UNSCRIPTED AND UNSTOPPABLE
In honor of International Day of the Girl Child, Asante Africa Foundation board member and longtime scholarship sponsor, Monica Hahn reflects of the impact that her donations have had on two girls. Despite the setbacks faced by both girls, Monica focuses on their resilience and successes (both in and out of school), and their promising futures. Both young women reflect this year’s Day of the Girl theme– “GirlForce: Unscripted and unstoppable”– through their determination and flexibility in the face of adversity.
One of the things that inspires me most about the youth of East Africa is their resilience. I faced a few challenges in my youth, and have always felt that doing so built my character and personal strength. All of those challenges pale in comparison to the challenges of everyday life for an average East African girl.
For several years, I’ve been sponsoring a scholarship student. I never had the opportunity to meet my first scholar, Maria, but looked forward to receiving annual updates on her progress. She finished high school last year, and did not score well enough on her exams to continue on to university.
When I was in Tanzania this summer for our global board of directors meeting, I spent my “free day” with Glory Shayo, our Scholarship Coordinator for Tanzania. I asked if she knew what had happened to Maria. It turns out that Maria had taken an administrative job with a local tour company. Because of her performance and language skills, she was promoted to be a cultural tour guide. As she continued to excel, the company trained her in all of the skills needed to become their very first female safari guide. Maria has applied the life skills she learned to excel beyond the classroom, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
The real purpose of my outing with Glory that day was to meet Neema, my new scholarship student. All I knew about Neema was that she was 11 years old, in 5th grade, liked to draw and lived with an aunt. We hired a driver to take us to visit Neema. After driving for over an hour from Arusha toward Moshi, we left the main highway for dirt roads lined with fields of maize and banana trees. Eventually we came to the small house where Neema lives with her aunt, who also has 4 children of her own. Her oldest son is in college, and her 15-year-old daughter is in high school and wants to be a dentist. She also has a daughter one year younger than Neema, and another who is only two.
Neema’s mother is mentally ill, so her six children are being raised by her extended family. Neema’s four older siblings were not able to go beyond primary school. When Neema was ten years old, the extended family proposed marrying her off (to a much older man), but her aunt felt she was too young and decided to take her in. Unfortunately she’s a single mom, so couldn’t afford Neema’s fees for secondary school. She appealed to her school for assistance. Because Neema was such a good student, the school nominated her for an Asante Africa Foundation scholarship. It took every ounce of strength I possess to resist bursting into tears at the thought of this small child being taken as a wife.
Neema immediately thought to share the school supplies and coloring books I brought with her cousin. Her aunt told me that the two girls walk to and from school together every day, about 3 miles each way. Neema wants to be a pilot when she grows up. She is very shy and quiet, but asked with twinkle in her eye if she would become part “muzungu” (white), now that she has a “muzungu mama.” She showed me her report card, and vowed very seriously to study hard to improve her grades in English and Math.
Neema’s school has a strong Asante Africa Foundation presence. Not only does her scholarship cover her tuition, books, uniform and other school expenses, she’ll participate in our Girls Advancement Program. I know that she will be able to learn safely how to make healthy choices, build a support system and find her voice.
I don’t know that Neema is going to become a pilot – she’s ten, so her dreams will probably change many times over the next several years. I do know that whatever path she chooses, her aunt and I, and Asante Africa Foundation, will have her back. The small amount I give for her scholarship only provides the foundation. I hope that, like Maria, Neema will continue to learn and grow into her own best self. Someday, I hope they’ll both be able to pay it forward and help another little girl.
Written by: Monica Hahn