One of the most interesting things about the work I do is seeing the creativity and determination that drives people who just won’t accept limitations. During my tea with Harriet a while back, she and I talked about some of the ways in which girls in East Africa and their families maneuver their countries’ educational systems to get as many years of school as they can afford. I’ve added in a couple of stories from Tanzania and Uganda and written you a list below. So, to what lengths would you go if junior high and high school were simply out of reach financially?
1. Try and try again. With only a few scholarships out there, students in all three of our countries have been known to repeat their final year of primary (elementary school) to get another shot at financial support. But some students know a scholarship is never going to be an option. If you want to get a full course of years worth of teaching and lectures, the other option is to simply go through the last years of primary twice. Some students repeat each of the last four primary years—that’s two years of Form 5, two of Form 6, etc… The student never receives a high school diploma, of course, but she has managed to squeeze out the full 8 years of study and made as much use of the teachers and books as she could;
2. The cow to student ratio. Rural Kenyans often measure wealth in terms of livestock. Harriet recounted the story of one woman who purchased two calves soon after her two daughters started primary school. She had calculated how long it would take to raise the cows for their best market value and how many she would need to sell in order to pay tuition for the two girls to go to secondary school.
3. Rotating students. What if you only have enough money to pay for one student to go to secondary school, but you have four bright, motivated children wanting to go? You take turns—each girl gets two years and then withdraws in order to let her younger sibling get two years of school. Though hard to imagine in the U.S., this approach rests of the fact that for many Kenyans, even two years of high school is a resource not be passed up. We heard of at least one case in rural Tanzania where a family took this to even greater lengths. Unwilling or unable to part with the manual labor of both daughters at once, the family sent the girls to school on alternating days. Needless to say, this approach was not particularly good for school performance.
4. Merry-Go-Rounds. You would think that I came up with this term, but the merry-go-round in Kenya actually refers to micro-financing schemes that have supported countless numbers of tradespeople and small businesses in the country over the last several decades. Generally associated with women, the merry-go-rounds require that every member of the group put in a certain amount of money regularly. The fund is then paid out to a different member each time, with each member getting a turn at the collection. We can’t know how many young women were able to show up at school for their first term thanks to a merry-go-round, but we do know that she generally ends up missing school during future terms while she waits for the next “go-round” to bring in another payment on her school fees.
5. Well wishers. Every year, GTL receives applications from students who began school with the help of “well wishers,” and I can’t help but think that this says something very impressive about the Kenyan people as a whole. I have heard too many times, even from Kenyans themselves, that the various cultures of Kenya do not promote charity work. Surely, though, the neighbors, village leaders, far-flung friends and relations who find a little extra money every year to keep a girl in school know plenty about charity. After all, they are not only sending money but also their prayers and wishes.
I am happy to report that, thanks to Harriet’s phenomenal academic successes, her younger siblings have a steady source of tuition money (Harriet sends her stipend home regularly for them). And if you are still wondering why we provide scholarships for young women in East Africa, try to imagine what lengths you would go to just for the chance at a high school education.