Jan Latsha is the founder and director of the Maasai Development Project, helping young girls, families, and communities in central Kenya. She talks about how the project started and the 75 girls who are learning even when they can't go to school.
Question: You are the founder of the Maasai Development Project in Megwara, Kenya, a center where 75 young girls live. Can you tell us about the girls who live there?
Answer: All of our girls have been rescued and been through some trauma — each one has a story to tell. Some of them we are able to rescue before they underwent FGM (female genital mutilation), while others we were not able to save from FGM, but were able to rescue them from a forced early marriage. Some of the girls’ fathers have died and that puts them at risk of early marriage, forced by their male relatives who want to collect the bride price, or dowry. The mother has no say.
We actually have had three girls who escaped from a marriage. Josphine was a 12-year-old girl who came to us after she had already been married for two years. Nanyokie was rescued after three weeks of marriage, and Mary also escaped from an abusive marriage when she was about nine years old.
How do the girls find your center, or how do you find the girls?
There are times when a Maasai chief will contact our center. Many times, one of our lay pastors will report a child in the area they are working in. But usually the child or mother will get word to our manager at the center, Pastor James Nanka, and he then contacts the County Child Service Department. When he is ready to rescue the child, he uses a motorcycle to get to the girl’s home, he always confronts the parents and then asks the child if she wishes to be rescued. If she says yes, he puts her on the back of the motorcycle and off they go. Pastor Nanka’s life has been in danger at times and he has to make sure he can get away quickly if necessary.
We have taken in children who have run away the day of their proposed circumcision and run 10 kilometers through the bush at night to get to our gate. They know that once they are inside the gate, they will be safe. One girl came to us after hiding in the bush for three days and when she got to our center, she didn’t wait to be let in — she went right through the electric fence.
How are you able to keep the girls safe at the center? Do their families try to come and take them away?
We get custody papers from the County Children’s Office. Early marriage and FGM are both now illegal in Kenya; however, in the interior area, it cannot be easily monitored. We have had cases where the chief will report a case and bring the child to us but within a couple of days, the family will have bribed the chief to drop the case. By that time, however, we will have contacted the Children’s Office, so even though the chief is now trying to get the child back for the family to continue with their plans, we can simply refer them to the Children’s Office.
Yes, we have had parents chasing their child to the center, but once the child is inside the gate, the parent cannot do anything. Pastor James has had death threats, and threats of injury, but we have the law on our side.
Nine times out of ten the parent will later do a turnabout and even apologize. Now that we have been operating long enough for some of the children to come back with college certificates, we have gained respect from the local people. The college graduates are highly respected. The hostility that we used to face has faded.
Girl who came to one of the medical clinics, wearing the headdress showing that she has recently been circumcised.
How did you come to start the Maasai Development Project? How did it all begin?
My family and I moved to Kenya in 1989 as missionaries. My then-husband worked in a dental clinic. Even before going to Kenya, I was fascinated by the nomadic Maasai, known for their fierce warriors. At that time, Christianity was still relatively new to the Maasai and they were just beginning to educate their children. In fact, in the Central Kenya Conference there was not yet one Maasai church.
I learned that there was a Maasai village behind Maxwell Academy outside Nairobi, where my children attended school. I wanted to get to know them. My friend Gwen Edwards Astleford, who lived at Maxwell Academy, also had a deep interest in the Maasai and began going up behind the academy to start a story hour with the ladies and their children on Sabbath afternoons. Soon I joined Gwen in becoming acquainted with the ladies of this village.
About three years later we started a Sabbath School for the village, using the elementary schoolroom. I would teach a Sabbath School for the children and Gwen would preach a sermon. I soon started teaching literacy classes in Ki-Maasai for the ladies, using the Bible as a textbook. Soon, family members of the Maasai we were teaching wanted us to start a church in another village. In 1994, we had our first baptism of five Maasai giving their hearts to God. In the summer of 1995, Upper Columbia Conference came out and built the very first Maasai church in Central Kenya Conference.
At the end of 1995 when my family moved back to the States, we left money to support two Maasai lay pastors to continue the work. In 1998, I came back to Kenya to visit with my friend Celeste Lee, who helped me to realize that I was looking at a very small piece of the puzzle and that piece was but a small piece to a large picture. When Celeste and I got back to the states we immediately began the process of organizing and registering Maasai Development Project as a 501(c)3. By this time, we were beginning to get many requests to send someone to different areas, and we began hiring many more Maasai lay pastors.
