Beatrice Achieng Nas, the founder and director of a non-governmental organization in Uganda, is a Community Solutions Program Fellow through the International Research & Exchanges (IREX) Board and a Visiting Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the fall 2013 semester.
A few years ago, you founded the Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation (PCE foundation). What is the organization’s mission?
At PCE Foundation, we aim to break the cycle of poverty by promoting exchange of information and best practices through education, mentorship, trainings, and advocacy, as well as by building partnerships for social, cultural, and economic development. We are successfully educating girls in rural communities of Uganda, currently in the Tororo and Buteleja districts. The plight of rural African girls is devastating. They live in chronic poverty, domestic violence is commonplace, they often lack parental love and protection, are victims of rape and defilement, and live in fear of, or with HIV/AIDS. There are no secondary schools, or if there is one nearby, educating the boys is more important. Girls are often married off for a bride price—a cow or a goat maybe—something her family is desperate for. It is not a good life for anyone. At PCE Foundation we provide opportunities for girls to attend school, to have mentors, to learn vocational skills. By doing this we are helping to empower them to change their lives and their communities for the better.
You are clearly passionate about this work. How did you come to do it?
I grew up in Tororo. At age 14 I was working as a barmaid, I had lost all my seven brothers to HIV, there was no school in my village—no one who had even gone to school—and the only future for me was to be married. I felt hopeless and helpless. Then a family from Kentucky, who knew one of my cousins, learned about me and sponsored my education for the next five years. I was able to attend boarding school, and was given all my books, meals, uniforms, and supplies. I went to college where I earned my bachelor’s degree in information technology, and then I started working at an international bank. I was so very lucky and am deeply grateful. In early 2011, I began working with Build Africa and my passion for girls’ education grew. Build Africa works in Uganda and Kenya to build classrooms and train teachers in the rural east and rural west. I knew Uganda was poor but until then I didn’t know that Uganda was very, very poor. There are no books, people must dig down in the mud to look for water—they suffer. I learned so much during my time at Build Africa and through this work I was able to build relationships with people in the communities. In September 2010 I connected to World Pulse, an online media platform where women and men from across the globe share stories affecting their communities. I was trained in Citizen Journalism skills for six months and in October 2011 I was one of three awardees who took part in speaking engagements across the U.S., including one with White House staff. I met many people from across the globe who now support the Foundation’s work. World Pulse has continued to be an important network and platform for my work.
About two years ago, I took my first steps to help connect other poor girls from my community with mentors from across the globe to help empower the children by financially supporting their secondary and tertiary education. Mentors who can afford it have visited with their mentees and the communities— 21 have visited so far! The mentors and the girls learn from each other’s perspectives and experiences. I believe each of the 67 girls supported through the project will create a ripple effect that can impact the next generation. The lives of these rural girls and their families, and the perceptions about educating girls, are changing drastically.
What are you focusing on as a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women?
Many people are doing work for women and girls across the world, but the work is not necessarily backed up by data. IREX recommended the Wellesley Centers for Women to me and I felt that the research and programs here were important. I am learning how to use a more research-based approach in analyzing what we do at PCE Foundation. How can we better do our fact finding? How can we better interview families to get the right information we need? I don’t have the humanities background but I am passionate about women and development issues—women affected by HIV, predictive health issues, unemployed youth, girls getting married, domestic violence. By utilizing surveys we can determine if we’re developing and implementing our programs as effectively as we feel we are. By doing this we can help more girls and families achieve greater success, and we can reach out for more funding.
From meeting with WCW staff who work on developing training programs, such as Open Circle, the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, and the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, I’ve learned that psycho-social support is essential for everyone in the community. People need to understand themselves and others in order to move forward. They need to know how someone is affected by mistreatment. When I return to Uganda, the Open Circle approach is going to be one of the approaches we will implement in our schools. Part of what we do is help families and communities to understand the importance of education and if we can use basic fundamentals to explain how issues such as corporal punishment and early marriage negatively affect children, then we may have greater success.
What is next for you?
Over the next six months, while I complete my IREX fellowship, I will focus on my plans for building a community library and meeting room. Most rural Ugandan schools do not have textbooks; they do not have libraries either. This community library will allow 48 rural schools to share books and it will provide an ideal learning environment. Using the space as a meeting room will help us bring others from the village together to share knowledge and skills. We can help community members to learn innovative skills, better farming techniques, preventative health care, and business skills to empower them to make change in their lives and villages. My vision for PCE Foundation is to empower rural African communities in direct collaboration with the international community. I strongly believe if we are offered education, opportunity, and motivation, then everybody in this world can achieve great things. Nobody is a nobody, everybody is somebody. I am determined that we will succeed.
Beatrice Achieng Nas, BSC, a Community Solutions Program (CSP) Fellow through the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), is a Visiting Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the fall 2013 semester. An international nonprofit organization, IREX provides thought leadership and innovative programs to promote positive lasting change globally. The CSP is a professional development program for global community leaders working in transparency and accountability, tolerance and conflict resolution, environmental issues, and women and gender issues. The CSP is a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, and implemented by IREX. Nas is executive director and founder of Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation, a rural devlopment and empowerment non-governmental organization in Uganda.