Ellie Richold tells a tale of changed attitudes and changed lives as a Bristol women’s rights charity celebrates its 20th anniversary

Images by Philip Field – see philipfield.com

We are sitting in a classroom topped with a metal roof, which shines into the interminable blue sky of Ololosokwan – a small, Maasai village on the border of the Serengeti in Ngorongoro. As we’d jiggled our way across the plains, we had wondered what this beacon was, growing bigger as we approached. But once we stepped out of the jeep, the school roof was quickly forgotten; a flaming wave of humming, buzzing, grinning students engulfed us, urging us to join their dance. They were dressed in the traditional clothes of the Maasai – bright colours and beaded decorations, the boys with red shuka fabric over their shoulders and sticks in their hands, leaping and whooping.

Photographer Phil Field and I, both British and fond of watching from the side lines, were overwhelmed, overjoyed and utterly embarrassed by the welcome. We found ourselves in the centre of a circle, jumping high into the air or crouching low and wiggling our hips, doing our clumsy best to copy the moves and retain some dignity.

African Initiatives

The girls formed a circle and began to sing a call-and-response song. Translated, it loses some of its beauty, but the call went something like this: “We implore you, our leaders, our parents and the whole community; please preserve our culture and traditions; protect our rights; never sell our land; send girls to school to be educated; do not force us into marriage at a young age.” Although the melody was traditional, as you can see, the words were not. The last two requests would have been inconceivable until a few years ago and without the existence of a phenomenal group of women called the Pastoral Women’s Council, and two decades of unfaltering conviction that Maasai culture is compatible with women’s rights.

We had been sent to northern Tanzania by African Initiatives – a Bristol NGO now celebrating its 20th birthday. Two decades is a substantial chunk of time for a small development organisation to be in one place – but it’s been a satisfying stretch, given that one of its founding principles was to form long-term, committed partnerships that would last beyond the life-span of a project.

This small NGO was so named because the ideas and implementation were to come from the communities in Africa, not from the global north. The Bristol outfit has since been supporting grass-roots organisations in northern Tanzania, and Phil and I were tasked with documenting the legacy.

Somoine’s story

I had been told that Somoine Jeremiah might have a story to tell us, which is why we had travelled the 400km from Arusha to Emanyata Secondary School where she is the deputy head teacher.

African Initiatives

Somoine (So-moy-neh) has a serious face for a 28-year-old and speaks quietly and calmly. That is until you put her in front of a class of students – when her face lights up at once. If one thing is abundantly clear, it is that Somoine adores teaching. “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she tells me. “I love Swahili and civics. I like to give people knowledge, remove their prejudices. Education is important – of course – but more than that, I can show them what’s possible. They know my story. They know the obstacles I’ve climbed and where I’ve come from. I’m so lucky now, to be in a position to show others what is possible if they put their minds to it.”

Like the majority of her students, Somoine is Maasai. Emanyata, which means ‘warrior’s camp’ in Maa, was founded in 1992 by Maasai activist Moringe Parkipuny. It was the first school to be built in the Ngorongoro district – one of the poorest in Tanzania – and was designed to give students an education while maintaining their Maasai values and a focus on pastoralism. The school is also unique in that, these days, the majority of students there are girls. As it is a boarding school, the girls are away from home and therefore better able to resist family pressure to drop out of school to marry.

African Initiatives

Until recently, girls in Maasai communities did not get to go to school. Secondary schooling costs money in Tanzania and an educated girl would receive a smaller dowry upon marriage than a more ‘compliant’ wife-to-be, so in the short-term at least, it doesn’t make economic sense for a father to educate a girl child.

Somoine’s father was no different in his attitude towards educating his four daughters. “He used to say to me; ‘There is no need to send a lady to school,’” says Somoine. She has three sisters and all of them were married young in exchange for livestock. “But one of my sisters was married to such an old man that she was a widow already at 16.”

African Initiatives

This is a phenomenon I have encountered a lot over the last few days, talking to Maasai women. In patriarchal, polygamous, Maasai society, women are seen as dependents throughout their life. They are traditionally not allowed to speak in front of men and girls are viewed as domestic workers and/or financial assets. Girls of poor families have as little say in their destiny as any other, but they are more likely to draw the short straw when it comes to a husband, as a poor girl’s family will be more desperate to see her taken off their hands and less able to hold out for a better offer.

