“My own experience proves that women and girls can achieve more, be more, and that their educational journey should be supported, respected, and protected.”
Eliakunda Kaaya, Kisa Mentor and Founder, Her Journey to School
A major turning point in Ellie Kaaya’s life came nearly ten years ago as a Kisa Scholar in high school. The seeds of leadership were planted here. Ellie is driven and has made so much happen in the last decade – she was supported to finish her schooling by She’s the First and became a STF Fellow, she continued on to college and earned a degree in sociology, she became a Kisa Mentor with GLAMI (Girls Livelihood and Mentorship Initiative, formerly AfricAid TZ), she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and she met Michelle Obama. Now, she has started a new organization, Her Journey to School, that is giving hope to even more girls in Tanzania.
GLAMI is proud when staff members such as Ellie start their own organizations or business enterprises. It proves the skills they have gained with us are valuable and is a ripple effect, allowing more girls throughout Tanzania to have role models and benefit from GLAMI’s lessons.
In her job with GLAMI, Ellie already mentors 169 girls in the Arusha area. She has had this steady and fulfilling role for almost three years and impacted a lot of young lives. Why DO MORE? Ellie explains what pushes her to improve the status of women in her country. She also expresses her concerns for the girls in her program during COVID-19 pandemic.
The world right now is going through a hard time. We are all standing still, which gives us time to reflect on our lives. Growing up in the Meru Highlands, I never thought I would be able to achieve what I have today. Not because I wasn’t capable, but because of the limits society places on us – that a woman should only be a good wife and caretaker and that if she delays getting married, it brings shame to her family. I used to wake up and think that by 15 I would be married to a man that I never loved and be just like most people in my community. The status quo told me that good things come to others in this world, but not to me as a girl.
I was motivated to start Her Journey to School by observing women’s limitations in my own home community, as well as the lives my sisters lived. My own experience proves that women and girls can achieve more, be more, and that their educational journey should be supported, respected, and protected.
The reality is that girls are still left behind in Tanzania. The law here states that if they become pregnant they will never be able to return to school. Girls face so many challenges to become educated: traveling long, unsafe distances to school, parental resistance, marriage arrangements, financial constraints, and lack of sexual reproductive health knowledge.
Her Journey to School is a community-based, non-profit organization that fights gender inequality by helping girls continue their educational journey, despite these many obstacles. We work closely with communities to help parents understand the importance of sending girls to school and how to support their daughters so they can succeed. So far, we have rescued about 20 girls who were at risk of dropping out of school because they had arranged marriages.
We started with one classroom of 30 girls and now are working in four schools in two regions (Arusha and Mwanza), reaching 400 lower secondary school girls with weekly visits. There are 7 team members in addition to me and my co-founder, Demitila Faustine. We recruited these volunteers by placing ads on our social media channels and conducting interviews.
There are three programs underway:
Ndoto ya Binti – Means “dreams of a daughter” in Swahili. Provides girls a space to learn about their physical and emotional well-being. Mentors coach girls in leadership and decision-making skills, and teach all-important information about sexual reproductive health and rights, as early pregnancy is the single biggest obstacle to staying in school.
Pad a Girl – Educates girls about their menstrual cycles and provides needed materials for them to continue school uninterrupted, including sanitary products.
Community Awareness – Conducts gatherings to engage community members, especially parents, in our mission. Ensures communities truly understand the challenges that girls face and why it is important to help them succeed. The chairman of the village helps us gather everyone casually under a big tree close to his house.
As a Kisa Scholar and now a Kisa Mentor, I learned so many lessons from the curriculum that I am actively using in my project. One is Nelson Mandela’s leadership principles. One of them says “courage is not the absence of fear, but inspiring others to move beyond it.” I have never lived a day without going back to that principle. I am sometimes terrified myself (especially at times like this – see how the organization is responding to COVID-19 at the end of this blog), but at the end of the day there is a mission that we have to achieve. Other lessons are being proactive and optimistic – “is the cup is half full or half empty?” Perspective can either kill or keep you healthy.
Everyone’s story is unique. As for me, I know I have a responsibility to pay it forward and change other people’s lives. Her Journey to School is one way I will do this. All girls should have a person to tell them “you can do this” when everyone else is telling them what they cannot do – someone who assures them their stories should be better, should be more.
I have had the benefit of support and mentoring from organizations like GLAMI and She’s the First, and people from these organizations continue to inspire me and be my mentors today. They have become my extended family. When I got my first job with AfricAid, my Mentor, Esther Piniel, said, “Nothing makes me understand the joys of mentoring more than seeing that you are now coming to do the same for others. You are a living example of what women and girls can achieve, despite their background.” I intend to live up to that quote.
As Tammy Tibbetts, co-Founder of She’s the First, says “It is important that girls have role models who look like them and have the same shared experience.” This is Ellie Kaaya.
It is a very vulnerable time for girls as adults may say “you were never supposed to go to school in the first place” and we worry that girls will not return when school is reopened. It is critical to maintain lines of communication with the parents so they know why it still matters that their daughters continue with school. We are contacting the girls via their parents’ phone and, with proper protection, we are also making home visits to girls who are identified as most at risk for being married off. Our costs have jumped because we are hiring transportation daily to travel to widely spaced villages to get to where the girls are now (as opposed to the girls meeting us at school).
Now that the tragedy of COVID-19 is everywhere and girls are not being prioritized, Her Journey to School must shift and determine what challenges the girls are facing back at home. Is it lack of soap, face masks, sanitary pads? We can communicate with them how to make some of these things at home. We are also using social media to reach out to the wider community with accurate health information and to provide encouragement, letting people know that they are not alone.
The reality is that there is huge disparity in how different kids are able to study while at home during the pandemic. Some affluent kids (who likely attend private schools versus government schools) have access to a computer and the internet, but most do not. The girls we serve fall in the latter category. When we reach out to our girls, we check to see if they are using the available resources to study at home. We are printing out study materials and delivering them at our home visits. We are trying to make sure that no one is left behind.
As a leader, your team and the girls are looking up to you and you just cannot be low. In times like these, it is hard to remain resilient, but it’s possible when you know you are not alone. I am grateful to the people who are taking care of me emotionally. One of those is my mom – she is tough, loving, and brave! She calls me everyday to check up on me. I also look up to my role models, Tammy Tibbetts, TD Jakes, and Michelle Obama. Even when it’s so hard for all of us, they are all still giving us hope that we should not give up on our dreams.
I go back to the memories of some of my hard times, the articles I wrote about persistence, and the videos where I documented the toughest challenges I faced. I remind myself I never lost hope and I got through them. I have said before that everything you need is inside of you to pull through. It is fine not to be ok, you just have to stay strong.
Eliakunda Kaaya, who goes by Ellie, joined AfricAid TZ (now Girls Livelihood and Mentorship Initiative, or GLAMI) in August, 2017 as a Kisa Mentor after volunteering with the organization. She holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from St. Augustine University. In 2018, she co-founded another mentoring and educational organization to serve more girls in Tanzania, Her Journey to School. Meet Ellie.
AfricAid mentors secondary school girls in Tanzania to complete their education, develop into confident leaders, and transform their own lives and their communities. We equip girls to overcome challenges and reach their full potential because educated girls create lasting positive change. The outcome is proactive, resilient, and socially-responsible girls who secure better jobs, raise healthier families and increase the standing of women in society.
Girls Livelihood and Mentorship Initiative (GLAMI) is AfricAid’s program implementation partner in Tanzania.