This past February, I visited Kitenga Girls Secondary School for the first time. Like so many workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working remotely for GEC for the past 6 months. I definitely got some crazy looks from friends and family when I told them I was meeting my boss, Anne, for the first time in person at the Detroit Metro Airport en route to Tanzania! Despite this, after meeting Anne and Patricia Minter-Powell, GEC Impact Ally and volunteer, I felt like part of the GEC family right away. Although I was familiar with the school through looking at pictures and videos, reading stories, and even talking to some alumni virtually, nothing could have fully prepared me for this experience.
The word that first comes to mind when I think of my time in Tanzania is “kindness”. From the moment we stepped off the plane, everyone was so friendly and hospitable. Hearing the greeting “Habari” from strangers with a big smile on their face was a pleasant change from what I’m used to living in a big city in the States. I now know what the phrase “give the shirt off one’s back” means. After complimenting a teacher’s dress, the very next day she gave me Kitenge fabric so I could make my own. This kindness was continuously expressed in a variety of ways throughout the trip. From home-cooked meals and lemongrass tea to little “gifties”, Tanzanians have a way of making you feel at home immediately.
Another word that comes to mind when I think of the trip is “resilience”. Tanzania, whose economy relies heavily on tourism, was ravaged by the pandemic. Our driver and tour guide Lalashe Mollel started his own safari business (Touchstone Tanzania) right before the country shut down. Yet he did not let this stop him, and continued working on his business model and working side hustles until it was possible to do tours again. And although it was difficult with the GEC team not being able to visit Kitenga for two years, the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa powered on. They made infrastructure improvements to the campus and even had time to start a coffee farm. Most impressive was the resilience of the Kitenga students. In light of the adversities they face, they still find the determination to study hard (sometimes until 10 pm during exams!) and dream big. And they managed to keep a smile on their face along the way!
As a self-professed data nerd, I understand the importance of monitoring and evaluation for measuring impact. But my trip to Kitenga helped shed light on something I hadn’t thought much about before: the power of storytelling. Although we can (and should) look at exam scores and enrollment rates to back up the work we do, meeting Kitenga students, teachers, and staff and hearing their stories made me believe in GEC’s mission and vision more than ever. It put a face to the students who I have been helping fundraise for and showed me that the organization’s impact isn’t just in numbers, but in the day-to-day lives and futures of these girls. I’m excited to be back home to share these stories with the GEC community and the greater public to inspire them to advocate for girls education.