When people have limited choices, have no secure directions to follow, and are held back by insurmountable barriers, they are bound to remain in a situation of stagnancy, including poverty. Poverty is experienced physically and spiritually. It is too often the plight of the rural African girl—generations of whom have lived with little food, no clean water in poor housing, the target of domestic violence and rape, forced into early marriage for the bride price, with little (if any) schooling, no sex education, and no basic supplies for daily care and health. Their dreams are limited by not knowing their potential--they have very few resources, mentors nor models to help them.
A typical day of a rural girl who does attend school starts with fetching water and going to the garden to work before walking miles to school. Most children will go hungry at school; there may be no chairs or even books. They walk home in the evening, after gathering wood and picking greens that they will cook over a fire for the family dinner. There is no light to study by, no beds on which to sleep. Older girls cannot afford sanitary supplies and they use rags and leaves instead, often skipping school when they menstruate. In rural Uganda, secondary and higher education for girls is impossible without outside assistance. There are numerous financial demands for families—food, soap, kerosene, clothing, and medication—education is not considered essential. Because of this, many adolescent girls are often married off as their parents cannot afford educating them beyond the free primary education in public schools. There is much illiteracy throughout the communities and the cycle of poverty continues generation after generation.
I was fortunate, however, that my parents were not desperate for the bride price when I was a growing up. I could have been sold for a cow or a goat. Instead, at age 14, when I was feeling hopeless and working as a barmaid, a wonderful family in Kentucky (who knew one of my cousins from when they had done missionary work years earlier) enabled my return to school by paying my school fees for five years. I went on to earn my college degree before working with organizations that were striving to improve the lives of poor families in Africa.
I then turned my attention to Africa’s rural girl. I founded the Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation because I wanted to directly involve, empower, and benefit rural communities in Eastern Uganda through education, mentorship, trainings, and advocacy. I wanted to develop partnerships for social, cultural, and economic development. I knew that secondary, tertiary, and vocational education could break the unending cycle of poverty. Girls who are educated can become role models for their siblings and communities. They can learn new ways of growing crops. They can understand how to keep their families healthy. They may develop new skills to bring income to their families.
Working with individuals and partners from around the world, the Foundation helps rural girls in Africa and others in their communities, to break out of poverty. We are supporting girls’ education by connecting them with sponsors and mentors from across the globe. We facilitate a letter exchange program between students from the rural schools and students from other corners of the world. We teach the parents, grandparents, and communities about the importance of education. We train parents in crop production, micro-financing, and making hand crafts. We also encourage our partners and volunteers from across the globe to not just support our work but to visit. Two years since our founding, we have hosted in rural Ugandan communities 16 volunteers from the United States, Australia, and Europe—last week, five visited from England. The visits are meaningful and wonderful learning experiences for everyone.
More girls need such support. We have been able to send 67 girls to secondary school—these are 67 less girls who have been married off at young ages. More than 1,600 have expressed interest in our program. While there is still so much to do, we know that in collaboration with the international community, our grassroots communities can help break cycles of poverty and create cycles of opportunity through education. I believe everybody has the potential to live a better life. Given the opportunity, education and motivation, anyone can become someone inspiring. Nobody is a nobody, everybody is somebody.
Beatrice Achieng Nas, BSC, a Community Solutions Program Fellow through the International Research & Exchanges Board, is a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the fall 2013 semester. She worked previously with Build Africa Uganda before founding the Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation.
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While social justice is being overcome by educating people, it is good to be aware of the fact that deliberately certain wealthy or elite groups are being created here. I recently saw a documentary film called, "Stealing Africa" which you can watch free, online. I highly recommend it.