Somoine’s family were poor, but the situation was compounded by her father’s drinking. “Each of my sisters had already been exchanged for a dowry but it was hard to know how many cows he had got for each of them. He would come back with cows but he would also come back drunk, so we knew he had sold at least one of them already to buy the alcohol.

African Initiatives

“I remember the day he took one of our last two cows,” Somoine says quietly. “He didn’t come back until he had drunk all the money and my mother lay down on the bed and wept. She cried and said; ‘I’m so tired of this life. Your father has taken everything. We have nothing.’ I remember that day so well. We all lay down next to her and cried too. What else was there to do?”

When Somoine was 12 and coming to the end of primary school, her father pointed to an old man in his sixties who lived nearby with his three wives. “He said; ‘Daughter, you are about to finish school and this is the man you are going to marry,’” Somoine says. “I felt sick to the stomach but I didn’t say anything. On the outside I was compliant, because you have to respect your father or you will be beaten, but on the inside, my heart was against it.”

Somoine’s mother soothed her, saying; “Don’t worry. Maybe someone will help us.” In fact, while collecting firewood that day, she had been lucky enough to meet a woman called Maanda and to recognise that she could be Somoine’s way out.

A change in fortune

Maanda Ngoitiko had refused to be married at 12 and had run away to Dar Es Salaam at 15 so that she could go to school. The Irish embassy then supported her to attend a two-year program management course in Arusha and also sponsored her degree in development studies in Ireland. Upon returning to Tanzania, she vowed to help other girls like her, who desperately wanted to be educated but could not afford it. In 1997, Maanda and nine other women founded the Pastoral Women’s Council (pastoralwomenscouncil.org) “to address the three key problems facing Maasai women: lack of education; lack of financial independence; and lack of participation in local leadership structures.”

African Initiatives

At the same time that PWC was forming, an activist called Mike Sansom was setting up African Initiatives. He was disillusioned with the NGOs he’d been working for and determined to start one with long-term partnership at its heart. Maanda met Mike when she was working as a translator and was impressed by his ethics; asking him to come with her and meet the fledgling women’s group in Loliondo. “When I saw how the women were organising themselves and how they were ignored by the other NGOs, I knew we had to do something,” says Mike. PWC didn’t have a bank account at the time, but Mike felt they were so strong and had such a clear vision. “It wouldn’t be possible now, but we found a way to get them some funds.”

Six years later, PWC was flourishing. Membership had risen from nine to 900 and Maasai women were coming together to support each other in standing up for their rights and the rights of their daughters. Maanda knew it was the women searching for firewood to sell who were struggling the most to make ends meet, and it was in 2003 that she stopped to talk with Somoine’s mother about the Pastoral Women’s Council, about the women’s groups and about girls’ education scholarships.

Somoine’s mother was too afraid to say anything about her daughter directly or to ask Maanda for help. She knew that if her husband found out she had been speaking with PWC, he would beat her. Although she remained tight-lipped with Maanda, she kept cryptically saying to Somoine; “There is a woman I think you should meet…”

“I remember thinking; ‘Why do you keep going on about this woman and why won’t you tell me anything about her?!’” laughs Somoine. “So in the end I went to meet her and we talked about everything – girls’ education and forced marriage and women’s rights and about my particular situation. PWC offered to sponsor me and that changed my life. From that moment, everything changed.”

A new chapter

That was in 2004, when Somoine was 14 years old. She did exceptionally well in her exams and won a place at the nearby Embarway secondary school. But it was not all plain sailing. Though a boarding school, it was near her village, which proved problematic. “My father plotted to remove me from that school. He tried to come and get me but PWC protected me. I am so grateful that they managed to move me to another school, further away from my father.”

African Initiatives

Once she was safe, Somoine worked hard to make the most of the opportunity she’d been given. The only time she questioned her decision was when her sister became a widow and she realised how far away she was from her family. “I was in form six and I heard that my sister’s husband had passed away. I couldn’t go home during term time, I had to wait for the holidays. She was 14 when she was married but he was already so old he could hardly walk so it wasn’t a surprise that he died, but I was sad for her because I knew she would have nothing left. We don’t have rights to ownership as Maasai women. She would be left with absolutely nothing at all.”

