Sometimes the best laid plans can go awry. However, for Teriano Lesancha, that was good.
Pledged at birth to be married to the 27-year-old son of the midwife who delivered her once she became a teenager (he would have been 40 then), the international student from Kenya escaped the forced unity to secure an education and become the first member of her village and ethnic group to receive a university degree.
Lesancha is a member of the impoverished Maasai tribe who inhabit southern Kenya and live a nomadic lifestyle. The girls are circumcised between the ages of 11 and 13 and married to a man chosen by their fathers in exchange for cows.
That was the fate to which she was destined before her mother, who has the equivalent of a Grade Three education, intervened and coaxed her husband to nix the marriage and forego the dowry – five cows – he would have received in exchange for his daughter.
Lesancha attended high school and college before coming to Canada six years ago to pursue higher education.
Graduating with a social work degree in June 2012, she is using her education to empower girls and women in her village.
Just days before International Women’s Day was celebrated around the world last Sunday, Lesancha was recognized for her amazing work with a YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award that will be presented on May 21 at the organization’s 35th annual fundraiser at The Carlu.
“For me, this award is so humbling,” she told Share. “At the same time, it challenges me to do more. I didn’t want to just go to a university and then get a job. I want to do something extraordinary, something big that will make an impact on lives.”
Lesancha is well on her way to achieving her goal.
Even with free primary school education in Kenya since 2003, just 48 per cent of Maasai girls enrol in primary school and only 10 per cent go on to high school.
To make education accessible for youths in her village, Lesancha started a non-profit organization three years ago that helps subsidize their high school, college and university education. Girls who are single parents and orphaned are given high priority to apply.
With funds accrued from World Vision which sponsored her, Lesancha is establishing a dormitory for girls, many of whom have to travel long distances to attend school. The building is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“These young people are from homes with no running water and electricity,” she said. “The boys could stay back in school and study late before going home in the dark, but that’s risky for the girls and not safe. Also, when the girls are at home, they are required to carry water, fetch firewood and do other chores in the house. I want them to be more focused on their school work.”
Empowering the women in her village is also important for Lesancha who launched the Maasai bead work collective with 20 women almost 18 months ago. The group has now grown to about 200 women.
With bead work an integral part of their culture, the Maasai women bead necklaces and bracelets that are gradually being marketed and sold in Canada and other parts of the world at fair value.
“The reason I started this project was because my mother made bead jewelry and it was difficult for her to sell them for several reasons,” said Lesancha. “Nairobi (the Kenyan capital) is far away from our village and there is also a language barrier. She also had to be at home taking care of the kids and livestock, so there really wasn’t any time for her to go out and sell. I have also seen bead makers exploited by people who could come to the village, buy the beaded products cheaply and then sell them at exorbitant prices. Our people were being terribly taken advantage of and I wanted to put a stop to that. I just really believe in empowering women economically and if you do that, they change the situation in their families.”
Jewelry was sold over the Christmas holidays at Ryerson bookstore and Lesancha is in the process of establishing markets across Canada, the United States and Europe for the unique products.
In order to get the various projects off the ground, Lesancha put her Master’s on hold.
“I had to travel and do the legwork to get things done,” she said. “Now, I have people working with me, so I can return to Ryerson in September and focus on getting my second degree.”
Lesancha praised Ryerson and outgoing president and vice-chancellor, Dr. Sheldon Levy, for embracing her ideas and supporting her every step of the way.
After the financial support for her to attend university fell through, the Ryerson community and its affiliates stepped up and raised almost $100,000 to ensure that the foreign student completed her undergraduate degree.
“To have Sheldon believe in me was huge,” she said. “For me to tell him what I wanted to do and him saying ‘I will support you and your community’ meant so much.”
Three months after graduating from Ryerson, Levy and sociology professor, Jean Golden, travelled to Lesancha’s village for a hometown convocation ceremony attended by approximately 1,800 people.
To show his gratitude to the university for helping his daughter secure her degree, Lesancha’s father presented a cow to Levy who, in turn, donated the animal worth about $500 to Lesancha’s education foundation.
“How many university presidents will go to a small village for a graduation ceremony?” she asked. “He’s so humble and accessible. It’s so easy to talk to him about my dreams and aspirations because he listens and acts. Talking to him is like talking to your father. He encourages you, gives advice and asks what support you need. He makes you feel so important.”
The first of 15 children, Lesancha plans to return to Kenya after completing her Master’s.
“For me to be able to attend university was a privilege,” said the aspiring politician. “It was not part of the plan. It was something that just happened and I want to make the best use of my education back home where I am needed the most.”
Other YWCA Women of Distinction winners this year are dub poet and monodramatist, dbi. young anitafrika; City of Toronto ombudsman, Fiona Crean; KPMG Toronto managing partner, Beth Wilson; therapist & social activist, Sabrina Desai; Women’s College Hospital president & chief executive officer, Marilyn Emery and human rights lawyer, Fiona Sampson.
Established in 1981, the YWCA awards honour women who are working assiduously to improve the lives of women and girls in Toronto and around the world.
Previous YWCA Women of Distinction Award winners include academic and activist, Dr. Akua Benjamin; former provincial cabinet minister, Mary Anne Chambers; Canada’s first female hockey superstar, Angela James; educator, Dr. Avis Glaze; Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner, Jean Augustine; filmmaker, Claire Prieto; poet/playwright, M. Nourbese Philip; community workers and women advocates, Debbie Douglas, Rev. Paulette Brown, Kay Blair, Tonika Morgan, Angela Robertson, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Ebonnie Rowe and Beth Jordan and the late Dr. Joan Lesmond; entrepreneur Bev Mascoll and City of Toronto employee and union activist, Muriel Collins.