The Stress Savior
She has just gone around the sun 365 more times. In that time, Veronica Kilala, AfricAid’s social worker has learned a lot and contributed even more. What a smart move on the part of AfricAid to create this role and hire Veronica, who goes by Vee or Vero to her friends and colleagues, to fill it. She supports the Binti Shupavu team in keeping girls showing up at school so that these Scholars can benefit from this important after-school curriculum. As you can imagine, the kinds of cases Vee deals with can be sobering and serious. She describes herself as doing her job with “passion and a positive vibe.”
In this Q&A, Veronica shares how personal experience influenced her career choice and how she interacts with program beneficiaries everyday – and the great satisfaction she gets from her job.
What have you learned in your first year working with Binti Shupavu Scholars?
I have learned a lot this past year at AfricAid, but I could sum it up in two words: resiliency and transformation. It is so important for a girl to be resilient when facing any confusing situation or difficult event. When I meet with a girl who is having a tough time, I discuss with them how to be resilient with real-life examples. Everything really starts with transforming a girl’s mind. She must first have self-respect, self-awareness, and self-confidence in order to advocate for herself. The Peer Training that occurs in our office helps all the Mentors to gain the skills and techniques to encourage this transformation in every girl.
Is there a child that you have worked with that reminds you of you at that age?
Absolutely! Many of them. My motto is “Leaving a mark on another person’s life is always a payback to why you were born.” Many girls I have worked with remind me of my and my sister’s childhood experience and others remind me of other vulnerable children I have come across in my working life. There was a lot of conflict in my family. I remember many times my father coming home drunk and he would start fighting with my mother, siblings, and me. My mother then became stressed and directed her anger toward us because of these misunderstandings.
Not having someone to talk to about my parents’ lack of care and compassion for us was difficult. I sometimes was not able to concentrate on my studies as I would think and cry about the situation. When I was in Form Two, I decided that I would study extra hard so that I would do well enough in Form Four to be admitted to a boarding school and be far from all my family challenges. This is in contrast to my sister, who became pregnant at age 15. So, whenever I come across a girl telling me about her own family conflicts, I give her two examples for dealing with it: my sister and myself. I am proud that I was the one who survived tough moments and succeeded. This is how I counsel Scholars on the importance of being resilient.
What kind of problems do you encounter that keep girls out of school?
There are a wide range of issues that I deal with and where I counsel and advocate for the girls.
- Almost every week, I come across issues related to family conflict (misunderstandings, separation, and divorce). The children in the family are the most affected.
- Children are abandoned and/or neglected by their parents. Parents leave them with grandparents, other relatives, or friends, and do not provide for their basic needs.
- Some girls have been physically or sexually abused. Generally, this has occurred when they were age 5-12 and they couldn’t tell anyone. They were afraid of the perpetrator and how their parent would react. A few of them report that the case was solved as a family, but she didn’t get counseling, so the issue is still disturbing her.
- Forced early marriage. This is part of Tanzanian culture and there are a few Partner Schools in particular where it is prevalent.
- Walking long distance to school. Some of the students are walking almost two hours from home to school every day. This may be the number one issue that impacts Binti Shupavu attendance (remember, it is an after-school program).
- Finally, these girls are pre-teens and teens… so like girls anywhere, there are relationship and friendship issues. (i.e. She trusted her friend and shared some secrets, but now her friend is not talking to her anymore and she is afraid she is sharing her private thoughts with other friends at school and she feels hurt.)
What challenges have you faced and how have you solved them?
I have used my education and my previous work and life experience to deliver the best possible support for the best possible outcome. However, I admit that at some points I have had to change my approach from the way I used to handle beneficiaries. This has been a learning process, but I have enjoyed the hard work.
In my previous job as a social worker at a refugee camp, the organization had 3 social workers, as well as other team members with a social work background. We would conference regularly about how to handle difficult cases. I have found AfricAid’s team environment to be very helpful. All the Mentors work with me in reaching out to girls in need and provide feedback on how to improve. I work particularly closely with my supervisor, Binti Shupavu Project Manager, Asimwe Suedi. Sometimes Binti Shupavu Assistant Project Manager, Mary Maika, also joins us as we brainstorm solutions for particular situations.
Asimwe says, “Whenever a problem a Scholar is experiencing is reported to Veronica, she passionately works on a solution, even on her own time. She truly understands the girls’ challenges and provides insights to all the Mentors. She has played a huge part in creating safe spaces and giving hope to the Scholars.”
Here are two examples of challenges and their solutions. I am proud of how I have been flexible and adapted!
Privacy – How could I counsel the girls within the school environment and maintain a sense of safety and privacy? Most of the schools have no extra rooms or a place to talk privately with the Scholars. What I did was find open places at school where I can talk to a Scholar, where people can see us from afar, but can’t hear what we are discussing or see our actions (for instance, if a Scholar is crying). At one school, our nice driver, Asantael, leaves and lets us meet in the van.
Parents – How could I advise parents who were reluctant to discuss issues regarding their children with people outside the family? I have been using the Parent Engagement Meetings to help parents understand a social worker’s role and intention to discuss matters concerning their children. After this, most don’t view me as a stranger anymore. For parents who are still difficult to approach, the Head of School or Binti Shupavu Liaison writes an official letter saying if the child’s issue is not addressed, the parents will be reported to local government authorities.
Why are you a social worker and what part of your job do you find the most meaningful?
I was initially passionate about helping women, but as a lawyer. It was my dream to help women who were abused by their husbands because I used to see family members and women in my community in that situation. My cousin suggested I think about the fast-growing field of social work because the government was recognizing its importance. My first job five years ago was with Pact International working as a District Project Coordinator. I had the opportunity to work with the most vulnerable in society – women and children – and have never thought of changing my direction after that.
I really enjoy seeing a girl’s situation improve after I have interacted with her or her parents. I find this out through feedback from the girl herself, her parents, or my team members. My proudest moments are when a Mentor says a certain Scholar is now attending class or her well-being has improved in other ways due to my intervention. In one Binti Shupavu lesson, we teach the girls about finding a “stress savior.” Some of the girls call me that and write me letters to tell me so. My standards are met when I counsel Scholars, they open up to me, and they become confident with a smile on their faces. Those are the moments where I flourish!
Congratulations and our gratitude on your one-year anniversary, Ms. Vee!
Learn more about Veronica Kilala’s responsibilities as a social worker with the Binti Shupavu program.