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 #3: Orphaned in Africa
by Suzanne Skees
Karatu, Tanzania: Lucy John has plenty of reasons to be pleased with herself: at age 15 she has sailed halfway through high school, obtained full support for her school fees by The School Fund donors who believe in her, and placed 4th/154 in academic ranking among her Form 2 class at Mlimani Secondary School. She has graceful, willowy beauty, eloquence in 3 languages (tribal, Swahili, and English), and—very important to a teenager—a gaggle of good girlfriends.
Yet when we ask about her family, Lucy bursts into tears. Christi tries to distract Lucy by talking about hobbies, and I make a clumsy attempt to apologize. But really, how can we comfort a girl whose dad is never coming home?
UNICEF reports that 50 million children in sub-Saharan Africa (up to 15%) are orphans. Here in the East African republic of Tanzania, 3 million of 18 million children are orphaned due to a variety of causes, with HIV, alcoholism, and abandonment at the top.
That’s not what happened to Lucy’s dad. He died in a car accident when she was 10; and the pain of losing him still feels raw. According to her school’s headmistress, Mama Monica Slaa, she has good days and bad days, and this is typical of many young people with single or no parents.
“When you ask a student why they are quiet today, they will just cry,” she says in her office, just before we take a tour of the school and meet our 2 TSF students here, Lucy as well as Apolo Hhando. They show us the extensive student-managed garden behind their high school where they water and “dig” (weed) tomatoes, carrots, maize, and spinach. They proudly show the 7 cows that provide milk to the 510 students here. Bleating goats wander up the hill with us, where a large flag of Tanzania waves proudly in the breeze.
Feeling as if we’ve stepped into an enclave of harmony and learning, we murmur our admiration for the community Monica has built here. She is the founding headmistress and, typical of rural schools that take hours to reach by foot (virtually no cars and only a few motorcycles and bicycles bump along the dirt roads here), she and her family live in a small house built on school property. We meet Monica’s 4 little ones; one daughter is sick and Monica must get her to the clinic before a school-board meeting. But before she takes off, Monica notes the difference she’s seen in both TSF students at Mlimani.
“Apolo does not rank so high but he has come a long way,” she smiles and shakes her head. “He was one of the truants. He used to be in town, doing odd jobs instead of coming to school. But now he comes every day. He has definitely changed.”
Apolo hangs his head when we ask about school—but soon raises a goofy smile. He knows he was chosen for support by TSF because he was poor and could not pay his school fees. He’s embarrassed that his grades are not better but definitely likes school now. “I like to study, because I want to help my family out of the terrible life we were living and to help them achieve a better life.
“Education,” Apolo insists, “can overcome anything, in every way.”
He likes to play soccer and really likes computers—“I only wish I knew more about them.” So far, Mama Monica has only one laptop that she must take into town to recharge, as they have no electricity at Mlimani.
As for Lucy, she has stepped aside and quietly continued to cry. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she tells us. She lives with her mother, and her one sister (18) attends boarding school 3 hours away in the city of Arusha. Only Joseph Ignas, our in-country manager whom Lucy has called “my brother” in her journal, can comfort her. He pats her shoulder and tells her, “You’ll be OK. We love you.”
Still, when we leave Mlimani to walk 2 hours to our next school meeting at Ganako Secondary, Lucy decides to accompany us. For a long while she just ambles along quietly in her dusty school uniform. Then, suddenly I find a slim hand in mine, and Lucy and I synchronize our pace with one another. She laughs as I pause to take photographs, and then we have to jog together to catch up with our group. She shares my trail mix, since it’s been many hours since breakfast and we won’t be seeing any lunch today.
“Do you read Swahili?” she asks shyly.
“No, I wish I did,” I admit.
“Then I will teach you,” Lucy says resolutely, and as the hours pass she teaches and quizzes: tree, stone, hair, mouth, motorcycle, dog.
Her headmistress told us earlier, “the girls are coming up” both in performance at their school and society in general. She commented on how humble her female students are, not really expecting to be at the top. Everything Monica described shows in Lucy. Now that she speaks 1:1 with me, she shows her fluency in English and her intelligence in the several topics we touch upon. She dares to show both the pain of losing her beloved father and the determination to build a future of her doing, so honestly and openly that she disarms me emotionally.
As the day proceeds with visits to Ganako school and the Medo’s home, Lucy conducts herself with composure and courtesy far beyond her years. From here she will then walk another long road home and begin her homework as the equatorial sun sets.
I only wish I had more time to get to know this young woman—as well as more time to absorb the Swahili she attempts to teach me. In the end, all I’ve got is rafiki—friend—which is what Lucy has been to me.
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.