In 2001, we were asked to help with a Rescue and Education Centre in Kajiado, started by a group from one of the Nairobi churches. For about 10 years, we sponsored many children and supported the program and projects as they grew. However, in 2003, we were asked to visit a school on the East side of Masai Mara Game Reserve and to help sponsor children who were attending the primary boarding school there. We agreed that as long as we could, we would also send a lay pastor as well. The people readily agreed, and the work began there. It was not long before a small Sabbath School was established.
In 2007 on one of my visits there, I was approached about starting a rescue center for the girls being forced into early marriage and escaping FGM. I asked: “If I could open up a center today, how many ‘at risk’ girls would there be in this area tomorrow?” The immediate response was: “1,500.” That was enough for the Maasai Development Project board to realize that we must do something. Fifteen acres of land was donated to the Maasai Development Project adjacent to a primary school, for which we hold a 50-year lease. In November of 2010, Maasai Development Project Education Centre opened its doors, and is now home to 75 girls. Maasai Development Project provides education for the girls from the time they arrive until they finish either in Technical School or the University. One girl recently graduated from Baraton East African University (an affiliate of Andrews University) with her Bachelor’s in “Home Health.” We have several girls who have received teaching certificates, one with Lab Tech, several with hospitality, working in the nearby safari camps.
While at the center we teach the older girls to bake bread in a charcoal oven, and they often bake bread to sell at the local market to earn pocket money. They have even provided bread for a few of our mission trip groups that have come through.
To date, Maasai Development Project sponsors 26 Maasai lay pastors and 75 girls, as well as two young men who are preparing to finish college.
Newly baptized group.
How has the work at the center been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
When the lockdown came in March, of course all of our children were sent home from school (back to the center), except for the college students who were sent to relatives’ homes. Because the academic school year begins in January, and it has been announced that school will not resume until January 21, all students will have lost a year of school. God has blessed us, however, in that we have been able to hire three teachers to teach our students K–12. We have set up temporary rooms to use as a classroom. One is in the Guest House Kitchen, one is on the veranda outside my guestroom, and one is in the dormitory.
We have also used this time for the girls to do improvement projects at the center. They helped build a walkway from the dormitory to the kitchen, built a cement trough for the cows’ water (so they don’t have to take them to the river), and an incinerator. They have also enlarged our orchard and helped in the gardens. They help with the cleaning and cooking. Every child has her work to do.
During this time, we were made aware that because all markets were closed, many of the families had no place to buy or sell. Many of the widows depend on tourism to sell their handmade jewelry to buy food for their children. Maasai Development Project has so far fed over 1,000 families and will continue to do so until the markets are reopened, and tourism resumes. God has been gracious, and all food has been purchased with donations for this very purpose. What we had not counted on was how the Lord would use this as an evangelistic tool. Many people want to know more about a God where the food is distributed fairly and without partiality to all people in need.
Unfortunately, because so many people have been without resources to buy and sell, there has been an influx over the last several months to secretly circumcise and marry off the young girls. We have been able to rescue a few but of course not all. We have heard tragic stories of parents accepting food in exchange for the use of their girls. Unfortunately, we are at full capacity right now, but if need be we will squeeze one more child in who comes to our gates.
Have you been able to get to Kenya since the pandemic? I suppose this summer's mission trip was cancelled?
I live in Spokane, Washington, which is where our main office is located, and unfortunately, I have not been able to get to Kenya. I was scheduled to go in March and April, but before I could leave everything shut down.
We had a rather large mission trip planned for this fall, but I’ve been advised to cancel it. This is difficult for me as I am used to being in Kenya for several months out of the year. I own a home there and will make a quick trip over to settle matters with my home and possibly sell it and make arrangements in case I am no longer able to go back and forth. However, I have good management on the Kenya side, therefore, so long as the Lord keeps us going forward, we will continue with our work.
Do you work full-time on the project? What else do you do? What is your background?
Yes, this is a full-time project. We have been 100% dependent on donations. God has provided in too many ways to count. I could write a book on the miracles of God providing to keep Maasai Development Project going forward.
When I am not working in the Maasai Development Project office, I work at my local church as a local elder and as the treasurer.
