. Peninah is now a tour guide.

Sonal was also concerned by the overcrowded classrooms at the school with around 100 pupils to each teacher: “What use are resources if there are no teachers around to teach the children?” she says.

Her response was to set up Educating The Children (ETC), sending UK volunteer teachers to teach in the primary schools in the region. To date they have worked with more than 1,000 pupils and 30 Kenyan teachers.

One of the first teachers recruited was Geraldine Feehally who now sits on the ETC Committee. While teaching in the Mara in 2010 Geraldine identified the lack of secondary schools for primary school children as a real issue and so began another mission: to build the first girl’s secondary school.

Sonal has managed to raise over £150,000 in the last two years, to create a school that will serve an area of 55km2, and a population of more than 130,000, educating close to 1,000 girls over the next 10 years.

She says: “I have been blessed with some very supportive friends in the City. They have given extremely generously and also helped to organise some amazing events. They know that every penny raised is going directly towards the cause. I do it in my spare time and cover my own costs such as flights and accommodation. I want to use the privileges I have earned through my own education to help others.”

Sonal is aware that the Western funded projects in Africa have not always resulted in much change; that corruption can channel money to the powerful and not the poor. As a result their focus has been meticulous financial management of the project. Trusted local Masai supporters work with the ETC committee to establish a fair price for services and resources, check quantities and quality and negotiate as necessary on their behalf. Like the UK committee, these are all volunteers offering their time and energy while continuing their own duties and responsibilities.

So why build infrastructure in an isolated region instead of paying girls to attend existing secondary schools in other parts of Kenya? And why girls?

Sonal says: “Our vision is ‘integration with preservation’ to help the nomadic Masai tribe integrate into national Kenyan society by providing high quality, UK standard education, but at the same time, preserving their rich culture by bringing education to them, and retaining talent within the region.

“Girls are a focus because research shows that educating them is the most efficient way of accelerating the economic development of a country – for instance they tend to remain closer to home and give more of their wealth back to their family and community. Also, they are the ones that need the most help. We will extend our provision to boys when we expand, but at the moment our resources are limited so we have to prioritise.”

The new secondary school has boarding facilities so it’s also a safe haven for the girls who are often exposed to rape, childhood marriages and FGM. It follows the National Secondary Curriculum, but also offers vocational courses in child health, hygiene, and nutrition plus opportunities to develop personal skills in foreign languages, vegetable growing and cooking. It also provides a platform for students to learn sustainable entrepreneurial skills (e.g. microfinance), so they have options to better the community as a whole. It houses local as well as UK teachers who collaborate.

“We want to produce leaders and change makers in the local community. It is more than just a secondary school, it is an ‘incubator for change’ – it’s a place where the community meets, teachers train for excellence and entrepreneurs exchange ideas,” Sonal says.

Though great her achievement to date, Sonal is under no illusion that the biggest challenge now lies ahead of ETC.

“Until now, I have relied purely on personal contacts to fundraise. However, there is only so much longer I can rely on them.”

The next phase will be creating sustainable sources of income for running the school and Sonal will betargetting corporates and trusts for the second phase of capital funding. “Since the school is up and running, and no longer just a concept, I hope it will be easier to fundraise. Having a track record gives us credibility.”

Sonal recounts:“My initial charity trip to the Mara was supposed to be a one- off. However, engaging with the local community helped me to get to know an incredible group of people and build life-long relationships. I think volunteering encourages philanthropy – if you see something for yourself, you build empathy and feel passionate about it. This is why I initially set up the ETC Teachers Scheme for UK volunteer teachers. The teachers get a lot out of the experience too. When UK teachers return home, they encourage their communities and schools to fundraise. They “adopt” a global dimension into the curriculum through their real life experiences in the Masai Mara. It has brought cultural awareness into UK classrooms too. Classes have sent back books, bags and letters to the children in the Masai Mara.

“It sounds dramatic, but ETC is now a firm part of my identity. It represents freedom through education. In the City it is very easy to become focused only on yourself and money; ETC helps me to stay balanced.”

The inspirational quote that resonates with Sonal is Barak Obama’s: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been looking for. We are the ones that we seek."

Sonal didn’t wait for “some other person or some other time”, and in the very near future, neither will the girls of the Masai Mara.

(Images above courtesy of Concept 139)

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