Asya Ali Mzee is a 15-year-old girl who is currently studying at Langoni Primary School, Unguja Island (Zanzibar) in Tanzania. For the first 14 years of her life, she was denied a basic education by her father, a typically traditional man who believed women should be raised to become good wives and housekeepers. She grew up on the remote and underdeveloped island of Pemba before moving to Unguja Island, which promotes a higher standard of human rights and gender equality and provides more educational opportunities as a result of the work done by intervening non-profit organizations.
As one of CARE's staff in the Basic and Girls' Education project, I am always curious to hear how children, especially girls, feel when treated differently from their brothers. Given the fact that many Tanzanian communities still see a woman as child-bearer, household server, and therefore education for girls is not seen as very important at all.
One day, talking to Asya when we visited her school, I decided to look for the story behind her performance as her age and the grade she was in did not match well. When I asked her, she stared at me for a while. Then she rolled her eyes towards the sky as if she was about to cry and began to narrate her story:
"My father did not send me to school when I was 7 years old like the other children," she said. "Instead, I went to live with my grandmother who lived in the same village we lived. My grandmother was old, and therefore needed help. Among the relatives I was chosen to play that role. I helped her with the garden, cooked, cleaned the house, and took care of my two younger sisters, four younger brothers and three cousins whom both their parents had died of AIDS. I also sold loaves of bread to help us make some money. My father's decision was for me to live with my grandmother until I was old enough for marriage, as it was for many girls in our community."
Asya's life changed when she and her mother attended a community sensitization campaign organized by CARE-Tanzania's Basic and Girls' Education Project.
"We had heard about meetings organized by an organization called CARE about education issues. Although such meetings were for adults, I decided to accompany my mother and listen because this time it was in our village and I had free time. The people who had come to talk were telling us that every child, even girls like me, had the right to go to school from the age of 7. I was surprised. Why hadn't I gone to school? On the way home, I asked my mother why I hadn't gone to school. I told her that I had heard from the meeting that education is the right of every child, and that if it is not given it is a violation of children's and human rights. Inside me I felt both anger and a very strong force to demand for the right to be educated regardless of my age."
Asya is charming and told her story with a broad smile on her face. But her words, eyes and voice revealed her disappointment and pain because of having been denied a chance to go to school when she was younger. "I understand that my parents are poor like other parents, but why did I miss out on school?" she said, looking straight into my eyes in search of my reaction I guess.
"My mother was very sorry and she could not answer most of my questions but she promised to go and see the head teacher the next month. I told my mother to send me to school at any cost. I felt the need for education very badly, because I could not imagine becoming like those I see on TV - leaders or even teachers - without knowing how to read and write!
"When we got there the head teacher looked at me, then told us that I couldn't go to standard one because I was way beyond the enrolment age. I felt helpless and struggled not to believe that there was nothing I could do. Later on that same day, I went to a primary school teacher, Wahida Salima, to see if she could help me."
Mrs. Wahida Salim also teaches adult education class, but unfortunately there were no more lessons because adult learners had completed their final stage examination and there was no new enrollment at the time. Asya did not give up on Mrs. Salim and finally the teacher enrolled her for an adult literacy class of a single learner.
"Mwalimu (teacher) Salim helped me with the books, exercise books, pencils and other learning materials and started to teach me letters. I started to learn how to read and count. After some time Mwalimu Salim decided to send me to standard two at Langoni Primary School. I was so happy, I was finally in school!"
While in standard grade two, Asya was like a mother to many of her young classmates. They would call her "our dada"(our older sister) and gather to listen to her stories. However, Asya was missing the companionship of other students who are the same age: "I am so happy to be in school, but I am in class with younger children. If only I had started school at the right time, I would be in class with the other students who are my age."
Asya remained in standard two for only three months. Her good progress encouraged the class teacher to promote her to standard three. Her situation, however, remained the same. She was still in a group of children younger than her. Although still taller and older than all her fellow pupils, she is now very happy, hard working and her performance is improving from day to day.
Her teacher Mrs. Wahida Salim said that she intends to support Asya and help her to perform at her level best until she completes primary school. When asked if she would continue to support her after that, she replied, "My aim is to nurture her spirit of learning until she finishes her degree. I will encourage her parents not to cut short her studies and marry her off as long as she continues to show interest and success in her studies."
At the end of our visit, I felt sympathetic for Asya, but also deep inside, my soul was relieved and comforted that the work that CARE does is not in vain! People who benefit directly and indirectly are awakened, and even a young girl like Asya really have a spirit to demand for her right, and her teacher strongly supports her, which is a sign of sustainability.
*Editor's note: a CARE staff member whose first language is not English wrote This story. We made some slight grammar changes to improve readability, but limited other changes to preserve the author's voice and intent.