I grew up in the Adventist system, as my father was a teacher in our Adventist schools. I inherited a love for missions from my father, who for some years was President of Missions Projects Inc. With my husband and children, we lived in Okinawa, Japan, as missionaries and then finally in Kenya before moving to North Dakota upon permanent return.
I now have four children and five grandchildren, so I try to make the rounds between California, North Dakota, Walla Walla, and Seattle. I don’t have a lot of down time.
What is the relationship of the Maasai Development Project to the Adventist Church? Do you hire and train the lay pastors?
While we are a Non-Government Organization and thus not under the jurisdiction of the church, we work alongside the local Adventist churches and conferences. We are members of ASI (Adventist Laymen's Services and Industries) and considered a supporting ministry of the Adventist church. We have tried to keep a good working relationship with the local conferences we are under. Years ago, I did put the money through the conference however, within a year or two and after going through their records and ours, I found it was not working and I could not give accountability to our donors, so I withdrew our funding through the conference.
The lay pastors are hired by Maasai Development Project and we receive no financial help from the conference. The lay pastors work under the district pastor of their area. The majority of Maasai pastors that are working for the conference at this time have gotten their start from the Maasai Development Project. The conferences are ready to accept help but if we do not put our money through them, they are not ready to help us. Having said that, the new conference that has been started in the last year is supporting the Maasai work and has helped us with the building of one of our churches, so we are grateful.
Regarding the training of our workers, to be hired they must have a letter of recommendation from their church pastor, provide a copy of their baptismal certificate, and have been actively involved in their local church at the leadership level. As far as training, we have provided opportunities for them in the past — some of our pastors have attended training at Baraton and then of course we have also provided training from both conference level and provided seminars from people abroad.
What do you feel is the biggest accomplishment so far of the Maasai Development Project? What do you hope to do with the project in the future?
I’m not sure how to answer this. I can’t tell you the reward of sitting under a tree out in the bush in a new branch Sabbath School, or the thrill of being part of the burning of a “sorcerer’s calabash” and the baptism following. But then I get a message on my phone from one of my “children” from the center who is now a mother herself and holding down a job saying: “I love you mum, missing you a lot.” Well, my heart bursts with love and prayers for each of our children. Then there are the widows and mothers and my favorite grandmother in the village — just to sit with them under a tree or in their hut and share a cup of tea fills my heart to the brim with happiness. Then to offer to build a medical camp in a remote area where there has been no medical help, to watch the faces of people receiving help and wash the wounds of the men, women, and children, is one of the most gratifying things I do. I pray they can read my heart and know that someone loves them.
A new project I would like to create at the center is a bakery. One of our girls is a graduate in Baking and Cooking and we would like her to run the bakery and let it be an industry for the center.
Making chapatis for guests and lay pastors during a community seminar.
We also want to build an education building where we are able to have community classes in literacy, computers, and more.
In 2019 we started taking seminars to the local communities. The purpose of the seminars was to educate people about the damage of rape (many of our children have undergone rape), dangers of early marriage, and of course FGM. At our first week-long seminar in 2019, 430 people received certificates of completion. Our next step was to train those who attended the seminar in 2019 to do seminars in their own villages in 2020. But COVID put a halt to our plans. We were amazed at the reception to these classes. Especially satisfying was the positive response from the men who attended.
Handing out 430 certificates after the first community seminar.
How is the project funded? How can people contribute, if they want to? Up to this point we have been 100% dependent on donations. We are a 501(c)3 organization, registered both in the U.S. and in Kenya. We have a yearly audit done in Kenya and are required to make yearly reports to the NGO Bureau.
People can donate through our website at www.4mdp.org or they can send a check directly to our office at Maasai Development Project, PO Box 6816, Spokane, WA 99216. We are also able to take credit card donations over the phone as well.
Are there other similar such centers in Kenya? What model did you base yours on?
Yes, there are other centers. In fact, in the Narok District we are one of thirteen. Praise God, of the 13, Maasai Development Project has the highest rating. There is also an Adventist Rescue Centre in Kajiado outside of Nairobi, which is where I first started sponsoring children and learning about the extent of the “girl child” issues. The knowledge I gained from helping there was a great advantage when opening our own center.
“Freely You Have Received, Freely Give” and “Meriano’s Story” by Kirsten Roggenkamp and Jan Latsha, July 29, 2020
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Top photo: Jan Latsha with a group of girls from the Maasai Development Project. Photos courtesy of Jan Latsha.
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