When Somoine went to see her sister, it was worse than she’d feared. Already, the brother of her sister’s husband had taken the house and his property; the livestock they’d had, but he was also arranging for Somoine’s niece to be married. His dead brother’s daughter was now his property and he wanted to exchange her for cattle. Somoine’s voice shrinks again and she looks down at the table: “She was so little. Much, much too young.”

Somoine told her sister she would support her. “I said; ‘Come on! We must fight!’ I think she thought I was crazy.” They managed to get some of the goats back and to rescue the little girl from being forced into marriage – and as soon as Somoine started earning, she paid for her to go to school.

In 2006 the Pastoral Women’s Council were asked by the leaders of the district to begin managing the community secondary school. Emanyata was at risk of collapse and it’s testament to the trust and reputation that PWC had established, that the school was handed to them. The women rose to the challenge and just over a decade on, it is the top-performing school in the district.

All PWC’s sponsored girls now attend Emanyata. This year, 65% of the students are Maasai girls, selected for sponsorship because they are academically strong, financially weak and at a high risk of forced marriage. Instead of being pregnant before their bodies are ready, they have the opportunity to work on their minds, in a safe environment, and go on to further studies if they perform well.

Leading by example

Twenty years later, the sponsorship programme is bearing fruit. There are Maasai women working, not only as teachers, but nurses, NGO programme officers, accountants, social workers, police officers and entrepreneurs. I was told of one woman who owns an extremely profitable stationery business in Dar Es Salaam; one who works for the District Council’s Wildlife Department; another at the Women’s Economic Empowerment Department. One is a gender specialist with an NGO which establishes land rights for pastoralists – a vital issue for the Maasai and one which needs women’s voices. All of these professional women are an example to the current generation of girls and their communities; living proof of what can happen when you educate your daughter.

I ask Maanda Ngoitiko if she is pleased with the progress that she and the Pastoral Women’s Council have made in 20 years, and she is unequivocal that there has been a sea-change in the attitudes of Maasai communities in general towards educating girls. “When we started PWC there were times we had to use police escorts to rescue girls fleeing from forced marriages, whereas now we see parents supporting girls throughout their education. Advocacy has played an important part, and hard work by many people – here on the ground and fundraising in the UK. There’s no doubt in my mind that the impact of sponsorship has been far-reaching, for women in particular, but it has touched many, many families and communities.”

When Somoine took up her teaching post at Emanyata in October 2013, she was offered a much more lucrative position in a government school, but turned it down. She fitted in immediately and was quickly promoted to matron before becoming deputy head. Somoine says she would not want to be anywhere else, and is honoured to be a role model for the girls at Emanyata. “Because I was sponsored, my life was transformed. I can meet my needs!” she says with incredulity. “Not only for myself, but my family too. And other people now seek me out; people I don’t know. Because I was helped, I am in a position to help them,” she smiles ecstatically.

I ask how many people she currently assists with her teacher’s salary. “Oh!” she claps her hands. “So many! I have four brothers and three sisters. I support my sister’s children – the one who is a widow. I pay for her children to go to school and her youngest lives with me. My grandfather also lives with me – I look after him.”

“And your father?” I ask. “My parents are separated,” she shrugs. “He has not forgiven my mother for interfering. But now at least he is proud of the fact that I’m a teacher. I hear from people what he says,” she chuckles. “He says ‘Don’t worry! Don’t worry! My daughter will pay for that.’” Good natured as she is, this doesn’t seem to bother her as it might someone else. “But,” she raises a finger. “He has changed his attitude towards school. My sister’s little girl – he knows she should be going to school. He doesn’t say to her; ‘There is no need to send a lady to school.’ Yes, he’s definitely changed his mind on that.”

These days, the Pastoral Women’s Council has upwards of 6,000 members and they help between 200 and 300 girls a year to go to school. African Initiatives continues to fundraise for PWC’s scholarships, community sensitisation and women’s rights projects; and they are planning on continuing the partnership for at least another 20 years…

Visit african-initiatives.org.uk to get involved in the Go Orange anniversary campaign on 14 July

Images by Philip Field – see philipfield.com