This week, we travel up the Turnpike to New Jersey to speak with yet another fascinating lady, Sayydah Garrett. We invite you to sit back, relax and learn about the heart of another humanitarian.
GWPF: What do you do as a corporate worker?
Sayydah Garrett: I actually left corporate 20 years ago. I worked at American Express Bank in New York City for 9 years as the Executive Assistant to the Executive Vice President of Correspondent Banking responsible for Europe, Middle East & Africa. My duties involved scheduling meetings and business travel, planning 8 annual bankers’ luncheons, writing and editing correspondence, welcoming clients from around the world and serving them coffee on fine bone china.
GWPF: With such corporate background, what helped shape your life into a humanitarian?
Sayydah Garrett: I give my parents full credit for becoming a humanitarian. As far back as I can remember they have always helped friends and people in need, setting the perfect example of how to help your fellow woman/man. I love Maya Angelou’s saying, “When you receive, give. When you learn, teach.” This is how my parents roll. So, when I went on safari to Kenya to see elephants in their natural habitat, my compassion for others was tested when a Samburu Warrior told me about his dream to start an organization to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage in his tribal community.
GWPF: What part of Canada are you originally from, and what was life like growing up in Canada?
Sayydah Garrett: I’m from Montreal, Quebec. Growing up in Canada was great! We have the best of all 4 seasons so life never gets boring. I have fond memories of growing up with my 4 brothers. We did so many things together – attended music conservatory, played games and sports – lots of baseball, went on nature walks in the fall to see spectacular foliage, swam in fresh water lakes, played at and attended music festivals, survived brutal snowstorms, and so on. Life was more relaxed back then too. We didn’t lock our doors, we played outside without feeling fearful, and our parents allowed us to have fun and take it easy if we wanted to.
GWPF: Tell us how you became involved with the Pastoralist Child Foundation.
Sayydah Garrett: I’m an elephant lover and foster Kenia, a 9 year old female, at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. After watching a documentary film about elephants with my husband and daughter, I said, “I want to go to Kenya to see my elephant.” My husband jokingly said, “You can see elephants on YouTube.” Well!! That’s all it took for me to book a safari to Samburu and Maasai Mara in August, 2012. On the second day of my trip I visited Namayiana Village in Archer’s Post. I was the only visitor that morning. It was absolutely amazing! A young warrior offered to take pictures while I enjoyed talking and dancing with everyone. When I returned to Samburu Game Lodge, I beckoned Samuel Siriria Leadismo, the assistant restaurant captain I met the day before. I excitedly showed him the pictures and once I calmed down, he said, “That’s my sister. That’s my brother. That’s my village.” And I was thinking, “Samuel is wearing a restaurant uniform, unlike the villagers who wore colorful clothes and beaded jewelry…I’m confused!” Samuel explained that he’s an educated Samburu Warrior who studied restaurant and hotel hospitality. After telling me more about his tribe, he became very serious and said these exact words, “I want to start a community based organization to eradicate female genital mutilation and forced marriages of girls before it’s my youngest sister’s turn to get cut. Girls should be allowed to go to school and get an education.” I was blown away!! I mean, how many men ever express their desire to eradicate FGM? When I heard how serious he was I said, “Well, I live 8,000 miles away in New Jersey but I can help you. I can raise awareness about your cause, raise money and I’m a certified grant writer. (Following my gig at AmexBank I worked as a grant writer for 10 years at a nonprofit that assists the homeless population in New Jersey.) Samuel smiled, pointed at me and exclaimed, “Great! YOU will be our President!” And I said, “OK!” We co-founded Pastoralist Child Foundation (PCF) more right then and there. We hadn’t known each other 24 hours.
GWPF: What exactly does the Pastoralist Child Foundation do and where is it based?
Sayydah Garrett: In an effort to educate girls and the communities in which they live, Pastoralist Child Foundation (PCF) provides 4-day workshops for girls ages 12-17 during school holidays in April, August and December. These months are commonly called “cutting season.” We have an office in Archer’s Post, Samburu County, Kenya and a home office in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. PCF is a registered nonprofit in Kenya and the US. The objective is to prevent harmful practices that marginalize girls. The rate of FGM is 95% in Samburu and Maasai Mara counties. The primary school dropout rate is 93%. Through mobilization and education, PCF is instrumental in reducing deeply rooted harmful practices at the grassroots level. Throughout the year, PCF also visits rural villages to provide community workshops for boys, women, men and elders to address FGM and child marriage, as well as HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, child rights, and the importance of formal education as the vehicle towards improved economic conditions. PCF trains youth leaders and change agents from the villages. They provide valuable advice and keep the inter-generational dialogues alive to increase support for the abandonment of FGM and child marriage. PCF is replacing FGM with safe Alternative Rites of Passage for girls. Education = Empowerment = Equality. In addition, PCF’s scholarship program provides full tuition and boarding for very low-income, high performing secondary school girls. PCF currently sponsors 9 girls attending schools in Samburu County and Maasai Mara. The girls are required to maintain good grades, be model citizens, demonstrate leadership skills, and volunteer at PCF’s workshops during school holidays. They’re excellent role models for the younger participants who are very curious and keen about furthering their education beyond primary school.
GWPF: We understand you have a special attraction for languages. How many do you speak, and what is the attraction?
