Spending time this summer with our students in the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, we want to share with you a glimpse into their daily lives.
Snapshot #2: It Takes a Village
by Suzanne Skees
Karatu, Tanzania: 18-year-old Eliazeri Elihakima has parents, but not really. He never met his father and his mother “could not take care of me,” he says. We’ve heard rumors that she suffered from illness or alcoholism, but Eli will not say. Barely subsisting in a mud hut with her four children, Catherine could not afford Eli’s school fees. So, he dropped out of school and just stayed home.
“My school fees were not paid because my mother could not support me,” Eli tells our group. “But I knew I could perform well [in school]. My mother told me, ‘Just study hard, and someone will help you.’”
Here in Tanzania, 97% live on less than $2/day (PPP, i.e. purchasing power parity), and up to 10% suffer from HIV/AIDS. Many families have lost parents to AIDS, malaria, and intestinal illnesses that could have been treated if only they had a medical clinic nearby or enough shillings to buy medicine. We saw a skit performed this week at the Mtoto Africa “All-Children” festival that recounts a common phenomenon: The mother has died, and the father has succumbed to drinking; he may work a few hours as a common laborer on someone’s farm in the mornings, earning just enough to keep him in booze the rest of the day. The children have no food, school fees, or parental care. Undernourished and neglected, they wind up living on the streets, or taking refuge in one of the many local orphanages.
“Before I was chosen by The School Fund, my luck was very bad,” Eli tells me. If he were still a dropout, he’d be doing menial jobs in town or on nearby farms–that is, if he got lucky enough to get work at all.
However, the community came together to enable Eli to change his outcome. Someone helped him find a sponsor for his school fees: a teacher named Mr. Polo. Now, Mr. Polo is Eli’s favorite teacher. “He recommended me [for a scholarship with The School Fund] last year, and for that I must love him,” Eli tells us with a broad grin.
Now Eli feels a sense of responsibility to keep up his grades, not only to maintain qualifications for his scholarship with The School Fund, but to remain accountable to Mr. Polo, as well as two families: his mother and siblings, plus his new adopted family.
When he returned to high school, Eli moved in with his best friend, Ludovik, whose mother works as headmistress of a nearby primary school. Living with Ludo’s family has given Eli moral support for his schooling. It’s also shortened his 2-hour walk to school into 45 minutes each way, since Ludo’s family lives much closer to the school than Eli’s mother. Ludo has brothers and sisters and a dad, and he also considers Eli his “brother of choice.”
Walking home from their school together with Eli, Ludo, and Eli’s other best friend, John Medo, I get the chance I’d hoped for, to ask them how young people are impacted by family dysfunction. Trucks roll past on the paved road, kicking up clouds of the red dust that seeps down from the dry hills. We pass small houses on the outskirts of town, a couple of grocery kiosks, and a sunflower farm. As we talk about the struggles of families and adolescence, we discover common ground.
“There are some families near my home where they argue a lot,” Eli says. “And when the parents fight and get divorced, then the kids don’t have any respect for them. They become very angry.” Often, those kids end up not going to school. They may lay around at home in their mud hut, or go into town. Perhaps they will do odd jobs for money. Some of the girls will get pregnant, and some boys will develop an addiction to ganyako, a strong local brew of gin sold in small plastic pouches.
I tell them about my own son’s need for shelter, and the second family he found to take him in a few years ago. “After I got divorced, my son Isaac–who’s now 18, just like all three of you–was very angry,” I told the boys.
“Why was he angry?” Eli asks.
“Maybe because of the pain of the divorce,” I said, “and some bad things that had happened to him. He was angry at the whole world, really–especially me. And he went to live with my sister for about a year.”
Just like Ludo’s family taking Eli in these last four years, Isaac had grown very close with my sister’s family. The shelter and support they offered made the difference between anger and acceptance, hate and love. I told the boys about how Isaac moved through his anger and came back into our family, then went on to build a life of choice for himself–working, attending community college, getting his own apartment, and getting ready for university in the fall. The boys all say they are very glad for Isaac, and Eli tells me it’s like that here too, in the small huts on the outskirts of town where everyone knows everyone, like a village.
And if they are lucky like Eli, the village comes together on their behalf.
Eli tells me that he wants me to meet his mother, that it means a lot to him. This is our last day in Karatu, so we invite mother and son to join us for dinner at John Medo’s house. The Medos have strung one bare bulb from an electrical wire that coils somewhere far into the distance to some neighbor’s house. We have brought rice with beef, kuku chicken with chips and boiled eggs and bananas. Mrs. Medo has cooked greens and ugali, a classic porridge of Tanzania made from corn flour and water. The Medos, without money or electricity, magically produce 2 liters of chilled Coke and Fanta.
As soon as we enter the room we all recognize Eli’s mother, whose face looks like his older twin. “This is my mother,” Eli says with pride. “Her name is Catherine.”
At 44, Catherine Elihakima looks worn and tired; but tonight, she seems happy. She takes pleasure in the food and listens quietly to the chatter all around her. We all swap cuisines: the Americans eat the Tanzanian food while the Tanzanians choose the western food. And after dinner, Catherine claps to the beat when Eli sings a pop love song in English and Swahili. Ludo takes a turn singing, and then John shows us how to do a traditional Iraqw dance from his mother’s tribe. The families conjoin in celebration of the kids. At the end of the evening, the two mothers together lead a blessing song in Swahili. They invite us into a circle to bend forward and back, and we chant the two words we know: “amen” and “alleluia.”
Given the opportunity to stay in school, Eli plans to attend medical school to become a doctor. He’s showing his three younger siblings a different outcome than that of their parents’. “All the time, I think about the future and how I want to make my life different from my mom’s. I want to make a better life,” Eli says.
The key, he believes, is education. “This is the world’s time for science and technology,” he says. “We must study to be in the world.”
He also plans, once finished with his own education and earning a good salary, to sponsor more students, the way The School Fund does. “I really need to advise you to add more students like me [for scholarships]. Tanzania is a very poor country. More students need a chance, like me.”
If we come together on this website, maybe we can create a village and do just that.
Suzanne Skees, director of Skees Family Foundation, traveled with The School Fund to write about what our mission looks like as real students and teachers implement our program on the ground. Suzanne donates her time pro bono, as does the entire TSF team. Additionally, the Skees Family Foundation provided a grant to support our students’ school fees and our filmmakers’ travel expenses. She writes about organizations working to end poverty and extend equal opportunity, and blogs for the Huffington Post.