By George Henson
Carolyne Gachibi left Kenya to escape a nightmare only to find a Texas church willing to make her dreams come true — and help other girls attain an education and avoid female genital mutilation.
But she has paid a steep price for those dreams.
Although her parents did not support the practice, Gachibi suffered the traditional mutilation of the Masai women while she visited her grandmother as a teenager.
After marrying and starting a business, she began working with her local church to educate the villages about the dangers of mutilation. She urged young girls to speak up and flee if necessary. As girls began to resist in those villages, their families rejected them, and they sought shelter at church. The church created a boarding school where the girls could be educated.
Her work among the villages angered the men, who threatened Gachibi and forced her to leave. The United States granted her political asylum in 2010, and her husband and two sons joined her in 2012.
During a meeting of the women in her Sunday school class at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, Gachibi described the practice of mutilation many young girls in Africa are forced to undergo to be considered worthy of marriage. Once the rite is conducted, many are married at a young age — some as young as 10 years old.
After she finished her training to become a nurse, she dreamed of being able to help less-fortunate girls attend the boarding school and escape the rite, she told the women.
Coming together to help
Linda Lesniewski, women’s minister at Green Acres Baptist, also attended that meeting. She told Gachibi she thought many women at church would want to help the girls.
“And I don’t think you have to wait until you graduate” from nursing school, she said.
Lesniewski first heard about female genital mutilation 20 years before, and while it weighed on her heart, she didn’t know how to help.
“There’s always been this feeling of helplessness,” she said. “This is happening in another country. What can I do about it? I was left with a feeling of just powerlessness and nothing that I knew that I could do about it,” she said.
When Gachibi told about how she once financially supported girls who had been rescued but currently could not provide that support, Lesniewski remembers thinking, “I can do that.”
“And I saw it as an immediate opportunity to empower women to make a difference,” she added.
It costs $35 per month to pay for a girl’s room, food, clothing, books and tuition at the African Inland Church Primary Boarding School, and to help them escape mutilation and childhood marriage.
Returning to Kenya
The church sent Gachibi back to Kenya to get a fresh picture of the ministry. When she left, about a dozen girls lived at the school. When she returned in 2014, the school had grown to more than 50 girls.
The Kenyan church was heavily in debt as it sought to care for the girls and depended on the gifts of those who heard about their ministry. The participation of Green Acres Baptist Church has helped the congregation become more financially stable.
Female genital mutilation now is illegal in Kenya, but the law is not enforced consistently. However, if the church learns of a girl who is being forced to submit to the procedure, the police will accompany a school official to rescue the girl.
The school has to pay for the gasoline, meals and other expenses of the trip, however. So, some of the funds the women of Green Acres give go to underwrite those rescue missions.
The girls who attend the school also enjoy receiving letters from their sponsors and would enjoy visits.
“The church has now sponsored 50 girls just in the church,” Lesniewski said. She hopes the ministry will attract others outside the church.
While last year the girls had to share beds, the school built a new dormitory with room for 100 more girls.
When the girls complete eighth grade, they must qualify to attend high school. Since many of the girls from outlying villages had no schooling prior to their rescue, they start out so far behind that it’s hard for them to catch up and qualify to continue their education.
Dreams of a vocational school
Gachibi dreams of a vocational school, where girls can learn a trade such as tailoring.
One of the obstacles for the ministry is how to talk at church about a delicate issue like female genital mutilation.
“We’ve worked hard on the wording, because we don’t know what kind of conversations it might start between parents and their children and just want to be sensitive,” Lesniewski said. “Right now, when we speak of it in a mixed, large audience, we call it a type of mutilation common to women.”
Her new church family making her dream their passion has overwhelmed Gachibi.
“I don’t have words for that. What God can do is not like our ways. My dreams were that some time I will be able to, but it is happening now. It’s beyond words,” she said.
“God had bigger plans.”