I was born on a Saturday morning in a small village in northern Kenya. When my father told everybody around that the rock of his life and his strength had been born, people laughed at him. No one had ever heard of a girl child being someone’s strength.
One of my aunts replied: “May you get many sons to be your rock, and may our daughter be blessed with a lovely suitor.” In our indigenous, pastoralist community, marriages are arranged by parents, and a girl child can be engaged to a man when she is as young as four years old.
When my mum married my dad, he was a strange man she had never met and knew nothing about. She ran away on her wedding night, and it took the villagers a whole day to find her. As a girl child, my mum lived her life with many restrictions. When she was married, she did not understand what boy-girl relationships were all about, let alone anything about starting a family. She gave birth to me, her first born, at the mere age of 15. She was lucky to marry a kind and caring man.
As I grew up, we had several visitors who came in the evenings to discuss something in low tones with my dad. I soon realized I was their target. My alkum (someone from a specific clan who I am supposed to marry) had finally arrived. By the age of seven I already had a suitor, but amazingly my dad still decided to take me to school.
My dad is disabled and the last born in a family of four. In pastoralist communities like ours, girl children and last born children have no privileges to inherit any of their father’s livestock.
Although my dad had nothing of his own, his disability won him sympathy from government officials and missionaries who gave him some tailoring training and a sewing machine. Because it was too difficult to establish a tailoring business in our nomadic community, we moved to a nearby small town where my dad would get a maximum of $2 every day to mend torn clothes.
The little amount he received from his tailoring business was not even enough for our daily needs. He had no money to pay for our school fees, but he still decided to take my brother and me to school.
Luckily, primary school education was made free three years after I joined school. That news made my dad so happy that he sent messages to all those who asked for my hand in marriage, telling them that I would be continuing my education.
Studying was difficult, and I walked two kilometers to my school barefoot or in worn shoes, sometimes on an empty stomach. Despite all the difficulties, my father gave my brothers and me every support we needed to excel in school.
I was always the best performing girl in my school. When my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education results were released, I found out I was among the best students in my district. I got support and sponsors to continue with my studies.
Most of my relatives were against the idea of me continuing with my studies but my father rejected their opinions. He gave me the freedom to study up to the highest level and decide for myself when to marry.
While I was in school, I supported my family with the pocket money I received from my guardian and sponsor. I completed my secondary school education, excelled, and earned sponsorship from the government for my degree. While at the university I got a scholarship from a local bank for university expenses. I used that money to pay school fees for my brothers. I ensured that all of my brothers excelled in school and joined the universities of their choice. I am now able to support my father and mum.
My dream is to start an organization to save girls from early marriages and to ensure every girl has an opportunity to learn. I am mentoring girls in my area and I also mentor women and train them in small income-generating activities. My education allowed me to be a rock and source of strength for my family. Now I am showing the world what a girl can do for her community once she gets an opportunity to excel.
Sabdio Roba is a contributor from Kenya. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.