I have recently returned from an almost three week stay in Tanzania. It was a trip like none other. For the first time since five years ago, when GEC became a part of this incredible project, there were girls on campus- living in the dorms. Attending classes. Doing homework under solar lanterns. Playing “net ball”. Hanging their laundry in the courtyard. Laughing. Singing. Learning. Being safe. Being girls.
Not fetchers of firewood or water. Not sitters of younger siblings. Not wives to older men. Not field laborers. Not mothers before they were women.
They were just being girls. Girls who popped out of bed every morning at 5:30am and were in their first class at 7:15. Girls who were taking seven subjects and then would come back for tutorials until dinnertime. Girls who studied in small groups under their mosquito nets by the light of solar lanterns until lights-out at 9:30pm. Girls who want a chance at the futures they seek and the futures they deserve.
When I arrived in Kitenga in November, there were 43 students attending the eight week “Pre-Form One Prep Program”. When I left there were 48 and more were coming. One hundred girls have taken the admissions exam to be part of the opening Form One class, which launches in January. What we hoped for is revealing itself: if you build it they will come. The dream of Kitenga is no longer a theory. Girls and their families are seeking safe and nurturing spaces where the girl-child can remain a girl and earn the education and training she seeks. Girls are attending from as far away as Mwanza, a growing city six hours by car and as close by as Kitenga Village. They have varying backgrounds and tribal traditions but their desires are shared – the chance at an exceptional education while being safe, while being girls.
I realize I have used this word ‘girl’ quite a bit since the start of this letter. 16 times actually. And it’s for a reason. When I left, it was the start of the traditional ‘cutting season’ for one of the local tribes. When girls leave primary school, or even before, they are circumcised – their female genitalia brutally sliced off – and then they are bartered for cows and sold into marriage. This is a harmful and destructive cultural tradition, an abuse of human rights, and it is violence against children. There are many beautiful and life-affirming traditions within this culture; this is not one of them. The Sisters, in collaboration with other faith-based groups are working very hard to educate the community at large to end the traditions of circumcision (also known as Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM) and early marriage. Yet it is hard for a community to change ingrained tradition if they feel there are no alternatives.
The Kitenga School for Girls is a special place dedicated to the girl-child – to protect her from violence, and to allow her the opportunity and space to safely seek her education. It’s an alternative to traditional paths. It’s a place where she can grow, and some day, become the woman she wants to be. Even if a girl in Tanzania is not ‘cut’, she is born a second-class citizen and more often than not faces numerous and often insurmountable barriers between her and her education.
While I was in Kitenga, did I celebrate with the Sisters that the school had finally opened? You bet! And the Sisters are so incredibly and authentically grateful for the GEC community of support – because without it, there would be no Kitenga School for Girls. But you know what we did next? We sat down and began planning. The school is open and that is incredible but now it needs to grow. There are many more girls who want to be a part of this. Who want to exchange their water buckets for books, who want to be in school rather than in bed with an older man. Who understand that there is a route out of poverty and there is a way to dignity and personal choice—and it’s called education.
Thank you for being on this journey with us. Thank you for helping us build and open the Kitenga School for Girls.
On behalf of the girls, thank you.
With my very best,