(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part blog post about the education of girls in Tanzania. This installment is titled, “The Sega Girls School.” All photos are by the Sega Girls School. To read the first installment, click here.)
If you drive west from Dar Es Salaam, about 4 1/2 hours down the Morogoro Road, you’ll arrive in Morogoro Town, a commercial- and subsistence-farming community set at the base of the Uluguru Mountains. At the traffic circle, hook a right onto Dodoma Road, and travel south out of town. Pass an endless stream of people trudging alongside the road—women balancing impossibly large loads on their heads and men walking hand in hand with others or perched precariously on bicycles loaded heavy with firewood, water cans, or even a passenger or two. Large lorries and container trucks whizz by too closely, and herds of goats scamper aside to escape untimely death.
Ten kilometers out of town in the village of Mkundi, turn right onto a narrow dirt road, which is impassable without a four-wheel-drive during the rainy season. Continue one more kilometer until you see in the distance a bright orange and pink building with the green, yellow, and bright blue Tanzanian flag waving proudly in front.
Just three years ago, this 23-acre piece of land was nothing but tall, unruly grasses, clusters of acacia bushes, and other indigenous shrubs and trees. At that time, scattered bright yellow sunflowers were the only splash of color for miles. Today, those sunflowers complete a vibrant rainbow of life at the flourishing and joy-filled Sega Girls School, which bustles with more than 100 students and staff.
How does one transform an unused grassland into a thriving community of education, agriculture, entrepreneurship, love, hope, and possibility in just a few short years—and why?
During her work researching the plight of child laborers in Tanzania, Polly Dolan, a 43-year-old American on the board of Nurturing Minds Inc., learned that in some areas, girls are so desperate to continue their studies that they resort to trading sex for accommodation, money, or food.
“I knew I wanted and needed to help,” she recalls. “After about a year evaluating options, [I thought of] a scholarship program, but then I would have no control over the quality of education.” Ms. Dolan also thought of “an intervention for street girls engaged in prostitution. I decided I wanted to get to these girls before they hit the streets, to commit to prevention.”
In early 2007, Dolan, who has lived in Tanzania since 1998, sat down with her Tanzanian colleague, Blastus Mwizarubi, who is an expert in education, and together they identified the need for an all-girls school to serve vulnerable girls.
That school, the Sega Girls School, opened its doors in July of 2008. Today, the school has 90 students, 60 of whom are boarding and 30 who commute. “Girls, and the women they can become, represent an enormous untapped resource in Tanzania,” says Dolan.
Sega’s narrow parameters of eligibility state that the girls needed to have left school between the fifth and seventh grades due to extreme poverty; that they are aged 15 or younger; that they have a proven ability to perform at basic academic levels and pass Sega entrance exams; and that through home visits and interviews, they have a demonstrated a passion for education and a desire to return to school. With funds to only admit 30 new girls each year, the selection process is difficult, and dozens must be turned away. (Polly Dolan in front of the Sega School during construction)
“Our girls are like countless others in Tanzania who have been forced into child labor, marriage, or motherhood,” says Dolan, who has worked on poverty alleviation and development programs in Africa since 1996. “Our school is designed to be a safe place where poor, at-risk girls can excel at their academic studies, learn life and business skills, and become leaders in their society.”
In a country where customary law dominates; where girls and women are seen only as wives and mothers and can be married off as young as nine in some areas; and where access to education for girls has been restricted for centuries, the reality of empowering girls to “excel” is challenging. Sega’s response? Build a relevant and engaging multi-faceted leadership and life-skills program that seeks to go beyond the rote learning approach typical of East African schools.
“We are combining a challenging academic curriculum with a hands-on mentoring program and an array of extra-curricular activities and social interactions,” explains 37-year-old Salome Mkuchu, a Morogoro native who joined Sega in January 2010 as the school’s headmistress. “And we will soon add small business enterprise.” (Photo at right of Ms. Mkuchu)
Businesses currently being researched include a poultry business, a computer training center, an eco-lodge, a hardware shop, and a food-processing center.
Sega dynamic curriculum is designed to teach the students a number of “core competencies”:
• Self-value, confidence and assertiveness
• Sexual and reproductive health-care and decision-making
• Organizational skills
• Life and financial planning and management
• Public speaking and presentation
• Environmental awareness, appreciation and care
• Active citizenry, social outreach and networking
• Parenting skills
“The most important change I’ve experienced since coming to Sega is the way that I think”, says 17-year-old Matika, whose mother could not afford to keep her and her siblings in school after their father died. “Life was so hard. We would go some days without food. Now I see life as more meaningful, and I know that education is the only way to a better future.” Matika, a form two student, is now is among the top five girls at Sega. She speaks English with proficiency, takes a lead in school debates, is well liked by all her classmates, and, reports Ms. Dolan, never stops studying!
Sega’s success is getting noticed by an international audience. In 2010 Sega’s U.S.-based 501(c)3 Nurturing Minds, which is run by Ms. Dolan’s sister and full-time volunteer Tracey Dolan, received a USAID $400,000 2:1 matching construction grant. Those monies, combined with donations from individual donors, will be used to help complete the Sega campus, which eventually will include seven classrooms and dorms, three teachers’ offices and staff houses, and a laboratory, administrative office, volunteer house, and dining facility – all outfitted with rain catchments, water tanks, solar paneling and fixed furniture— and, of course, more students.
“Our goal is to increase Sega’s enrollment to 200 girls by 2015,” says Tracey, 55, who manages Sega’s all-volunteer board and fundraising and media efforts from the United States. “The plan is for each of our students to either be enrolled in higher education institutions, have paying jobs, or have started their own businesses within a year of graduation.”
However, as it is for most non-for-profit organizations, fundraising to build and operate the Sega Girls School presents an ongoing challenge. To offset expenses and to build a self-sustaining model, Sega plans to launch five to 10 school-run businesses in the next five years (the first, a poultry business, is slated to launch late 2011). The Sega students also grow their own food in gardens that they themselves dig, plant, water, and care for.
“The gardening program is very important because it empowers our girls to learn skills they will need and can use in their lifetimes,” says Mwizarubi, 57, who also works as the Education Sector Coordinator for CARE International in Tanzania and was the recent chair of the Tanzanian Education Network (TEN/MET), a network of organizations that advocates on education-related issues at national level. “We aim to expand with economic-building, practical life-skills activities that will nurture strong, self-reliant spirits.”
As you leave Sega, you may just see the girls walking down a red dirt path to join friends at the dining banda, where a thatched roof covers a fuel-efficient kitchen and an open eating area, outfitted with enough white tables and blue plastic chairs for every girl to find her place. On a clothes line in the distance, girls’ clothing of every style, size, and color flap gently in the wind. And, held securely upon the 45-foot, coral-colored water tower, a large black tank with the fitting words “Poly Tank” painted in large white letters along the side soars high above it all.
“The Sega Girls School provides a safe haven and quality education relevant to the rural Tanzanian context to girls who otherwise would be left behind in extreme poverty and isolation,” says Judith Bruce, director of the Population Council’s Poverty Gender and Youth Program Population program. “Many of the girls have lost their parents and have been exploited. SEGA is offering them a chance to take back their lives while changing their communities.”
For more information about the Sega Girls School, visit the Nurturing Minds website.
Anne Wells is the founder and director of UNITE The World With Africa, a social organization dedicated to building bridges of service and transformation between Americans and Tanzanians. She also recently launched the Ashe Collection, an online store that sells art and fashion from East Africa to support of UNITE’s work in women’s health, education and microfinance.