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I don’t remember her name. Let’s call her Mari for our purposes. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but it’s been more than a decade now, so I can tell you Mari was my favorite student that year. It was the late 1990s, and I was in my second year of teaching English and writing to journalism students at a newly-formed university in the East African country of Tanzania.
Mari was a spunky young woman, full of curiosity and drive. Unlike most of the female students who dressed up for class in skirts, Mari wore t-shirts and jeans and kept her hair short, unwilling to “waste” her time braiding in synthetic extensions. If I had to guess, Mari was not only the first person in her family, but also the first person she knew, to attend university.
In Tanzania in the late 1990s, higher education was anomalous, an extreme privilege. When students ran short on funds, their villages and religious communities pooled money so they could keep their one and only college kid enrolled. That’s why students never dropped out if they could help it. This was true even, as in Mari’s case, when a student was under threat of death.
In addition to teaching, I advised the student newspaper. The editors and I stayed up late, praying for electricity and waiting for our few decrepit computers to respond every time we pasted a news story into the layout software. We swatted at mosquitoes, and the students gossiped in Swahili.
That’s how I learned about certain male lecturers at the university threatening to fail students unless the young women slept with them. One of those lecturers, who made a seasonal habit of demanding sex from his students, had recently lost his wife to AIDS and was presumably HIV positive. Saying “no” to this lecturer’s demands seemed like a no-brainer — a matter of life and death — but if these students refused him, they would fail not only his class, but their entire first year of university, essentially forcing themselves to drop out of this one-shot opportunity at higher education. In the students’ eyes, dropping out ranked right up there with contracting a fatal virus.
My second year at the college I was finally plugged in enough to the gossip chain to learn about pre-exam bribes before any “payments” were extracted. I had also learned that sexual bribery was a near standard gauntlet for girls studying in Tanzania. This time, the HIV-positive lecturer at the university had targeted five of my first-year students. Mari, my favorite, was one of them.
I met with this group of young women after class one day and asked them, just for a few minutes, to entertain different scenarios where they neither refused nor accepted this lecturer’s terms, but instead turned him in. Terror flashed across their faces.
“What if you wrote a letter to the administration describing what happened?” I asked.
One young woman immediately interrupted me: “They’ll expel us.”
I understood her fear — I didn’t particularly trust the administration either. “What if you send me to the administration first and I can demand that they protect you if you come forward.
The same woman: “They’ll expel us.”
“But . . . ”
Mari listened for nearly an hour, and then her eyes narrowed into a determined squint.
“I’ll do it. I’ll write a letter, and I’ll sign it.”
Within a few days she had convinced all but one of the other young women to join her. I stood by their side — a silent and awed observer — when they delivered first their list of demands for protection to the administration, and then their letter detailing how their teacher had threatened them.
Their courage was astounding, and their initial fear was merited. The university didn’t fire the lecturer, even though no one disputed the evidence against him. The administration did, however, agree to the young women’s demand that a third party grade their exams. All of them eventually passed.
Six months later, my volunteer teaching term in Tanzania up, I moved back to the U.S. I found a job I liked — administering a service learning program at Earlham College in Indiana — but my dreams at night always took me back to Tanzania, and most evenings, I wrote about East Africa. Several themes began to emerge in my writing. The courage of determined, spunky young women like Mari was one of the most persistent.
Now, many years later, my middle-grade novel set in Tanzania, A Girl Called Problem, is in bookstores. The protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl whose name — Shida — means “problem” in Swahili. Shida dreams of going to school and learning to be a healer. Though she doesn’t face sexual threats, many in her village feel Shida’s ambitions aren’t a good match for a girl, particularly one with a “cursed” family background. Fortunately, Shida is a determined kid, and she has some good allies — a female village nurse, a benevolent patriarch — and she is able to put her education to good use by helping her village in a moment of crisis.
The end of the book is hopeful, in part because, to be honest, hopeful endings are a near rule in middle-grade fiction. These days, you can put your 13-year-old protagonist through any number of harrowing experiences, as long you allow them some ultimate triumph. But more than simply a nod to an established narrative convention, this hopeful ending is a reflection of the world I see unfolding for girls and women.
Development organizations are starting to focus on women and girls as the key to unlocking poverty. Take, for example, Plan International, an organization that did wonderful development work in my home village in Tanzania—they recently launched a campaign called Because I Am a Girl and convinced the United Nations to celebrate an annual Day of the Girl Child every October 11. Another example: PBS recently aired a documentary, Half the Sky, focused on women and development. There’s also a great video, produced by girleffect.org, that illustrates how empowering girls is the key to empowering communities and unlocking the cycle of poverty.
Most hopeful to me are some of the women and girls I’ve gotten to know while living in different parts of the world: a women’s sewing co-operative in the mountains of South India where the ladies keep separate (often secret) bank accounts in order to maintain financial autonomy; my Tanzanian friend, Modesta, who was the first in her family to go to university and who is now housing and paying for her sister to attend university; my single-mother community-college students in Berkeley, California, who stayed up nights writing papers, determined to graduate from college in order to improve their lives and those of their children; and my Swedish parent friends who taught me about Scandinavian paid-family leave and the positive effect it has had on gender equity in their culture.
I wonder what Mari is up to these days. She’s likely working in a communications field — journalism or human resources. One thing I know: if she has children, those children have a strong mama, one who will stand up for them. I’d love to send her a copy of my book. I’m quite certain she’d appreciate and identify with it.
Click to order Katie Quirk’s A Girl Called Problem.