The kind that inspires me

The kind that inspires me

Every time I have heard people talk about celebrities from America coming to Africa, I have found myself strangely relieved that we live in such a remote village. I figured it would mean I would never have to worry about any celebrities choosing to come here.

The irony is that I sat across the table from a true celebrity this past week. Beautiful and awe inspiring -- she indeed turns heads wherever she goes. People want to greet her, stand next to her and get their picture taken with her – mothers with their babies even come running out of their homes to greet her. And everywhere, whether on the road or in people’s homes, or during morning church service, she is endorsing our product – education – whether the words come out of her mouth or whether she just stands there and smiles. Evodia. The first girl from her village to ever graduate from advanced level studies (“A-levels” in the British system).

I still remember the first day I met Evodia. She was only 13 years old and oh so cute – polite, obviously bright, with such a huge smile. I was the Guest of Honor at her school’s graduation party. By the end of the party, I had learned from her teachers that as full of promise as she was, there were a million reasons why she could easily end up slipping through the cracks. No one wanted that to happen, so she followed me home and became part of my school family for the next five years. Every year she was at the top of her class, and when she finished the national exams for her secondary school studies at our school, her very high marks earned her a place in a big school in the Njombe region for her advanced studies. She has come back every vacation to volunteer here – to teach and to help out with computer work – and now that she has graduated, she has come back home, the first girl in her entire village to ever finish her advanced studies. She still has 3 more months until she heads off to university and she’s volunteering here at our school every day. And I just love getting to see her smiling face!

As we experience so many “firsts” in the villages around our schools and we focus on the individuals, it could be easy, I suppose, to lose sight of the huge overall change that is happening in these villages. All of these kids of ours are getting through school, getting jobs, marrying wonderful people, and dreaming of futures. They’re quietly bringing change in people’s attitudes here. It is so wonderful to see the girls who make it. I can sit across the table from Evodia at a birthday party for her and simply rejoice!

But lest I forget what could have been for Evodia and for so many others, my brain is also crowded with the images of the realities of this place. I remember after my return to Tanzania in May, I was welcomed home with little Mordekai on my porch. Unwrapping his dying body, I cringed. How could a child be so malnourished in this day and age? Swollen, splitting skin peeling from his body and open sores. Mordekai’s mother was close to Evodia’s age. And rather than being a fun-loving young woman with a sparkle in her eyes, she was a hardened tea picker in the plantations with two young children – five year old Mordekai and his two year old sister. Mordekai had arrived with his elderly grandmother. In heartbreaking situations here, there isn’t much time for handwringing. I have a theory about Kwashiokor kids: if they can eat an egg, there is hope. So off I went to make little Mordekai an egg and when I brought it, the kid woke up as though from death. Yeah! There was hope! Mordekai had already been to many hospitals before arriving here, but always ended up sick again, the reason being that he had no food either at the hospital or at home. Others in their village told them about us and they made the five-hour walk from their village to our home to ask for help. As we arranged to get little Mordekai to Kibao hospital, he seemed to get better eating everything we served up. Although he could hardly talk and could barely see through the slits of his swollen eye lids, his little mouth opened and enunciated “sante” – a shorter version of “thank you” before he left. Four days later, he died.

I know there are those who find it hard to understand why we push so hard for girls to go to school. Village Schools is supposed to mean building schools and sharing the Gospel, but I couldn’t live here without it also meaning getting these girls through school. It simply is not an option for me to not do everything I can to get these girls in the classroom, and I long for the day when girls in these villages no longer pick tea in these plantations, when they no longer are married off and have babies when they are teenagers, when their faces are not so tired and so drained by the hardness of their lives.

It was another grandmother who showed up on my doorsteps who brought to me her 13-year-old granddaughter. Beautiful Fausia! This grandmother and I have known each other for years as we have worked with her to save her from the agony of losing more of her children to HIV/AIDS. Fausia had already finished the seventh grade last October and she had been offered the career option of being a servant in the big city over and over again – bus fare was even included in the package deal. She repeatedly – for 8 months – refused to go, insisting all she wanted was to go to secondary school. So her grandmother finally brought her to me. She’s been in our “pre-form class” for four months now here at Madisi – it’s the special class for the kids who didn’t start school in January when our school year starts. It’s where the kids who were “already falling through the cracks” get to come and learn English and Math so they can go into the eighth grade (Form One) when the next school year starts in January. She not only gets to study and learn but there’s no danger of her family finally giving in to one of the headhunters from Dar who regularly wander through these villages coming with their offers of jobs of being house girls in cities. These days I hear great reports about Fausia and her progress. She beams when I see her, and whenever she returns from her village of Mwefu on long weekends there is always a gift of food from her dear grandmother. When I see Fausia, Sakina, Jazira and so many other girls from her village, my spirit is renewed. My hope is that one day Fausia will be another Evodia – the first girl from her village of Mwefu to complete her studies. A special kind of celebrity. The kind that inspires others to greatness.

The kind that inspires me.