Student seeks to empower change in Kenya, WSU

Sein Lengeju hasn’t forgotten the day in high school when her headmistress said she was too stupid to ever see the doors of a college. After speaking to her brother during a school event, she was asked to lay down on the floor to be beaten with a rod.

Lengeju went to an all-girls school in Kenya, and speaking to boys was not allowed. She refused to lie down, and the headmistress called her stupid. Now, she repeats those words to herself whenever she feels challenged to give herself inner strength.

“I had a voice then, but I felt like my voice was being shut up or cut off,” Lengeju said.

But after raising a family and spending time at Wichita State, her voice has become louder.

“I want to use that voice to empower people that don’t have a voice,” she said.

“We can embrace change as a school”

With her degree, Lengeju plans to advocate against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya. She also wants to promote education and combat hunger issues in her home country.  

In March, she went to the Clinton Global Initiative, which seeks to inspire individuals to take on global challenges. She was the first student from WSU to participate, and hopes she won’t be the last.

Lengeju’s fractured foot sent her to the meeting. She was working at her internship and studying when the injury happened. When she looks back she feels it was all part of a master plan. It made her slow down and gave her the time to apply for the Initiative.

“I started saying, ‘Oh, this is really going to happen,’” she said.

Though she didn’t have the money to go, organizations like TRIO found the funds to make the trip possible. She wants the university to create a fund to send students each year the way the University of Kansas does.

“We can be different as a school,” Lengeju said. “We can embrace change as a school.”

“My life was falling apart”

There were times when Lengeju didn’t think she would be where she is now — ready to graduate and create change in her home country.  Like when she lost her job a few years back and didn’t have the funds to pay for tuition. Her weeklong class began on the 21st of the month.

“My life was falling apart on the 20th,” she said.

The class professor, Ron Matson and Director of TRIO Disability Support Services Martha Lewis, helped her find financial aid and encouraged her through the class. She made it.

“I promised I was not going to let them down, because letting them down was letting me down and letting my entire community down,” Lengeju said.

Lengeju doesn’t take school lightly. Even with three children and an internship, she’s the type of student who turns in essays a week early. During her time at WSU, Lengeju has been on the student senate in Student Government Association, a mentor in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the president of the Phi Alpha honor society and a McNair scholar.

“I had a feeling she would do whatever she put her mind to,” Lewis said. “She doesn’t let obstacles get in her way.”

She became pregnant as a teenager and said her father “gave her a second chance.” Her family is less traditional than many in the Maasai culture. Instead of marrying her off when she was young to gain property, as many families do, her father encouraged her to pursue education.

Even in a family of 14 in a country where universal education is not guaranteed, every child in the family of 14 went through high school, and a few attend college like Lengeju.

Taking change home

One tradition the family toed the line on is female genital mutilation (FGM). The practice is considered a rite of passage for most Maasai women.  

“It’s something I don’t want to see anyone else go through,” she said. “If you’ve ever learned anything that can oppress a woman, can demean a woman, can make you feel like you don’t want anything — that’s what FGM does.

“It hasn’t stopped me from living my life. I have lived my life and I enjoy my life, but I hated myself before.”

The procedure creates many health hazards for the rest of the woman’s life, including risk of infection, painful sexual intercourse and difficulties in childbirth. Since it’s illegal, most FGM procedures are done in secret. Outside a hospital, sterilization and overall safety become an issue.

The practice can also be psychologically damaging. Lengeju went through therapy with the Social Work department to overcome the trauma.

 After graduation, Lengeju wants to go back to Kenya and start a dialogue about FGM. She wants to understand how other women and girls feel about the tradition, and include men in the conversation.

“If you want anything to happen here, you have to include the men,” she said.

Lengeju is hopeful for her cause, as Kenya has seen many changes since she’s been away. Every district now has a female representative. Lengeju wants to inspire more women to seek change. Right now, she’s searching for a board of directors for the non-profit she wants to form.

She also hopes Wichita State becomes more global, including international internships with the Nursing and Social Work departments.

Lengeju calls Wichita State her “mother.”

“I have a long list of people who have just loved me, accepted me, included me,” she said. “They have showed me that I am no different.”

Though bringing substantial change is difficult, Lengeju remembers the challenging times of her life to motivate her. She goes back to the time her headmistress told her she wouldn’t amount to anything.

“When I wanted to give up, I remember those words,” she said. “I chant those words to build my strength, to be able to prove to her that she’s not the one who decides what happens in life.”