Going against the grain under normal circumstances is tough enough so imagine trying it in an ultra-conservative community. Nuriya Sheikh Farah, the former headmistress of NEP Girls High School, knows all about holding resolutely to a dream until it becomes a reality.
Born in Wajir to a senior chief who had four wives, it quickly became apparent to Nuriya that only the boys in her family, and indeed the whole community, were being sent to school. The thinking at the time was that education in general was a waste of time. For girls, it was unimaginable. But her brother, Omar Sheikh Farah, was an educationist and he managed to convince their father that since Nuriya’s mother (who was the third wife) did not have a son, she should be sent to school. It did not take long before rumours spread across town that the chief was taking one of his
daughters to school. Women friends and relatives from the province flocked to their home to talk to Nuriya’s mother, pleading with her to dissuade Nuriya from going to school.
Thankfully, her parents decided to take the chance and in 1963, she was enrolled in Wajir Primary School. At the time there were no schools for girls in the area so Nuriya found herself in an all-boys environment. But she reasoned that a school was a school and settled down to take full advantage of this rare opportunity. Not surprisingly, one of her biggest challenges was the taunting from her male classmates, who said girls did not have brains. When she performed better than them, they claimed it was only because the teachers were helping her. After Nuriya received her Form Four results, many would discourage her from continuing with her education. Some advised her to get a husband before she got too old. A number of relatives regularly visited her home on a mission to save her from “Western education”.
It took a delegation of Ministry of Education officials from the province led by Shem Watuma, the Provisional Education Officer at the time, and her brother Omar, to convince the family that high school education would be good for her. She was enrolled in Kangaru High School in Embu for her A – Levels after which she was admitted to the University of Nairobi where, in 1979, she attained a Bachelor’s degree in Education focusing on history and English literature. Nuriya ended up becoming the first female from the North Eastern region to attain a university degree.
She chose to study education so she could give back to her community and try to ensure that other girls from her region didn’t struggle to get an education. She became the headmistress of NEP Girls High School in Garissa between 1982 and 1990, and a pioneer of girl-child education. During her tenure at NEP Girls, Nuriya managed to have two girls admitted in university, which was something highly unusual at the time.