I had read their Strategic Plan outlining their vision to create an extraordinary school for girls within a remote and roadless village. I was very impressed. They addressed the need for strong sciences, leadership development, health education and vocational training. It struck me as a very progressive document. The Mission Statement read: “The girls, exiting from the school will be able to participate in scientific activities, develop competitive analytical and problem solving skills and will be committed to foster their basic human rights based on their conviction and knowledge to improve their lives through work and services.”
Yet it wasn’t until I sat with Sister Janepha, in her room in Buffalo, just before she returned to Tanzania, that I really began to grasp what the Sisters were trying to do.
Sister Janepha is a member of the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa community. They are a community of about 150 Sisters, based in Musoma on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Of Mary Knoll descent, they are an order of Tanzanian nuns who in addition to leading a devout life, reach out and support the most marginalized and overlooked in their community, especially when they are women and girls.
Sister Janepha had left Tanzania to come to Buffalo to earn a degree in Business. While in Buffalo, with the assistance of one of her professors, she and others drafted the IHSA Strategic Plan for a boarding school for girls in Kitenga, Tanzania.
That day, when we sat in her room, with her open and bulging suitcase on the bed, she told me that the government had given the Sisters the 1,000 acres in Kitenga Village so they could operate a project that would help improve life for the community. That was over 20 years ago. For a number of years the Sisters would walk miles to reach the property and do the hard work of clearing the land and prepare it for development. When I was just there in March, one of those Sisters, Sister Doratea, told me that everyday for weeks at a time, she would walk 8 km into the property, chop at scrub all day and then walk 8 km back to what then was the closest place they could stay.
It is hard to track the exact chronology of how things unfolded, but when Sister Janepha first arrived in Buffalo, they had no overall plan on what they should do on the land. They decided they needed a vision, a strategy. So they asked of themselves, what are we trying to achieve?
Even though I had been blown away when I first read what was to become their Strategic Plan, and had been more than impressed with what I saw when I went to visit Kitenga for the first time in 2011, it wasn’t until I had heard the back-story that I fully realized what these remarkable women were up to.
“We want to empower women!” Sister Janepha told me; “We asked ourselves: what do we want to achieve with our work in Kitenga? We want to empower women! And then we concluded that the best way to empower women was to educate girls!“
That is why at the core of the Kitenga Village Project – in addition to the health center, gristmill and vocational classes for the community – is the vision of a comprehensive, high quality boarding school for girls.
The Sisters, through different projects, are immersed in community development work throughout the region: they are social workers who run programs and housing for ‘street children’; they are teachers who run a school for death children; they are caretakers and advocates for developmentally challenged children; they are nurses who operate a health clinic.
Girls Education Collaborative partners on projects where there is a community initiative because it is the local community that best understands its own needs and the strategies to best address those needs. The Sisters have the support of the Kitenga community and local government and an exceptional track record of project and school management. In addition to those already mentioned, they have also run one of the best performing secondary schools in the greater region. Many Sisters were raised in villages similar to Kitenga. They know the community and the community knows them. Their official and unofficial family networks are broad and wide. They are not cloistered, they are of the community – to the bystander like me they seem to know everyone and everyone seems to know them!
In hand with the Sisters, we have a remarkable opportunity to help create an extraordinary new reality for girls that will help them transcend their circumstances and consequently affect generations to come. We are honored to be their partners and to join them in their efforts to ‘empower women’!