It’s a common story in Tanzania, though one we don’t hear much about in Westport.
Getting an education is tough — particularly for girls. The barriers are formidable. Girls’ status in Tanzania is much lower than boys, so they start school later and drop out earlier. Many girls pregnant at a young age. Others are forced into child labor. Some have been orphaned by AIDS.
An American woman named Polly Dolan spent many years as a consultant for CARE. In Africa, she saw the urgent need for girls’ education. In 2007, she opened an all-girls secondary school in Morogoro, Tanzania.
Her childhood friend, Ashley Moran — a 5th grader teacher at Kings Highway Elementary School, and a Westport resident — joined the board of Nurturing Minds in Africa, the new school’s sponsoring organization.
“These girls are desperate for education,” Ashley — who has seen the situation first-hand — says.
Girls who are in school don’t get pregnant as often, or as young, she adds. And when — thanks to their education — they get jobs, the money they earn stays in Morogor. Men often leave the community. “It’s a cultural thing,” Ashley explains.
The school — called SEGA (Secondary Education for Girls’ Advancement) now has 85 girls, in grades 8-12. Most are boarders; some are day students. The goal for 2015 is 200 girls.
SEGA students, and a teacher. It is a Tanzanian tradition for girls to wear very short hair.
There is a strict admissions process, involving tests, interviews and home visits. Girls are desperate to get in. One asked the police to tell her mother that they had to send her to SEGA.
Their hope and faith is founded in statistics like these: In 2009, 96 percent of the girls in the day school program passed a country-wide standardized test. Nationally, only 49 percent did.
But SEGA does not just teach to tests. “It’s teaching people how to change their lives,” Ashley says. “These girls will grow up to take care of themselves.”
By that year too, the school hopes to be self-sustaining, thanks to business help. Operating costs this year are $160,000. Construction costs are estimated at $250,000 a year, through 2015.
That’s real money.
Nurturing Minds does what it can to raise funds. Local businesses chip in.
And, here in Westport, Ashley is getting Westporters involved.
At King’s Highway, she runs a club. 4th and 5th grade boys and girls volunteer to meet during their lunch period and recess.
“Kids that age are the future. And they believe they can change the world,” Ashley says.
The youngsters learn about SEGA, and educational issues in Africa. They raise awareness throughout Kings Highway. This spring they helped organize a walk-a-thon that raised $1,500. They also gather change from various classrooms — “to create change in Africa,” Ashley notes. That brought in another $1,000.
“When we talk about this as a cause — and the impact it can have — kids here recognize how lucky they are. They really do realize how much they have,” Ashley adds.
In mid-July, Ashley and her 3 children head to Morogoro. They’ll spend 3 weeks there, helping out.
And the bonds between girls hungering for education in Tanzania, and a suburban town in the US with a great school system, will grow even tighter.