Facing the Page
From Masailand to Tompkins Square Library: A Journey in Literacy
Last year, Victoria joined a basic reading and writing class at Tompkins Square Library's Center for Reading and Writing. She agreed to speak with me about her experience so far and what brought her here.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Kenya, in the Masailand, in a village with 10 huts.
What other languages do you speak besides English?
I speak the Masai language and Swahili, and other tribal languages: Kikuyu, Luo, and Kamba. I came to America in 1986. I speak English every day, but I haven’t learned everything.
Why did you need to work on your reading and writing?
In 1975, when I was a young girl, the first president of Kenya sent the national guard into the Masai villages to force the children to go to school. All the children hid. I hid in the bushes, and my girlfriend hid under the bed, but they found everyone.
For the first weeks, I went to school in my tribal Masai clothes — that was cowhide decorated with beads. After that we had to buy a uniform. My mom bought me the blouse and skirt, but she didn’t have enough money for the underpants and shoes. The teachers did uniform inspections. They found that I didn't have underpants, and they beat me. After two months I ran away. My mom took me to a Catholic school, but to go there I had to live with my aunt, and she mistreated me. She didn’t give me enough food, so I could not concentrate on school work. I decided to run away back to my village. From then on I never went to school again... until now. Now I study at the Tompkins Square Library.
How did you find the Center for Reading and Writing?
My husband found the program on the Internet. He saw they offer free education at the library. I chose this center because it’s close to where we live. I had never been to the library before. But now I have a library card.
How did you feel when you first came to the Library?
When I came here I did not know how to read or write. I couldn’t read a book. I couldn’t write anything. I knew the alphabet. I could see the letters T, H, and E, but putting them together — I couldn’t. I started with a phonics program on the computer and different teachers helped me. Slowly, slowly I kept learning.
How has your reading and writing changed since you started here?
Since I started coming here, to tell the truth, I’m much better and I feel so good. I just want to continue and continue and continue! I understand more English words. Now I can read books. Before if you told me to read this book, I wouldn’t know what to do. Now I’m on book six of this series An American Family. I’m learning about history.
Also, my spelling is becoming much better. If I continue like this I’ll be a very good writer in the future. So far I’ve been writing my real life story, which makes me feel good. I said at the beginning when I first came here that I wanted to write my life story and that’s what I’m doing. I’m feeding myself with words, with education.