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“When we come back home, the news will travel…We will say, ‘Throw away that fear and let her go to school like Leah.’ We are going to spread the news all over.”
In the rural township of Kimuka, Kenya, there have been many girls who have finished high school. There have been a handful who have gone to college. There have been a few who have gone outside Kenya to college.
And now there is one who came to the United States. To EMU.
When 25-year-old Leah Meja received her bachelors degree from EMU this spring, she became the first Masai female from the Kimuka region to graduate from an American university. A contingent from her home—her father, mother, brother, aunt and two cousins—sacrificed much of their current savings and future income by selling almost a third of their cows for money to fly here and see their loved one graduate.
After graduation, Leah’s mother said she couldn’t even remember those cows. She could only remember how proud she is of her daughter for being the first to come to the West and yet not forget who she is.
This point—Leah not forgetting who she is—came up repeatedly during a 30-minute interview with the visiting family members.
Leah was permitted to follow her uncle, Moses Sakuda (G 00, S 00) to EMU after her father, Meja Ole Nchoki, received assurance from two Americans, Jan and Hadley Jenner, that they would welcome Leah into their Harrisonburg home while she studied at EMU. (Jan directs the Practice Institute at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.)
Nchoki told Leah to “pick out the good stuff, leave the bad stuff, and always be proud of your own culture.” He also wanted Leah not to lose her respect for her elders. He feared that Leah might come to this culture and “disappear into it.”
A few days after graduation, all six relatives smiled affirmatively when asked whether Leah has turned out as they had hoped she would. She is still a daughter who seeks to please her parents, who solicits their advice. She still respects her elders.
Jan Jenner, who first met Leah’s parents while living and working in Kenya in the 1990s, says that Leah’s father is a widely respected elder in the greater Masai community. People look to him as a model. So Leah’s case has been watched closely. Would she make her parents and community proud?
“We are representing the Kimuka community,” explained a cousin, John Kintalel. When we come back home, the news will travel that we went and witnessed her getting her degree. We will say, ‘Throw away that fear and let her [any other female student] go to school like Leah. We are going to spread the news all over. People are going to talk about her graduation ceremony.”
In a graduation party that attracted Kenyans from many states to the Jenner home, Leah’s father spoke about the importance of children respecting “their communities and their parents” and her mother, Rahabah Meja Nchoki, stressed the importance of “being faithful and loving God.” The parents indicated that EMU had enabled Leah to maintain these core values.
Leah, for her part, feels that the most important value she learned at EMU was “the importance of appreciating everyone from another religion, country, tribe—not viewing anyone as inferior, but appreciating their practices.”
An older female cousin, Rose Mary Parsooi, said she hoped Leah would return to Kenya and be an inspiration to other girls who want to get an education.
Leah says she plans to do just that, but not before she gets a masters degree in international development.
—Bonnie Price Lofton (G 04)