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{The New Foreign Aid: Kenya}

A Sister's Sacrifice

Benta Wauna became a nanny in Rome so her sibling might escape poverty and dependence.

April 22, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

Kisumu, Kenya — She might have spent her life peddling secondhand clothes on muddy streets along the hyacinth-choked shores of Lake Victoria. She might have been given away in an arranged marriage. Or she might have died already, like one of her sisters.

Instead, she earned a college degree and a management job at a large hotel in the capital city, a rarity for a woman in her mid-20s. Determined to improve her life, she put off marriage and children.

Unlike many Kenyan women, Susan Wauna has had choices. For that, she has her older sister Benta to thank.

Benta found her own way out of the poverty of rural Africa years ago. She studied to become a teacher and married a man with a bright future. When her husband won a prestigious scholarship, they left for Rome with their young daughter.

But when it was time to return to Kenya, Benta felt the pull of broader family obligations. She opted to stay in Europe and work as a nanny. The money she sent back helped educate Susan, transforming her into an ambitious, independent woman.

Worldwide, governments and development experts are seeking ways to invest the earnings of workers such as Benta to build up the economies of the poorest countries. But for the most part, the helping hand still is extended from one family member to the next. Along with money, overseas workers often transfer values.

Benta, 34, a tall woman with high cheekbones and a radiant smile, wanted to lift her sister out of a tradition that places little value on women. She taught Susan that women who marry too young become dependent on their husbands.

"That's the problem with most of our young girls. They think that if they have a man they will be able to eat," Benta said. "The attitude in Kenya is that boys are more superior. They will invest in boys and always see them through. My sister could have been cast aside."

The Wauna sisters have traveled far from their remote ancestral village, Gotogwang, in a roadless patch north of Lake Victoria.

Their 67-year-old father, Martin, is a retired civil servant. Hens, eight cows and six goats mill about his 12-acre spread amid crops of corn, sorghum and millet.

It is a place of raw beauty and entrenched poverty. Trees and bushes the color of emeralds fill the horizon. Yellow and royal-blue birds dive from the wide sky into the fields.

Martin complains that monkeys steal his corn.

"When there is no rain, you can't even feed yourself," said Martin, the cuffs of his khaki pants rolled up against the mud and a canvas hat perched on his head.

He lives in a mud hut with his first wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had five children. In keeping with the traditions of his Luo tribe, Martin also took a second wife, Agnes, who bore him nine more children, of whom Benta was the oldest girl.

Throughout her childhood, Benta recalled, her mother was at her side instilling a love of education and of God, support that gave her courage to leave home, pursue her studies and take up a career. Benta taught high school economics, geography and Kiswahili language classes, as well as elementary school. One of her first positions was near the home of Collins Mito, a young man with a science degree, whom she met and soon married.

But Benta still had obligations to her parents and siblings. When Agnes died at age 46, Benta became a surrogate mother to her eight siblings. Susan and brothers Lucas and Kenneth were not yet in their teens.

Susan, the family's youngest daughter, was particularly bright and eager to learn. In a society where women frequently face abuse and twice the risk of AIDS as men, she embraced Benta's message of diligence and personal responsibility. Susan left home and headed to Nairobi, the capital, growing into a tall woman with a quiet, confident bearing.

"She's been a role model for the whole family," Susan said of Benta. "She's always telling us about the West. She says everyone wakes up and goes to work, women and men, not like in Africa.

"If it weren't for Benta, I would be back in Kisumu by now," she said.

Four years after they moved to Rome, Benta and her family made the wrenching decision to separate. Her husband was finishing his studies in aeronautic engineering and would be returning to a teaching position at the University of Nairobi. But Benta's job at home was long gone.

In the meantime, family demands had multiplied. Three of Collins' brothers had died, leaving a slew of fatherless nephews and nieces. Benta's siblings also were struggling. One sister had died, and another was a single mother. Susan was studying computers and hotel management at a university near Nairobi but was having financial troubles.

Benta figured that even with a Western European cost of living, she could save more money as a nanny in Rome than as a teacher in Kenya. With it, she could pay Susan's university fees and provide a little help to her father and other siblings.

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