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 CNS Story:

BUSH-TANZANIA Feb-18-2008 (920 words) xxxi

Tanzanian girls at Maryknoll center tell Bush how education helps

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- About 50 traditionally dressed Masai girls at a Maryknoll education center in Arusha, Tanzania, told U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, how education is empowering them and giving them options, said Maryknoll Sister Mary Vertucci.

The Emusoi Center offers schooling to girls whose culture has them married at age 14, Sister Mary said, adding that of more than a million Masai in Tanzania only 11 Masai women have a university degree. Sister Mary, who founded the center in 1999, said "emusoi" means discovery and awareness in Maa, the Masai language.

The students told the Bushes "how education is enabling them to be leaders in their communities and in the world," Sister Mary told Catholic News Service in a Feb. 18 telephone interview from Arusha, hours after the president's visit.

Before reaching the center, the Bushes "walked through bazaars where people were singing and greeting them in Maa," she said.

At the center they visited a class of about 20 girls and gave them English readers to help with their studies, Sister Mary said. Bush and the first lady then visited a project run by another organization where adult women are taught literacy and math skills that enable them to run a handiwork shop.

The Maryknoll Sisters in Arusha run the Emusoi Center, a hostel for about 80 Masai girls who spend a year preparing for secondary school. At the end of that year, the girls take entrance examinations for government and private schools "among stiff competition."

The girls "are quiet when they get here," Sister Mary said, for at home "they are taught to be seen and not heard."

"We bridge the gap between their life experience at home and secondary school," she said, noting that "we see them blossom."

"They become fully alive and able to exercise their leadership qualities," she said.

The girls in the hostel "meet girls who have passed through our program and are now at secondary school," she said, noting that they "see worlds opening up for them with so many options."

The Masai live hundreds of miles from towns with secondary schools.

Often the Masai girls at the center are the only Swahili-speakers in their families and at home are expected to carry firewood and do other labor-intensive chores, "which puts them at a disadvantage compared to girls from towns where families understand the importance of education and provide them with books and pens and other support," Sister Mary said. Swahili and English are the official languages of Tanzania.

"Yet they come here with a sense that 'education will change my life,'" she said, noting that "we have to teach them how to study, but they are very eager students."

Sister Mary, who has taught in Tanzania for 35 years, said she finds her work "very fulfilling."

Five of her former students are doing university-level studies in law, social work and commerce, she said, noting that "after a decade we can see the fruits of our labors in these strong young women ready to take their place in society."

Nine of the center's former students will finish secondary school this year and go on to study at a university, she said. The Maryknoll project will help them find student loans or government grants for their college education, she noted.

Among its services, the project sponsors more than 500 girls in Tanzanian high schools and provides a home for those who cannot go home for fear of being forced into marriage.

"Girls are seen as commodities" in the Masai culture, Sister Mary said.

It is customary for a girl's family to receive cattle from the family of the man she marries, she said. In many families, marriage arrangements are made when girls are very young and often the cattle is given before the marriage takes place, she said, adding that "the family is left with debt if the girl does not marry as planned."

Many mothers "bring their daughters here and say they want them to have a different life" than they had, she said. "One girl told us, 'My parents want me here so I won't be beaten like a donkey.'"

The project has the support of national and local governments in Tanzania, Sister Mary said.

Meanwhile, the New-York based Maryknoll Sisters said in a Feb. 13 statement they support the Bush administration's focus on Africa, particularly through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and its support for debt cancellation for many countries.

In Tanzania, which has a population of 39 million, "debt relief led to a 50 percent increase in primary school enrollment," the statement said. "We hope these programs will be expanded and fully funded during this final year of the Bush administration."

But the Maryknoll Sisters oppose "further militarization of U.S. Africa policy" and urge an emphasis on "education, housing, hospitals, decent jobs and clean water," the statement said.

"The attention of the president to the young women and girls at Emusoi is most welcome, but he could accomplish much more for all the children of Africa by supporting U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, an important convention which only the United States and Somalia have failed to approve," it said.

Sister Mary said she hoped the "Bush administration puts its backing behind that convention and champions the rights of invisible groups, such as these Masai girls, to education."

END


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