Sayydah Garrett: Yes! Oui! Da! Tak! Si! I speak fluent English, French and Russian. My mother is Ukrainian and born in France, so my maternal languages are English and French. I developed a love of languages as a child. I learned Ukrainian conversation at a young age and dreamed of becoming a United Nations interpreter, so I majored in Russian Language & Literature in university. I also studied Arabic and Spanish, and can say basic sentences and greetings in many other languages.
GWPF: Pastoralist Child Foundation envisions the day when female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced early marriage (FEM) will be completely abandoned in Kenya. Is there a special strategy that the foundation has?
Sayydah Garrett: Our strategy in eradicating FGM and forced early marriage is through mobilization and education. We work at the grassroots level and include all stakeholders – girls, boys, women, men, elders, former circumcisers, child protection agencies, healthcare workers, law enforcement, village chiefs, teachers, religious leaders, and local government. Progress happens more quickly when the effort is all-inclusive, resulting in a responsive participatory community. When Alternative Rites of Passage are introduced as the replacement for FGM the community buy-in increases.
We envision a decrease in FGM and child marriage; an increase in the number of girls enrolling and staying in school; and an increase in the number of girls graduating from secondary school. Through our workshops we’re empowering girls to stand up for their civil rights, beliefs, rights to get a formal education, marry when ready, live healthy lives, bear healthy children, and get jobs.
We envision the day (it better be soon!!) when men will cease to shame and discriminate against uncut women and agree to marry them the way they were born – intact.
GWPF: By the way, congratulations on your success with your organization. Tell us about the latest big event you held in Kenya late last year.
Sayydah Garrett: PCF held a public Alternative Rite of Passage for 200 girls who graduated from the 3 educational workshops in 2015. The joyous celebration was held on December 2, 2015 at Archer’s Post Stadium in Samburu. The celebration opened with a prayer by male elders and village chiefs who agree that FGM should be abandoned. There was a lot of dancing, singing, poetry recitations, and speeches by PCF staff, parents and local dignitaries.
The icing on the cake was when the Women’s Committee at Namayiana Village (the village I first visited in August, 2012) announced that the village has collectively agreed to abandon the practice of FGM. The decision was made as a result of our regular workshops! The women also told us that they’ve seen a significant decline of FGM in nearby villages.
GWPF: And how are Elephants, Marketing and FGM connected? Please tell us!
Sayydah Garrett: Marketing is everything. We have to regularly advertise and promote our work through every possible channel to raise awareness about FGM. This non-medical procedure damages 6,000 girls every single day around the world, and according to WHO, 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM. We have to address FGM right here in America where girls are being subjected to “vacation cutting” – going on “holidays” to their native countries unaware that they’ll be mutilated. As for the elephants, they’re being slaughtered at alarming rates!! “Conservation of girls and elephants through marketing” is how I’d sum it up.
GWPF: How high is the forced early marriage rate in Kenya?
Sayydah Garrett: Kenya has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with the national rate at 30%. However, in Samburu and Maasai Mara Counties the rate is close to 84%.
GWPF: How closely related are FGM and FEM?
Sayydah Garrett: FGM and FEM (Forced Early Marriage) are tightly intertwined. When a girl reaches puberty she undergoes FGM and shortly thereafter she’s forced to marry. FGM is a rite of passage to womanhood. Really? A 13 year old girl is now a “woman?” I beg to differ. She’s not a woman emotionally, psychologically, and in most cases not physically developed enough to bear children. However, economics play a large part in forced early marriage. Low-income parents/guardians use FGM as a way to exchange daughters for money or livestock. This marginalizes girls and results in the majority of them dropping out of primary school.
GWPF: The Maasai community in Kenya is known as the biggest FGM practicing community in that country. How is your work and presence in Kenya making a difference in that community?
Sayydah Garrett: Due to the fact that the Maasai community is highly patriarchal, it makes sense to include boys and men in our efforts to eradicate FGM. Our outreach is making a difference because once the boys and men learn what FGM does to their wives, daughters, aunts, grandmothers and other females they become more understanding. We show men a video of a young girl undergoing FGM. This is an eye opener, to say the least! We now have young men and warriors declaring, “Stop FGM!” “No FGM!” “We will marry uncut girls.” With financial funding to continue mobilizing and sensitizing the communities we can dramatically decrease the rate of FGM. We believe FGM will be eradicated within one generation. I love the saying by Rumi, “Live your life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” We only think about what’s possible and throw the impossible by the wayside. We anticipate many more villages to publicly declare their abandonment of FGM.
GWPF: And with all the work that keeps you busy, you are still a family woman with a husband and child. What is your secret in managing such schedule?
Sayydah Garrett: A desk calendar and yellow stickies all over the house helps! In all seriousness, I know my limitations and how much I can handle on any given day. When I’m tired, I take a nap. Fortunately, my husband isn’t demanding or needy and our daughter is employed and lives in her own apartment. Oh! Did I mention that I’m a certified ESL (English as a Second Language) and Adult Basic Education instructor? I teach part-time and really enjoy teaching adults from many different countries. I learn so much from them and love it when they bring me food. Feed me and you’re my friend for life!
(Join us in next week’s edition when An Exclusive brings you another fascinating woman)