Their stories are achingly consistent.
“My father doesn’t want me to study.”
“My mother said I should not have to get married, but my father said, ‘She will bring a lot of cattle.’”
“My father has five wives and 30 children. I am the first to go to secondary school.”
These are the girls of the Maasai Women Development Organization (MWEDO) Secondary School on the rugged outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania. Arusha is the jumping off point for thousands of Western and Asian tourists who travel each year to climb to the roof of Africa, up Mount Kilimanjaro.
Unseen by the trekkers trolling the dusty streets of Arusha—a group that included me just a few years ago—the 150 MWEDO school girls face a challenge much greater than achieving the storied mountain summit. They strive for lives beyond the limitations of their rural villages, where teen marriage and multiple pregnancies put a dirt ceiling on education or training that could boost them beyond the mud-sided huts, persistent poverty and subjugation to men.
Their stories remind us that women’s struggles and gender inequity persist in places we don’t often hear about – corners of the globe far from the higher profile culture clashes, wars and widely reported violence against women. In Maasai country, daily existence is a struggle, especially for women who bear multiple children and shoulder most of the physical labor, bent beneath loads of thorny firewood and back-breaking containers of water.
The MWEDO girls’ dreams, however, are ascendant, even inspirational.
“I want to become an electrical engineer to help my people get electricity.”
“My ambition is to become a doctor. Science tells the truth. I like that.”
“My dream is to become a lawyer to fight for the rights of the young Maasai girls.”
“I will be a journalist and tell about what happens outside of the cities and towns, the needs of the people in the rural areas.”
I was in Tanzania for the second time, my first having been to climb Kilimanjaro and visit the Olmoti Clinic—a small health facility founded by a close friend from California—in remote Maasai country. The founder of the MWEDO school, Ndinini Kimesera Sikar, had become a friend and partner to the clinic, and when we talked about the importance of women’s empowerment, she invited me to meet her girls.
I spoke individually with about 20 of the students. Their English skills alone were a testament to their schooling, and their goals were even more so. Each aspired to a professional career—pilot, radio producer, physics teacher, dentist, X-ray technician—that would be out of reach if they had not escaped, in some cases literally, from their home communities.
Neema Lengoite, 17, the first of six children born to the youngest of her father’s seven wives, hopes to be an accountant. “I will teach women how to improve their businesses and have great goals. I can teach them to invest, and that they must think about the future.” Her mother, she said, had rebuffed her father’s efforts to redeem a 10-cow dowry in exchange for the girl’s hand in marriage. Married herself at 13, Neema’s mother sold bananas to send her children to a rural primary school. “She said, ‘I don’t want my children to be like me, to be married to a polygamist,’” Neema recounted. “She fought for me to come here and be an educated girl. I can fight, too. Later I will help my younger sister.”
Radiating determination to achieve women’s most powerful weapon, education, the girls told their stories shyly but frankly, expressing deep gratitude for the fortune that landed them here.
One told of a father, resentful at having to relinquish a prospective groom’s offering of cattle, who beat the girl’s mother for spiriting her off to school. Another student threatened to notify police if her father forced her, at age 12, to marry a man in his 30s.
Yet another spoke of a church community that helped her mother with small donations to launch the girl in secondary school, despite opposition from her alcoholic and abusive father. And one girl told of fleeing, with the help of her mother and uncle, when her father demanded that she undergo genital cutting. The cultural practice, although declining, is still is common among the Maasai and in 29 countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.
“We want to bring these girls to a safety net, so they can at least finish high school,” said Sikar, explaining how the school came about in 2011 as part of MWEDO, her 15-year-old women’s empowerment organization. “At MWEDO the idea is to prevent them from early marriage and pregnancy, to increase performance in everything the girls do and expose them as well to other things of the world.”
Sikar says Maasai parents are at best divided on the merits of education and its costs. Illiteracy among Maasai women is estimated at 80 percent. Nearly all of the MWEDO girls receive financial aid from the school or outside donors to cover the $1,000 annual tuition, room and board.
“Much of our teaching has to do with getting these girls to read by 18,” Sikar said. “A problem we face is that most come with very little knowledge.”
But change is coming. MWEDO has reached 3,500 women in rural villages with an adult literacy program launched in 2008. In turn, the women see value in educating their daughters. Among men, new attitudes also are emerging. I observed a meeting in the Olmoti region where male leaders insisted that women be equally represented on a new advisory board for the Olmoti Clinic. One of the men explained that women in such roles have proven to be more reliable.
For the MWEDO girls, leadership is not an unreasonable goal, and I could only applaud 13-year-old Masenoi Ngotiko when she told me of her wish to spread that message to other women.
“I want to be a human rights worker. You see a lot of girls are being controlled by men. They are abused,” she told me. “I want to tell them they have rights to become anybody in society. They can be the leaders.”