The Right to Play: Lee-Ann Olwage’s collaboration with a girl’s school in Kenya exudes pride and joy

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In Kenya, over 80 percent of Maasai girls are taken out of school at 12 and forced to marry. Olwage seeks to communicate what’s possible when they have the opportunity to choose a different path

Dr Kakenya Ntaiya grew up in the Maasai village of Enoosaen, Kenya. She became engaged aged five, destined to follow a path prescribed for every woman in her community: to become the perfect wife. Over 80 percent of Maasai girls leave school at 12 to marry and have children. But, Dr Ntaiya was determined to continue her education and struck a deal with her father, agreeing to only undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a traditional Maasai rite of passage – if she was allowed to stay in school.

In the three decades since, Dr Ntaiya has studied in America, worked for the United Nations, and founded Kakenya’s Dream: a non-profit boarding school for girls, aiming to end harmful traditional practices and forced marriage across rural Kenya. Dr Ntaiya fought for her education – she had to obtain the permission of every man in her village to study in the US. Now, she is fighting for others’ too. 

“She’s the most phenomenal woman I’ve ever met,” says South African visual artist Lee-Ann Olwage. Last July, Olwage was commissioned to direct a short documentary about the school and decided to extend her stay to work on a personal project. “I thought [Dr Ntaiya’s] story was more powerful when told through the girls that are now in her school,” she says. In these rural communities, 80 percent of women undergo FGM, and over half marry before they are 19. “The expectation is that you grow up, marry, and have children. There’s not that opportunity to dream,” Olwage continues. 

 “When you show girls in an empowered state, it shows other girls what is possible”

But instead of focusing on these limitations, the visual artist wanted to communicate the empowerment that comes when children receive ample opportunities. “What if girls were given the opportunity to continue to play, to continue education? What does that look like? What does that feel like when girls are empowered to make their own decisions about their future?”

The resulting series, Right to Play, is imbued with pride and joy. Olwage pictures the girls playing or posing proudly in the classroom, their portraits embellished with tiny flowers, a nod to the tradition of arranged marriages. “[The work] is kind of reclaiming the flowers in that aspect,” says Olwage, while also reinforcing the possibility of an alternate world where all girls have the choice to continue education.

Working in collaboration with the students was of utmost importance. “My whole practice is based on collaboration,” Olwage continues. “Especially as a photographer living and working in Africa, where there’s been a very violent history of photography.” Olwage invited the girls to choose how they wanted to be photographed. “Every girl walked in and knew exactly where she wanted to sit or stand,” she says. “When you’re co-creating, there’s this magic where something far better than you could ever imagine comes out of the process.”

A year after making the work, Olwage is in conversation with the school about exhibiting the work in Paris, and hopes to return to Kenya to expand the series. “When you show girls in an empowered state, it shows other girls what is possible,” she says. “Showing them in control of their lives and dreams – in that space where their dreams are valid – reinforces that message in the community.”

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.